Instant Analysis - Liberty Bowl
Arkansas 20 ... East Carolina 17 OT
The SEC is two decent placekickers away from having a disastrous bowl
That's actually not quite right; East Carolina's Ben Hartman and
Northwestern's Stefan Demos had excellent years and should've been locks
to hit at least one of their field goal attempts in their respective
bowl games. Demos missed a field goal at the end of regulation that
would've given the Wildcats an Outback win over Auburn, and he also
missed a kick in overtime, while Hartman didn't have any luck on his two
kicks in the final moment of regulation and in overtime against
Yeah, yeah, yeah, kicking is part of the game and it all counts, but for
a conference that's supposed to be far and away the best in the country,
the bowl season has quickly exposed the SEC as a league with two great
teams and a big bag of no big whoop.
Just because USC was kicking everyone's butt for several years (before
this one) didn't mean the Pac 10 was dominant, just like the Big Ten
didn't stink because Ohio State couldn't struggled in recent BCS games
until the Oregon win. The SEC doesn't deserve all the kisses it gets
just because Alabama and Florida are killers, not after Kentucky lost to
Clemson, Tennessee got steamrolled by Virginia Tech, Auburn struggled
with Northwestern, LSU lost to Penn State, South Carolina didn't show up
against Connecticut, and with the way Arkansas sputtered and coughed
against a Conference USA team.
This was no normal Conference USA team, though. This was a team full of
seniors and leaders who knew how to win and came up with two straight
conference titles. The Pirates deserved a far better fate than to lose
the way it did against the Hogs, however, coffee is for closers only.
The SEC might not be that great this year, but it has been the best
conference in America over the last decade. And even this year it's not
like any other league stepped up to grab the title of the Nation's Best
Conference by the horns. The conference might be down, but it's still
more intense than any other and it showed in the Liberty Bowl. Arkansas
got outplayed, but it didn't fold in the clutch and the Conference USA
Might this have been the perfect Liberty Bowl scenario for Hog fans everywhere?
Not only did Arkansas get by East Carolina in overtime for the school's first bowl win in six years, but QB Ryan Mallett didn't play a huge role in the outcome. In fact, he was downright ordinary. Selfishly, Razorback fans can't be too disappointed that the sophomore finished 15-of-36 for 203 yards and a touchdown against a Conference USA defense. It's not as if they want to wish ill-will on one of their own, but they also know that a monster performance could have tipped the scales in the direction of Mallett leaving school early for the April draft. Oh, he could still jump, but there was nothing in that performance in Memphis that screamed NFL-ready.
Yes, Mallett will play in the NFL someday. No, it is not recommended that he opens that chapter this year. Although you can see the upside and the next-level arm, you'll also notice that he needs work his mechanics, has some maturing to do, and simply hasn't taken enough snaps at this level to make a smooth transition to Sundays. Mallett has an opportunity to spend at least one more year serving an apprenticeship under Bobby Petrino, one of the game's premier developers of quarterbacks. As hard as it is to pass on a big payday, he ought to stick with Petrino and return to school rather than begin preparing for the Combine. Regardless of what he's hearing these days from agents and the advisory committee, he's not quite ready for the next rung in his career path. Plus, there's an unmistakable feeling of unfinished in Fayetteville regarding a young team with the potential to elevate beyond the Liberty Bowl in 2010.
1) Arkansas must have watched South Carolina earlier in the day. The Hogs – like the Gamecocks – seemed frozen stiff by the unusually cold weather in the South. Their quarterback play was spotty, their offensive line outplayed for the balance of the afternoon (South Carolina was far worse up front), and the Razorbacks scored just seven points on offense. Remember, Arkansas's defense produced a pick-six and took a turnover into field goal range. Therefore, Ryan Mallett and the rest of Bobby Petrino's attack truly scored just seven points. An overtime field goal is not attributable to the offense, because the ball starts on the opponent's 25, well within field goal range.
Technically, the SEC upped its bowl record to 5-4. Technically, the SEC won. Technically, the Arkansas Razorbacks are the 2010 Liberty Bowl champions.
In a reasonable, logical world, however – and an intellectual framework that's able to look at a bigger picture – this "win" might as well count for only half credit, if that. The fact that this "win" (cough) came against a team from Conference USA makes it even less worthy of praise.
The SEC's official bowl record: 5-4. Unofficially? Let's try 4.25 wins and 4.75 losses. If the Pac-10 has stunk in the bowl season and has earned a downgraded assessment, the same must apply to conference that normally delivers the goods, but – in 2009 – has become "Alabama, Florida, and the 10 dwarfs."
2) Last year's Liberty Bowl loss to Kentucky stung because East Carolina had more talent and health. This year's loss in Memphis will hurt because of the awful night experienced by kicker Ben Hartman, who missed three field goals in roughly 15-20 minutes of real time. The Pirates have overachieved over the past two years, and deserve nothing but atta-boys for the way they've competed. They've won C-USA twice, they outplayed Arkansas today, and they've always played hard when they've appeared on national television.
And a word to Mr. Hartman: If Jan. 2, 2010, is the most emotionally difficult night in your life, young man, you're going to have a great life. Keep your head up, son. The result of a football game is never a reflection of your worth. You probably know that, but you need to hear it again at a time like this.
Well, it wasn't pretty, but it still counts as a W for Arkansas. It's pretty unbelievable that a team from Conference USA physically dominated an SEC team, but that's pretty much what happened in the Liberty Bowl. I say "pretty much," because in the third quarter, the Razorback offensive line played just well enough to spring some holes for Broderick Green and just well enough to give Ryan Mallett enough time to find some open receivers. If it wasn't for the Arkansas offensive line for those 15 minutes, East Carolina would have won going away.
What's even more unbelievable is that Arkansas won a football game without converting a single third down. Off the top of my head (or bottom for that matter), I can't remember that ever happening.
With ECU's defense ranked down around the high-50's in pass defense, this game should have been a coronation of Ryan Mallett as one of the best undergraduate QB's in the 2010 NFL Draft. I'm not so sure that happens now. Mallett was erratic all night, even on the passes he completed. Will this game sway him one way or the other? I'm not sure. But it certainly didn't help his draft stock.
The anti-SEC crowd will probably use this game as more ammunition for the anti-SEC movement, which has shifted into overdrive with some less-than-stellar performances by the SEC this bowl season. That may be warranted, but I disagree with the logic. The SEC has been top-heavy for the better part of the decade. This year, the weight has shifted back to the middle quite a bit. But overall, there's no doubt that the conference is still the best in the country.