Arkansas ready to answer critics' questions

Auburn's Tommy Tuberville knows a little something about winning.

He also knows a little something about coaching under pressure, which is why he's so impressed with the job Houston Nutt has done this season in guiding Arkansas to a distinction that nobody else in the Southeastern Conference can claim.

The Razorbacks, coming off back-to-back losing seasons, are the only unbeatens in league play heading into the final month of the season.

"They're solid from top to bottom. It's no surprise to the coaches," Tuberville said. "You can't go off last year's record. You have to go off the type of team you have the availability to put together in the coming year, which Houston has done a good job under a lot of pressure, may I add, that he was put under early in the year.

"Now that he's gotten past all that, he's shown people what kind of team he's built. I think the team is even more relaxed going into the last part of the season."

Tuberville saw the Razorbacks up close and personal a month ago when they came into Jordan-Hare Stadium and bulldozed the then No. 3-ranked Tigers 27-10. Tuberville said that game wasn't a fluke, nor is Arkansas' perch atop the Western Division standings a fluke.

"They're going to be tough to beat," Tuberville said. "They've got an opportunity to run the table and win the conference. They've got a lot of good football players first and second team. They're pretty deep. They're working around a young quarterback, which they've had to do all year long. They've done a very good job of coaching, and I think it's really shown. But it also shows that their players are a lot more relaxed knowing they've got a lot more confidence going into November."

Maybe Tuberville is trying to set up the Razorbacks (7-1, 4-0) as they enter their most critical stretch of the season beginning Saturday night on the road against South Carolina.

Thanks to their win on the Plains last month, the Hogs have some cushion. They own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Auburn and could still lose one of their last four against South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU and still win the Western Division title outright.

And even though this is new ground for the players on Arkansas' team, there haven't been any signs of slippage since their win over the Tigers.

"I have been proud for the most part that we had great concentration," said Nutt, who was hearing it from the fans and was squarely on the hot seat entering this season. "We had our mind on our business and taking care of the task at hand one game at a time. We have good seniors and good senior leadership. They come to work every day and lead by example.

"This is a good feeling to go undefeated in October. You turn the corner and go into November. You know it's real football left for the next 30 days.

"Actually, it's going to be four games in 22 days."

The schedule has no doubt helped Arkansas, which opened the season dubiously enough in a 50-14 home loss to USC. But this is a markedly different team than the one that turned it over five times and was blown out by the Trojans on Sept. 2.

For one, sensational sophomore tailback Darren McFadden, who's leading the SEC in rushing, was pushing it to even be on the field against USC. He was just coming back from his nasty toe injury and wasn't very effective.

The Razorbacks also decided to go with true freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain the next week. He's been up and down and made the typical freshman mistakes, but he's also made big plays when the Hogs have needed them.

Most importantly, he's 7-0 as the starter.

The staple has been a big, experienced offensive line that features three fifth-year seniors -- left guard Stephen Parker, left tackle Tony Ugoh and right tackle Zac Tubbs. The Razorbacks, for the second straight year, are leading the SEC in rushing. But under first-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn – who was coaching one of the most successful high school programs in the country this time a year ago in Springdale, Ark. -- they've been even more creative in how they use their playmakers.

"The thing we've been better at is we've been able to run the football," Nutt said. "Most people are impatient when it comes to running the ball. We're not.

"I think there is something about the toughness mentality when you're able to run the football and people know you're going to run the football, and you're still able to do it. I think that always sends a strong, strong signal."

The other thing the Hogs were able to do early was win the close games. They survived a late field-goal attempt to beat Vanderbilt 21-19 and outlasted Alabama 24-23 in two overtimes.

That's a stark contrast to the past two years, when they were 1-7 in games decided by six points or less.

There's sure to be a few more close ones along the way after not being tested the last three weeks in runaway wins over Southeast Missouri State, Mississippi and Louisiana-Monroe.

After the trip to South Carolina this weekend, Arkansas gets its two toughest remaining opponents at home. The Razorbacks face Tennessee in Fayetteville on Nov. 11 and end the season against LSU in Little Rock on Nov. 24.

Since 1998, only LSU has won more games at home in the SEC than the Razorbacks, who are 46-14 during that span.

And while some might be waiting for the Hogs' bubble to burst, Nutt looks at it differently. They get a chance over these next four weeks to prove once and for all that they absolutely belong.

"I told our team from the first when we walked into the meeting room in August that bowls and polls mean nothing before the season -- and during the season," Nutt said. "It's nice to be recognized. But it's the one at the end [that counts].

"And now, in November with these four quality teams, we'll find out."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.