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Cotton-picking UA eyeballs 10-3 season

By Tom Murphy

This article was published August 26, 2012 at 6:00 a.m.

Arkansas is forecast to make a return trip to the Cotton Bowl in January, where the Razorbacks and defensive lineman D.D. Jones beat Kansas State 29-16.

— Straight to the facts.

This is the source to rely on for our Razorback bowl prognostication.

Three consecutive years the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette “forecast” has nailed the Hogs’ bowl destination, including the exacta of Arkansas-Ohio State in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. We predicted a Cotton Bowl victory last season and the Razorbacks delivered, though we guessed Oklahoma State as the Hogs’ opponent in a shootout.

Arkansas went 5-7, 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2 in four seasons under Bobby Petrino. We projected 8-5, 9-4, 13-1, 11-2. Last season, we nailed the record on the head, though we were wrong by predicting a victory at Alabama and a loss versus Texas A&M. Everything else: Money.

This year, the task of projecting the full schedule and postseason destination feels more daunting. So don’t head to Vegas with this special section in hand.

There are too many unknowns, like how John L. Smith and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will handle late-game calls and critical moments, which we can predict will be many. How will Paul Haynes perform in his first season as defensive coordinator, and can Arkansas be a much stronger run-stopping team? Will there be enough receivers to keep defenses honest and pull away doubles or bracket coverage from Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg? Can the run game return to its late-2010 dominance with a healthy Knile Davis?

Then there is the schedule. All four of the Hogs’ road games should be big-time tussles, and remember last year’s team just scraped by in road victories at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Alabama and LSU come to Fayetteville, but those teams are projected at the top of the national polls again.

Arkansas also looks more vulnerable in the depth department at pretty much every spot except for running back and defensive line, so avoiding critical injuries is a must for the Hogs to reach their potential.

So, the variables are many, even though Arkansas returns one of the most talented teams in the country.

On to the predictions.

Sept. 1

Arkansas 48,

Jacksonville State 13

FAYETTEVILLE — Twenty years after a 10-3 loss to The Citadel that marked Jack Crowe’s final game at Arkansas, Crowe returns with the Gamecocks and takes a shellacking.

Knile Davis runs for 110 yards and two touchdowns in limited duty, and Tyler Wilson connects with mainstays Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg for scores as the Hogs roll up a 35-7 lead at the half.

Safety Eric Bennett returns a fumble for another touchdown, and Brandon Allen throws his first college touchdown pass to former high school teammate Demetrius Dean. Zach Hocker adds a pair of field goals and the Razorbacks hold Jacksonville State to 71 rushing yards.

Sept. 10

Arkansas 45, Louisiana-Monroe 9

Arkansas runs its winning streak at War Memorial Stadium to 11 consecutive games and keeps the Warhawks out of the end zone in the romp, which is much more decisive than the Hogs’ past two victories over Louisiana-Monroe here.

Cobi Hamilton has 130 receiving yards and a 37-yard touchdown, for his eighth touchdown and fourth 100-yard game in Little Rock, and Brandon Mitchell grabs his first touchdown reception, an 8-yarder from Tyler Wilson. Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo all score on the ground as the Razorbacks rack up 310 rushing yards.

Darius Winston and Rohan Gaines register interceptions, while Chris Smith and Tenarius Wright recover fumbles as Arkansas wins the turnover battle 4-1.

Sept. 15

Arkansas 27, Alabama 26

FAYETTEVILLE — Zach Hocker splits the uprights from 47 yards as the clock expires to cap a frenzied Arkansas comeback and end a five-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide.

The Hogs enter the fourth quarter trailing 26-10, but Dennis Johnson’s 77-yard punt return score and Knile Davis’ 61-yard touchdown on a screen pass pull Arkansas back into contention.

Nick Saban’s halftime interview is strange, as he tells Tracy Wolfson to “talk to the statue” when asked why the Tide kicker missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired. Sure enough, Saban’s statue has been flown into town and placed at the end of the Alabama bench.

Sept. 22

Arkansas 45, Rutgers 13

FAYETTEVILLE — The Razorbacks roll, despite the intimidating presence of actor James Gandolfini, in a $3,000 custom suit, surrounded by wise guys on the Scarlet Knights’ sideline.

Arkansas Coach John L. Smith, who correctly points out that Rutgers hosted the first college football game in 1869 as the “Queensmen,” challenges Gandolfini to a run up Mount Etna in the offseason.

The game is memorable in that three Arkansas quarterbacks — Tyler Wilson, Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell — run for touchdowns, and Mitchell catches one from Wilson.

Sept. 29

Texas A&M 37, Arkansas 35

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Chanting “Remember the Southwest Classic,” the Aggies finally exact some revenge on their nemesis with the help of 100 offensive snaps, including eight trick plays, and a lopsided disparity in penalties.

Christine Michael and Knile Davis stage a memorable runoff, with Michael accounting for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns and Davis rushing for 183 yards and 2 scores.

Texas A&M improves its home record against the Razorbacks to 14-17-1 with its first victory over the Hogs since 1991.

Oct. 6

Arkansas 33, Auburn 27

AUBURN, Ala. — Jordan-Hare Stadium is all abuzz when Cam Newton and Michael Dyer are announced as Auburn starters during pregame, but the error is quickly discovered and explained to be a joke played by “wealthy boosters.”

The home fans see red when Arkansas tailback Dennis Johnson is given credit for a second-quarter touchdown on which Johnson appears to fumble inside the 1-yard line. But their reaction to that score is mild compared to the furor that erupts when Tigers runner Tre’ Mason is ruled to have fumbled when replays showed he was already been on his back, and Arkansas safety Ross Rasner returns the loose ball for a touchdown.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson completes 15 consecutive passes in the third quarter, breaking his own school record set here two years ago, including touchdown strikes to Mekale McKay and Julian Horton.

Oct. 13

Arkansas 47, Kentucky 17

FAYETTEVILLE — The Razorbacks go airborne to scuttle the Wildcats’ upset hopes, with Tyler Wilson and Brandon Allen combining for six touchdown passes, including two to Chris Gragg.

D.D. Jones gives the home crowd a hoot when he grabs the ball after sacking Morgan Newton for a safety, rises up and pretends to shoot it, basketball style, toward the meager array of blue-clad UK fans.

Arkansas’s Zach Hocker breaks Steve Little’s kick-scoring record with his 281st point on a third-quarter, 41-yard field goal.

Oct. 27

Arkansas 30, Ole Miss 17

The Razorbacks take their War Memorial winning streak to 12 games, but that’s not the big story. The headlines are made when Little Rock native Houston Nutt bursts into the broadcast booth at halftime, snares a headset away from Andre Ware and declares “I coached those teams, brother! I’m Sirius! Get it?” before hooting hysterically and running back into the stands.

Knile Davis runs for a career-high 201 yards and two touchdowns, and Tank Wright returns an interception for a 43-yard touchdown to highlight the Hogs’ performance.

Nov. 3

Arkansas 52, Tulsa 20

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ seven touchdowns on a victorious homecoming are all scored by different players, including a 70-yard run by Jonathan Williams and a 97-yard kickoff return by Nate Holmes.

The freshman impact includes Will Hines’ interception and a fumble recovery by Otha Peters. Brandon Allen throws touchdown passes to Keon Hatcher and Mekale McKay to further showcase the Hogs’ young talent.

Nov. 10

Arkansas 37, South Carolina 27

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With a share of the SEC East title at stake, South Carolina blows it, causing Coach Steve Spurrier to stomp on his visor and declare late in the game, “Why can’t we beat these guys?”

Ronnie Wingo scores on a 50-yard wheel route and Cobi Hamilton snares a 23-yard crossing route touchdown, making up for drops the year before.

A hint of controversy hits when Spurrier calls a local hotel at halftime and is overheard whispering urgently “We need you now!” to a person believed to be Stephen Garcia.

Nov. 17

Mississippi State 26, Arkansas 24

STARKVILLE, Miss. — The Razorbacks suffer three turnovers and Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen posts his third victory over an SEC West opponent other than Ole Miss and third of the season after victories over Auburn and Texas A&M.

Coach John L. Smith, bringing up memories of his Michigan State days, tries to slap himself in the postgame news conference, but he instead rams his elbow against the wall in the tiny interview room, knocking down five microphone stands in the process, and can’t follow through.

Nov. 23

LSU 31, Arkansas 24

FAYETTEVILLE — LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva announces before the game the Tigers will play Arkansas “when they dang well feel like it,” sparking outrage by Razorback fans — and eventually starting a five-game winning streak in the series by the Hogs.

The Tigers are inspired during the week by a stunt in which LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger, is caught on tape playing a college football video game in which his quarterback named “Wilson” is wearing a No. 8 jersey.

Knile Davis rushes for 113 yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, but LSU gets rushing touchdowns from three different runners to hold off a late Arkansas rally.

Jan. 4

Cotton Bowl

Arkansas 31, Texas 24

ARLINGTON, TEXAS — The Razorbacks cap a 10-3 season with a rousing victory over their former Southwest Conference rival on Tyler Wilson’s 45-yard Hail Mary pass to a diving Javontee Herndon after a tip by Brandon Mitchell on the game’s last play.

Arkansas wins consecutive Cotton Bowls for the first time in the school’s first back-to-back appearances in the bowl since 1989-90.

The Hogs’ 31 victories over three seasons breaks the school record of 30 (1977-79). Wilson’s final throw gives him 3,870 yards for the season, surpassing Ryan Mallett’s school record by a yard.

Jeff Long announces Paul Petrino as the Hogs’ new head coach in the postgame celebration, and Petrino immediately names John L. Smith his top assistant, remarkably leaving the staff intact to complete its 2013 recruiting.

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