Georgia vs. Arkansas
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Sanford Stadium
TV, radio: ESPN; 103.7-FM, 106.1-FM
ATHENS — Step one: Hire a coach from the NFL known for his brilliant offensive mind. Step two: Pair him with a strong-armed quarterback who has plenty of star potential.
Now, it’s time for step three, the biggest leap of all.
For all the hype about the Arkansas Razorbacks, they still must prove it on the field. Are they worthy of the lofty ranking?
Are they ready to challenge the power structure of the Southeastern Conference?
These next two weeks should provide a definitive answer.
After beating up on a couple of cream puffs, the No. 12 Razorbacks (2-0) face their first real test of the season when they go between the hedges Saturday to face Georgia (1-1, 0-1 SEC). The Bulldogs didn’t exactly look overpowering a week ago — a meek 17-6 loss at South Carolina — but they are a traditional blue blood in a conference where the line between the haves and have-nots has always been very distinctive.
Taking down the Dawgs in their house, before more than 90,000 hostile fans, would certainly be a major accomplishment for Arkansas.
“I’m excited about it,” said safety Elton Forde, a native of suburban Atlanta. “We’ve got big expectations, and we plan on putting on a show for the world.”
Georgia’s players certainly know what’s on the line, both for themselves — an 0-2 start in conference play would likely be a death sentence to their hopes for contending in the same division with Florida — and the visiting team.
If the Razorbacks clear this hurdle, they’ll be riding high when they face the ultimate test: a home game next week against defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Alabama.
Once these two games are out of the way, everyone will have a much better idea of what to expect from this team led by coach Bobby Petrino and Heisman-hyped quarterback Ryan Mallett.
“I think we’re ready,” said another Arkansas safety, senior Rudell Crim. “We’re doing a great job this year of just focusing on what game is ahead of us right then and there — not looking backward, not looking forward.”
Petrino will be returning to Georgia for the first time since he slipped out of the state in 2007, abandoning the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons with three games left in his debut season as a pro coach. While that didn’t win him many friends in these parts, there’s no doubt he seems better suited for the college game.
He built a powerhouse at Louisville — a program that fell on hard times as soon as he left — and now appears to be following the same blueprint in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks led the SEC in scoring last season (36 points a game), nearly pulled off an upset of then-No. 1 Florida, took LSU to overtime and won five of their last six games on the way to a spot in the Liberty Bowl.
Expectations are much higher for Petrino’s third season, largely because of Mallett. After transferring from Michigan, “Big Tex” had a brilliant debut at Arkansas, throwing for more than 3,600 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s off to another strong start this season, completing nearly three-fourths of his throws for a staggering 701 yards and six touchdowns, impressive numbers even facing lightweights Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe.
“We’re ready to get into SEC play,” Mallett said. “(There’s) something special about the SEC that brings the best out in both teams, because you never know what’s going to happen and all the games come down and count at the end of the season. We’re excited, and we know they’re excited, so we’ll see what happens.”
Georgia knows it can’t afford another conference loss, not with games still left against No. 10 Florida and No. 16 Auburn. The Bulldogs were manhandled by South Carolina, which ran right through the 3-4 scheme installed by new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham for 189 yards on 52 carries. The Gamecocks quickly realized they wouldn’t have to bother throwing much (they attempted just 17 passes) against a team that had trouble wrapping up tackles.
Arkansas might throw it 17 times in the first quarter, presenting an entirely difference challenge for a unit that has a reputation for giving up lots of points in big games under previous coordinator Willie Martinez. Last season, Mallett threw for 408 yards and five touchdowns — both school records — in a wild 52-41 loss to the Bulldogs.
“We’re definitely playing against one of the best quarterbacks in college football,” cornerback Vance Cuff said. “As a competitor, you want to play against the best and see where you stand. You definitely have small room for error when you’re playing a guy with such a strong arm.”
On offense, Georgia was hoping for the return of star receiver A.J. Green, who received a four-game suspension from the NCAA for selling a bowl jersey for $1,000. But his appeal was turned down Friday, meaning he will miss this game and one more before he’s eligible to return Oct. 2 against Colorado.
Even without Green, the Bulldogs plan to open up the offense for redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s been a bit limited in the first two games.
Petrino shrugged off any personal feelings about returning to the state where he’s still viewed as a traitor over his ugly departure from the Falcons in 2007. He let the players know he was quitting with a form letter left at their lockers — one wrote “traitor” on his copy — and was in Fayetteville before the day was out doing the “Woo Pig Sooey” cheer.
“I haven’t even thought about,” Petrino said. “This game is all about our players.”