Okay, confession time. On Friday, January 15, right after the Hogs had come close but had lost to Mississippi State in Starkville, a co-worker, let's call him DH, came down the hall with a proposition. "10-1 odds, I take the Hogs to win the SEC West. I put up ten; if the Hogs win the SEC West you owe me a hundred. "
You're damn right I took the bet. Actually, I jumped on it, sneering. "This Hog team cannot even go .500 in conference, much less win the West." Plus, I figured it was worth a hundred to see the Hogs out-perform all reasonable expectations.
In fairness, I think that DH would admit now his bet was based more on the overall crappiness of the SEC West than any perceived strength in the Hogs. Still, the bet looked a lot better for me then than it does now. And it looked much, much better after Kentucky dismantled the Hogs. That was total domination. Make no mistake, Calipari could have won by 80 had he so desired. Kentucky had a wide disparity in talent, better coaching, more stylish arm sleeves, and probably more comfortable and better fitting underwear. Kentucky was the elite. Arkansas was the Washington Generals.
So I was ready to get my ten bucks off DH. He wasn't feeling good about it either, but he refused to give up, noting, again, that Kentucky was in the East, and all the Hogs had to do was win the West. An excellent point, it turns out.
See, once you had faced Kentucky, these other teams really didn't look like much. The Hogs beat Mississippi State at Walton in a mild surprise, then got a really surprising win at Ole Miss, that I didn't see, but sounded gritty. Then came the key games to this season. At Georgia, and again against Auburn in Fayetteville, the Hogs played absolutely horribly. And still, largely on the back of Courtney Fortson, won anyway. The Hogs crushed LSU, but LSU may be the worst team in the SEC in the last two decades. (Poor Tasmin Mitchell; give him to the Hogs and we are locks for the NCAA tournament.) Sloppy selfish play and weak D caught up with the Hogs in Tuscaloosa. I remained pretty confident about my ten bucks. But Miss State and Ole Miss started faltering.
And, then the Hogs played South Carolina. That's the game that got my wallet tingling. The Hogs put it all together in that game. Marshawn Powell was the Truth; Fortson was Justice; Marcus Britt the American Way. His sneaky steal off Devan Downey was defining. All hustle, all heart. The Hogs won that largely without the services of Michael Washington, which is good, since he has essentially disappeared this year, being naturally preoccupied with his looming professional career in Greece. Rotnei Clarke is back on his deadeye. The bench is starting to contribute. Farmer, Bryant, even Johnson, all are stepping up.
So, the Hogs really should win the next two, at Auburn and at LSU, and then have a brutal stretch run, with Vanderbilt at Walton, on the road at Tennessee and back to Fayetteville for Ole Miss. If they can win the LSU and Auburn games, they finish no worse than 9-7 and likely win the West. Sneak an additional win in one of the last three, and they are 10-6 and almost surely win the West.
Back when the Hogs were losing to the likes of Morgan State and East Tennessee, if you had told me this team would finish 9-7 in conference, I would have pronounced the year a significant success. I have to hand my respect to Pelphrey and this team.
But to DH, I'm gonna have to hand a hundred.