Breaking down the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday (ESPN, 5:30 p.m. ET) between Arkansas (7-5) and East Carolina (9-4):
WHO TO WATCH: There’s a chance that Arkansas fans could be watching quarterback Ryan Mallett for the final time in a Hogs’ uniform. The third-year sophomore quarterback is considering turning pro after playing just one season at Arkansas, and there are strong indications that he will come out. Mallett said he wouldn’t decide until after the game, but you know it’s something that’s been weighing on him. He’s had a splendid first season in the SEC, leading the league with 3,422 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. He’s also been a perfect fit for Bobby Petrino’s system. The Hogs’ passing game is ranked 10th nationally, and Mallett has an arsenal of talented receivers to spread the ball around to, including Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright.
WHAT TO WATCH: In short, can Arkansas’ defense hold up? The Razorbacks were already ranked 90th nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 401.8 yards per game. They had trouble stopping people all year long, and now they’re without two of their most productive and experienced defenders. Senior middle linebacker Wendel Davis and senior safety Matt Harris were suspended for the game on Thursday for an unspecified violation of team rules. Davis was the team’s second leading tackler and Harris the third leading tackler. In addition, reserve defensive end Tenarius Wright injured his ankle in practice this week, and freshman defensive tackle D.D. Jones was already out. It looks like sophomore Jerry Franklin will move over from weakside linebacker to replace Davis in the middle, with sophomore Tramain Thomas stepping into the starting lineup at safety.
WHY WATCH: It’s been a solid second step for the Hogs in Year No. 2 under Petrino. They had close losses to Florida and LSU on the road and lost a home game to Georgia where they gave up 52 points. So this is a key contest as far as wrapping up this season the way the Hogs want to and finishing up with a flurry. Arkansas has won four of its last five games. It’s also a chance for the Hogs to end their bowl misery. They’ve lost 12 of their last 14 bowl games, which is easily the worst percentage among the 49 schools that have participated in at least 10 bowl games during that span. All time, the Hogs are just 11-22-3 in bowl games.
PREDICTION: The defensive suspensions have left the Hogs vulnerable on that side of the ball. But the best thing they do is throw the football, and whether this is Mallett’s last game at Arkansas or his way of making a resounding statement going into next season, you know he’s going to be primed for a big game. Chances are it could be a really big game. East Carolina’s pass defense is ranked 110th nationally, and the Pirates gave up 3,410 passing yards and 23 touchdowns this season. Mallett will take direct aim at that secondary. Arkansas 35, East Carolina 31.