Razorbacks’ pride on the line against Florida

Arkansas senior defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter, a Florida native, has made 20 consecutive starts along the defensive line and leads the Razorbacks with 3.5 sacks through eight games.

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game between Arkansas and No. 10 Florida is a big game for both programs, but for very different reasons.

The Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) are in the driver’s seat for the Eastern Division championship, and because of that, they are still in the hunt for NCAA playoffs and a possible national championship.

Sure, it’s a long shot, but all the goals are still on the table of Jim McElwain’s ball team, making Florida’s CBS-televised visit to Reynolds Razorback Stadium a playoff game of sorts for the Gators.

If the Gators win their next three ballgames against the Razorbacks, South Carolina, and LSU, they will represent the East in Dec. 3’s SEC Championship Game. If the Gators can then defeat intrastate rival Florida State on Thanksgiving weekend, it would make their argument for a playoff spot even more compelling should they win the SEC title.

If the Gators, a 5.5-point favorite, can whip the Razorbacks, all of that still rests on the table of possibility. A loss to the Hogs, however, would cost Florida any chance at a playoff bid and also muddy the water for an Eastern Division title.

As for the Razorbacks (5-3, 1-3 SEC), they have no shot at a national or SEC title, but they are still in the hunt for a nine-win regular season, which would send them to very nice bowl destination.

A nine-win regular season and a trip to an upper-tier bowl would be an accomplishment for Bret Bielema’s fourth Razorbacks team. It would show that his Hogs are still progressing despite some struggles this season.

However, the Razorbacks are fighting for something more important than that this week against the Gators. The Hogs are fighting for their pride.

When we last saw the Razorbacks, the Auburn Tigers were stripping away the Hogs’ dignity with one big play after another on offense and one bone-crushing hit after another on quarterback Austin Allen and the Hogs’ other skilled players on defense.

The Razorbacks looked absolutely defenseless on both sides of the football as Auburn routed them 56-3. It was truly one of the worst beatings an Arkansas football team has taken in the modern era of football.

The Razorbacks had struggled some prior to that this season, but Auburn embarrassed the Hogs. Nothing will wipe that memory away, but by playing well against Florida and beating the Gators, could begin to change the narrative about the Razorbacks this season. The Auburn loss could be written off as an anomaly, just a very bad day in an otherwise decent season.

A victory over the Gators would be a first for the Hogs in SEC play. The Razorbacks did hold off Florida in the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl, 28-24, but have lost every game to Florida — twice in the SEC title game — since beginning play in the SEC in 1992. That kind of first would stoke the flames of Hog fans for the final three games.

As a player, Florida’s situation is more inspiring. There are tangible goals in front them. Pride is a more elusive goal to seek and defend than a shot at a championship. But that is what Bielema and his coaching staff have to push in hopes of getting the Razorbacks off the canvass after their knockout at Auburn.

From a functional standpoint, the game will pit relative strengths against each other. The Gators have a stout defense, boasting the No. 2 scoring defense in the country that holds opponents to just under 12 points a game. Some question just how difficult the Gator’s schedule has been, but 12 points is just 12 point no matter how you cut it.

While Auburn shut down the Hogs’ offense two weeks ago in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Hogs are better offensively than they showed in that game. The Razorbacks are just one of two teams to score 30 or more points on Alabama this season.

On the other hand, the Razorbacks have struggled on defense this season with up-tempo schemes operated by mobile quarterbacks giving them absolute fits. Florida’s offense, however, is steady and efficient on third down, but it’s not exactly explosive with Luke Del Rio at the helm. Some feel Arkansas’ defense will have a better chance of controlling a more conventional, NFL-type offense than the hurry-up, no-huddle schemes that have confused and confounded them most of the season. The game should look more like a throwback to the 1980s than a high scoring track meet.

Florida’s offense will likely dictate a change in the Hogs’ defensive schemes. When facing pro-type offenses in the past, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith has deployed a 4-3 front instead of a 4-2. There has been some talk of personnel changes on the defensive front where the Hogs have had a difficulty of turning outside running plays back inside. Whether there are changes or not, the Razorbacks simply must be more disciplined in their approach to assignments and their execution.

Offensively, the Razorbacks must muster some sort of rushing attack to be able to unleash the team’s greatest asset it’s play-action passing. Auburn and Alabama snuffed the Hogs’ running game and as a result beat up Allen in passing situations. While not quite as effective as the Crimson Tide or Tigers, Texas A&M shut down the Hogs’ rushing efforts in short-yardage situations, but the Hogs did have some rushing success against the Aggies.

The Razorbacks must find a way to hold their blocks longer to create space for backs Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley. Reportedly Arkansas looked at some different players up front with tackle Brian Wallace and guard Jake Raulerson both dealing with injuries during Arkansas’ bye week. There may or may not be changes to the Hogs’ offensive front against the Gators. Bielema was wisely mum earlier in the week.

Looking at this game logically, Florida should be the pick. The Gators’ defense has played lights out this season, and their offense has done enough to win six of their seven games.

That said Bielema’s Hogs have been known to pull off upsets of ranked opponents in November. When the Hogs are playing well, Razorback Stadium can be a formidable environment. The crowds of the Alabama and Ole Miss games this season were fantastic. If the game remains close, the crowd could be a factor in inspiring the Razorbacks to play at the “magic level” spoken off by coaches and broadcasters.

With that in mind, I will go ahead and sound the upset alert for the Gators.

Pick: Arkansas 28, Florida 27