But since three of the five are road games with two against top 10 teams — this Saturday against No. 4 Georgia and the regular-season finale against No. 7 LSU — it won’t be easy. All of a sudden, Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., on Nov. 12 doesn’t look like a sure thing either. The Rebels almost upset No. 6 Alabama during a 13-10 loss on Saturday.
“This is where we’ve got to do our greatest job,” Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. “Keep believing and keep fighting because it’s really simple not to. I tell them (Sunday). ‘It’s so easy to hear the negative and you’re going to hear it.’
“But with five games left, there’s still a lot of things that can happen.”
Nutt has helped the Razorbacks dig out of holes before, even one this deep. In 2001, they also opened Southeastern Conference play with an 0-3 record before winning six straight and earning a bid to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 10-3 against Oklahoma.
They started 1-3 in SEC play in both 2002 and 2003 and still managed to make it to bowls with late-season turnarounds. But lately, the magic has disappeared as the Razorbacks have lost eight of their last 10 conference games dating back to last season.
A big reason for this season’s setbacks is because the Hogs have been outscored 63-31 in the second half in conference games. It became an even bigger factor Saturday when Auburn rallied from a 10-6 halftime deficit by outscoring Arkansas 28-7 in the final two quarters.
Nutt discredited the notion that the second half struggles were because of a lack of conditioning.
“The thing about football is it’s not the best out of seven. It’s not the best out of three,” Nutt said. “It’s one game. It’s two-and-half hours of who plays the best football. To me, we really haven’t put it together for two-and-half to three hours.
“That’s what I’m going to hit on real hard. How good we played for two quarters. But in the third quarter, it’s almost like a whole different deal now. A whole different team.”
Still, Nutt plans to remain positive — as always — with his players this week, starting with Sunday’s team meeting.
“There still can be turnaround. It still can happen,” Nutt said. “We still can go to a bowl. Those things are there. But if you listen to the outside, they’ll probably say they you can’t. It takes a real man to stay positive and go back to work when things aren’t going just right.”
Freshman tailback Darren McFadden rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Nutt said he planned to get his homerun hitter more swings before things got out of hand in the second half.
“It doesn’t bother me if he has 20 carries,” Nutt said. “If we had the same first-half game that we wanted and take it to the second half, I think you would have seen maybe 20-25 carries had that thing got where you’re not trying to play catch up.”
Senior tailback De’Arrius Howard didn’t play. Nutt said he suffered a foot injury in last week’s 44-15 win against Louisiana-Monore, but could have been used.
Instead, Nutt said the plan was to keep the ball in McFadden’s and Peyton Hillis’ hands in short-yardage situations — normally Howard’s time to shine — to combat Auburn’s speedy defense.
“We just kind of felt like Darren gave us our best shot,” Nutt said. “We’ll continue to use both (McFadden and Hillis).”
Roper, Hicks Return
Nutt said senior center Kyle Roper “graded out like a winner” after playing 58 snaps on a sprained knee. He did well in pass protection, but struggled run blocking.
“Very few people would have played (Saturday) night,” Nutt said. “It takes a real man to play with the injury that he had. He could push off, but didn’t quite have the quickness he needed to cut off some blocks.”
Senior Jared Hicks started at tight end and lined up at fullback for a snap. His seven-yard reception set up McFadden’s second touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was only the second game Hicks has played because of a nagging ankle injury.
Nutt was happy to see Hicks return, especially since tight end Wes Murphy sat out with a groin injury.
“It’s been a revolving door there,” Nutt said.
Defensive tackles Keith Jackson and Marcus Harrison played 63 and 62 snaps, respectively. Defensive end Desmond Sims led the defensive line with 70 snaps.
Obviously, that wore down the defenders against the Tigers’ physical offensive front.
“We’ve got to get off that field, like we did in the first half,” Nutt said. “They (Auburn) came out in the second half and totally changed their game plan. They said, ‘Enough of this finesses, we’re going to play hardball.’ They were going to take the pressure off of (quarterback Brandon Cox) and hand it to their backs.”
Defensive end Anthony Brown played 31 snaps while reserve Jamaal Anderson logged 53 snaps. Brown suffered a severely sprained ankle and was wearing a “boot” on Sunday, according to Nutt.
Arkansas will use either Rod Coleman, a speedy quarterback/receiver at Camden-Fairview High last year, or one of the extra tailbacks to simulate Georgia dual-threat quarterback D.J. Shockley in preparations this week.
“(Shockley) is running some options, some bootlegs, some scrambles,” Nutt said. “He can go 30 or 40 yards on you on a bootleg or a dash, or fake an option play and run down the boundary for 50 yards, he’s that kind of quarterback.
“And when he’s hot throwing, he’s hot.”
Shockley has thrown for 244 yards per game by completing 57.8 percent of his passes. He’s also averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
After the Auburn loss, Arkansas dropped to 7-10 in SEC games in Fayetteville. Nutt said that’s “not good,” but later added that Saturday’s atmosphere was “awesome.”