LITTLE ROCK —
Morning radio show host Tommy Smith can cut back on his prep work for Friday’s gig.
By simply mentioning two football scores in the same breath, Smith will encourage and infuriate enough callers to fill at least a half-hour of air time. Whether the winner Thursday night in Jonesboro is Arkansas State University or Louisiana-Monroe, people will want to talk about the outcome in the context of ULM 34, Arkansas 31 in overtime two months ago.
Forget that comparing scores is an exercise in futility. If it was that easy, Arkansas would breeze by South Carolina on Saturday. After all, the Razorbacks defeated Kentucky by 42 in a weather-shortened game in Fayetteville while South Carolina beat those same Wildcats by 21 on the road.
Disregarding those results, the knowledgeable folks in Las Vegas favor South Carolina by two touchdowns.
Thanks to a happening in Monroe on Saturday night, Arkansas-only fans will be able to explain away an ASU victory and ASU fans who clamor for a series with the Razorbacks will not be able to trumpet a Red Wolves’ W without conceding ULM is less than the team that won in Little Rock.
Quarterback Kolton Browning, a nemesis to the Razorbacks, left the Louisiana-Lafayette game on crutches and coach Todd Berry said Monday that Browning will not play Thursday night. Against Arkansas, Browning was 42-of-67 for 412 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Plus, he carried 16 times for 69 yards, including a 16-yard scoring run on fourth-and-1 in overtime.
With Browning, ULM beat Arkansas, scared Auburn and Baylor, and rattled off five victories in a row. After Browning was injured in the loss to Lafayette, Berry said “obviously whenever you lose one quarterback, you aren’t fired up about losing another, so the game plan changes somewhat in terms of how much you’re going to expose that guy.”
Knowing that, ASU defensive coordinator John Thompson will prepare accordingly for Cody Wells. The senior has only attempted 226 passes in 35 games so the conclusion is that ULM will tone down the passing game and attempt to control the clock.
No matter the score in Jonesboro, UA vs. ASU is not going to happen without an unlikely mandate from the state Legislature. That said, UA fans are free to ignore ASU, but the preferred response is to compliment the Red Wolves and appreciate their success under first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
Arkansas fans who fret about recruiting competition from ASU need only compare facilities and conference affiliations in Fayetteville vs. those in Jonesboro.
For Malzahn and his players, the idea is to focus exclusively on ULM and leave the comparisons to others. With a victory comes a share of the top spot in the Sun Belt Conference with Middle Tennessee, a team that finishes the season in Jonesboro in a game that might be interesting enough to keep the hunters out of the woods for a day.
As Sun Belt champion, ASU would make its second straight bowl trip, more than likely to the New Orleans Bowl in the Superdome on Dec. 22. At this point, ASU is 6-3 with losses to likely Pac-12 champion Oregon, possible Big Ten winner Nebraska, and a Western Kentucky that was impressive enough to get Willie Taggert’s name inserted in the Arkansas coaching search.
In the loss to Western Kentucky, ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin was 23-of-40 with a quarterback rating of 95.34. Since then, he has completed 65 percent or better in four straight victories with a QB rating from 151.28 to 199.78. For the year, he has 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions, none since September.
When all is said and done, ASU with Aplin is better than ULM without Browning. If the result goes the other way, ASU’s credibility will take a huge hit in state.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.