LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — From the moment Arkansas' schedule was released in February, its Southeastern Conference opener stood out.
Georgia. At home. With an open date the previous weekend.
After months of anticipation, the Razorbacks finally get their shot at the No. 23 Bulldogs on Saturday night. Neither team is expected to win the SEC this year, but for a young Arkansas team with high hopes for the future, this game is shaping up as the perfect test.
"This is something that they have invested a lot in," coach Bobby Petrino said. "All the workouts, all the spring ball, all the summer, getting up at six in the morning all for playing games like this. We are excited to see what kind of football team we are."
The Razorbacks finished 5-7 last season, but they beat LSU in their finale and headed into the offseason full of optimism. With transfer quarterback Ryan Mallett making his debut, Arkansas (1-0) beat Missouri State with ease in its 2009 opener. Then the Razorbacks had a weekend off, which only added to the hype for this weekend's matchup in Fayetteville.
"You get anxious during the week," Mallett said. "You want to just go out and play. Getting out there Saturday and releasing all of our pent-up energy is exactly what we need right now. We've prepared well for Georgia. Now we need just to go out there and play our style of ball."
Mallett and backup Tyler Wilson combined to throw for 447 yards in the opener, setting a school record and helping Arkansas to a 48-10 win. That victory was impressive, but until the Razorbacks beat a noteworthy opponent, they'll remain unproven.
Georgia, on the other hand, had no chance to ease into the season. The Bulldogs (1-1) dropped their opener at Oklahoma State, then edged South Carolina 41-37. Quarterback Joe Cox, finally the starter now that Matthew Stafford is gone to the NFL, has battled a flu virus, nerve damage in his shoulder and a jammed finger.
Tailback Caleb King missed the first two games with a hamstring injury. Coach Mark Richt said he's "very probable" for the Arkansas game.
The Bulldogs may be a work in progress, but they aren't likely to be intimidated playing on the road. Georgia is 24-4 under Richt in SEC opponents' stadiums.
"We realize that when we travel it's a business trip," Bulldogs linebacker Rennie Curran said. "We try to go over there, take care of business and come back home."
Curran and the Georgia defense will try to slow down the Razorbacks, who returned 1,000-yard rusher Michael Smith and a handful of promising receivers this season. After an exciting win over South Carolina, Richt is bracing himself for another nail-biter.
"This game, I don't know. The only thing I can say is fasten your seat belt and get ready for another 60-minute war," he said. "I would see no reason this thing might not go down to the wire also. It's going to be that kind of game."
Arkansas should be prepared and rested after not playing a weekend ago.
"I think the biggest advantage is the time to plan and focus on your opponent and even observe us," Richt said. "I think that, more than anything else, is the biggest advantage."
Of course, the early off week has its disadvantages. Arkansas must now play 11 games in 11 weeks to finish the regular season. They'll start the grueling stretch this weekend. The Georgia game is followed by a trip to Alabama — and the Razorbacks will eventually play at Florida, Ole Miss and LSU.
The road ahead will seem less daunting if the Hogs win this weekend.
"This is why you play football," Arkansas safety Matt Harris said. "You win big games and you get big rewards."