South Carolina football 1-0 (0-0 SEC) will travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas for a weekend clash against the Arkansas Razorbacks 1-0 (0-0 SEC). Both schools will look to build off home wins in week one in what will be each team’s SEC opener.
The Daily Gamecock caught up with Robert Stewart, the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Traveler, to preview the matchup slated for Saturday at 11 a.m. Central, 12 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
The Daily Gamecock: What is the atmosphere surrounding Arkansas football after being ranked No. 19 in preseason and earning the win over Cincinnati?
Stewart: “The buzz was strong coming into this year. Nearly 75,000 people in attendance for week one against the Bearcats. I believe they announced that was the seventh largest crowd in the history of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, so pretty noteworthy."
"It was the first time there was a Top-25 matchup in Fayetteville to start a season in history, so that was pretty cool. I mean, everybody is excited about this Razorback team but at the same time I think a lot of people will tell you that they may have been gifted a win last week against the Bearcats.”
“(Redshirt junior quarterback) KJ Jefferson is talked about, at least in Fayetteville, as being a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy this year. He had a pretty classic performance with four total touchdowns, three through the air, one on the ground. He’s one of those guys, I mean, I’m looking at the stats right now, he had 18 carries against Cincinnati, he’s probably going to be close to 20 every game, that’s just who he is.”
Can you compare the expectations between the players and coaches in the program and the fanbase?
“I think after two years of Sam Pittman, they're pretty close aligned. I mean, the Chad Morris years of 2018 and 2019 were tough because everybody sort of came into 2018 with the thought that ‘Oh, it’s a new coach, perhaps this will turn everything around for the Hogs, but lo-and-behold, it did not — two consecutive two-win seasons."
"Fast forward to 2020, Sam Pittman’s first year, three wins in an all-SEC schedule, that’s an improvement, everybody’s excited. Last year they won eight games in the regular season, win a New Years bowl game, so I think expectations for the fans are back up to the standard of Arkansas Razorback football. It’s back to feeling like they are a Top 25 team, people recognize that. And Sam Pittman said it yesterday too in his press conference, they’ve been here before, they’ve been ranked for probably close to a full 12 weeks now."
“I think the team, the coaches, everybody in the locker room understands that okay not so long ago the expectation was just win a game or two and it will be a success but I think that period is over and they’re seasoned to being in the Top 25.”
Would you say that these two football programs, Arkansas and South Carolina, are on a similar trajectory?
“I think so, Pittman sort of alluded to it yesterday with his press conference. He and (South Carolina head coach) Shane Beamer are close. They were on staff at Georgia together and he spoke very, very highly of South Carolina’s special teams, what Beamer is able to do with those. I didn’t get to watch the Gamecocks’ game against Georgia State … but it sounds like they had 21 points essentially created by special teams, so that’s definitely something to watch out for, for Arkansas.”
“Like you said, very, very similar vibes with these two sort of fresh head coaches. It’s good to see both teams sort of have a resurgence in the SEC. Both teams won bowl games last year, that feels significant after struggles in both programs.”
How will Arkansas use the run game to its advantage against the Gamecocks?
“Looking at the stats here, the Hogs had 224 yards on 45 carries, and that probably is not counting the sacks that KJ Jefferson took, so it was probably upwards of 250 if we’re being honest, as far as just yards per game goes. If they can do that against a Cincinnati team that made the Playoff last year, I would expect that 200 yards is certainly attainable again against South Carolina next week if the Gamecocks struggle to defend the run."
"(Sophomore running back Raheim) ‘Rocket’ Sanders is an electric sophomore out of the backfield. People have been worried about (junior running back) Dominique Johnson’s injury, but truth be told, they have a suitable rushing attack without him and so there’s really no need to rush him back. Again ‘Rocket’ Sanders: 20 carries for 117 yards last week.”
“Really between two players, you almost had two 100-yard rushers last week. That’s going to keep the Arkansas offense dynamic, I would think, and open up the ability for KJ Jefferson to pick up big gains with his legs, he scored from 15 yards out on the first touchdown last week and I would think it gives him the opportunity to rack up some big completions as well.”
What are your expectations for the atmosphere at Razorback Stadium and how that will affect South Carolina?
“People always worry about what’s going to happen with a kickoff at 11 a.m. Central Time.”
“I’m expecting a crowd that’s probably very close to what it was last week, if not bigger, honestly. I don’t think the crowd will be the issue, I think if the team, the Razorbacks, don’t show up then they’ll probably start making the ‘oh well it was an early kickoff’ excuse. I’m trying to think back to last year, I think Georgia was the first noon Eastern, 11 Central kickoff in Athens, and Arkansas lost that game 38 to nothing."
“They took some delay of game penalties; they seemed frazzled on offense. Granted that’s a road game, it’s going to be a little bit different. But I think South Carolina could suffer some of the same jitters that Georgia caused Arkansas last year with it being an early kickoff. It’s just a matter of, can the Razorbacks wake up and improve on the things they need to improve upon from last week because, again, they did not play a perfect game against Cincinnati.”
What’s the ‘X factor’ for Arkansas to protect home field in week two?
“It’s really just the defense, the Arkansas defense that people need to watch, I think. (Redshirt junior defensive back) Jalen Catalon is the leader of the secondary, he missed a lot of last year with a shoulder injury I believe, he went down at some point in the second half."
"(Junior defensive back) Myles Slusher is the nickelback, he tried to make a tackle and it didn’t go well for him. He was down for a while and ended up going straight to the locker room, so two pretty big injuries to the secondary there."
"Up front, (redshirt senior defensive lineman) Isaiah Nichols, he missed some of the second half, I don’t remember if he came back. Sam Pittman does think that he is going to be okay or at least that’s what he said in his press conference yesterday. But watching the health of the Arkansas defense and the replacements that come in is going to be big.”
“Spencer Rattler could have a very, very good day if the Hogs don’t get healthy in time for kickoff on Saturday and that’s just something to keep an eye on.”