Arkansas has gone on the road and knocked off No. 1 before. It's not as if it's never happened. But this weekend, the Razorbacks will enter a city and a stadium in Starkville still on a high from being penciled in as the top ranked team in the country.
Saturday, cowbells will be ringing as loud as they ever have before. Even with a 4-4 Arkansas team entering, the excitement level among Mississippi State fans will be high, aware that when the Razorbacks are clicking they are capable of hanging with top teams.
In what Bulldogs fans are calling, as they are each week this season, the biggest game in Mississippi State football history to date, Arkansas will need a memorable performance from one of its own to notch Bret Bielema's first SEC win and a huge upset.
In my eyes, at least, Jonathan Williams is that guy. He has taken over the role of the lead back on the team, and has been turning in great game after great game. We saw flashes of what could be in his freshman season, backing up Dennis Johnson and coming in during garbage time.
Williams touched the ball just 45 times his first year but churned out over five yards per carry. Last season, he established himself as a back that could turn into an all-conference performer and possibly pull the Razorbacks out of their SEC rut. Carrying the ball 150 times, he averaged six yards per touch, finding the end zone four times (or one trip to Lubbock).
He's run for 100+ yards in half of Arkansas' games this season, including each of the last two games against Georgia and UAB. Williams has also run for 80+ yards in two other games (Alabama, Texas A&M). Sure, it would be easy to say, "Well, running on UAB and Texas A&M isn't all that impressive," but against Alabama (83 yards) and Georgia (108 yards), two top 15 rush defenses, he was terrific. The Tide give up just 78 yards on the ground to opponents, and Georgia gives up 105 per game. Williams reached those totals himself.
You could also say he has carried the bulk of the load of late. Williams has carried the ball 15+ times in each of the last six games, and why not when four or five yards is the norm of every touch?
Bielema called Williams "Steady Eddie" in his UAB postgame press conference. Williams is the only of the three running backs to not miss time with off the field issues. Collins, aside from his one quarter suspension vs Alabama, has also had issues will ball security, limiting his carries. Korliss Marshall is a different issue. He battled injury in the Auburn and Alabama games and has off the field issues to square away. Williams has been the rock in the Arkansas backfield.
I've said this for a while now – Williams is the most complete running back on the roster. Alex Collins does some special things running the ball, but you'd be hard pressed to find another back that runs the way Williams does. He's a shifty but strong runner, and carries the ball with determination and a purpose, and it usually takes multiple defenders to bring him down. His run in Jerry World that was called back due to a penalty was one of the more spectacular runs I've ever seen.
Mississippi State's run defense has been superb this season, allowing just one 100-yard rusher – Nick Marshall. Auburn had the most success against the Bulldogs, but still fell by two scores, so Arkansas will obviously have to make plays through the air.
But as Arkansas enters Starkville this weekend, it will need a leader or two to step up, make plays and be a difference maker. Jonathan Williams is a likely candidate on offense in my eyes. He's focused, humble, determined and ready to lead Arkansas out of its SEC funk.