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Arkansas' Knile Davis Might Play Football This Year, But Should He?

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It was assumed that when Arkansas running back Knile Davis fractured his ankle in August, he was lost for the season. Turns out, that might not necessarily be the case. Would playing him at this point bring a boost to the Hogs' run at an unlikely BCS title game appearance?

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Amid Tuesday's discussions of Mike McQueary and missed field goals came a much more appealing, positive story: star Arkansas running back Knile Davis is ... practicing? In pads? The guy whose scream when he fractured his ankle in mid-August was "so loud it will haunt us in our dreams"? Three months later, that guy is not only healing, but trying to get into game shape?

A four-star signee for Bobby Petrino in the recruiting class of 2009, Davis did a nice job of treading water as a freshman, averaging 4.9 yards and scoring four touchdowns in 33 carries. He erupted over the last half of 2010, however.

Knile Davis, first four games of 2010: 20 carries, 121 yards (6.1), one touchdown
Next four games: 65 carries, 431 yards (6.6), five touchdowns
Final five games: 119 carries, 770 yards (6.5), seven touchdowns

His workload increased as the season progressed, but his per-carry averages held steady. The 225-pound Davis had quickly turned into a fabulous workhorse back and was expected to carry the Razorbacks' offense while starting quarterback Tyler Wilson got his sea legs. Then, of course, he broke his ankle.

The Hogs have thrived in Davis' absence, however. (Well, they have not necessarily thrived statistically, but they are winning games.) They are 9-1, with a road loss to Alabama the only imperfection. They rank sixth in the BCS standings and, after hosting Mississippi State this Saturday, they will have a chance to enter the national championship equation when they travel to Baton Rouge to take on No. 1 LSU. They have won three of the last four versus the Bayou Bengals, with the only loss coming by just three points in Baton Rouge two years ago.

We obviously have no idea whether Davis is going to play this year, or whether he is just practicing so that he will be more ready for spring football. But the fact that he is practicing in full pads is an indicator both that a) he is pretty far along in his recovery, and b) Bobby Petrino and his staff are at least considering tearing off Davis' redshirt.

The questions are pretty simple at this point: Is it worth it to lose a redshirt season for, basically, three to four games? Would playing Davis help the Hogs' cause? And not that we could answer this one without seeing him practice in person, but ... what exactly would Davis have to offer at this point? Would he be too rusty?

And ... do the Hogs need him?

Can Arkansas Make The National Title Game?

We should start from the top down, huh? The goal of playing Davis, of wasting a redshirt on a small handful of games, should be pretty obvious: Arkansas wants to win the SEC and, consequently, reserve a spot in the national title game. These goals go hand-in-hand, as a) BCS standings would potentially come into play in a three-way SEC West tiebreaker between 7-1 teams Arkansas, Alabama and LSU, and b) the SEC champion typically gets a chance at the national title. If Davis were just playing to get a few reps in, it might not be worth it to use up a redshirt season (unless, of course, Davis is simply planning on going pro after what would be his redshirt junior season next year anyway). At sixth with three weeks remaining, can the Hogs make up enough ground to make this worth the risk?

We are three weeks and change away from the selection of the BCS championship participants. Historically speaking, we pretty much know at this point who is probably going to get in. Of the 22 teams to have played in the BCS championship game since the 2000 season, 15 were already in the BCS top two with three weeks remaining in the regular season, and five more were ranked either third or fourth. Only two teams -- 2007 Ohio State and 2008 Oklahoma -- ranked as low as fifth with three weeks remaining.

BCS Championship Game Participants And Their BCS Ranking With Three Weeks Remaining:

  • No. 1: 2000 Oklahoma, 2001 Nebraska, 2002 Miami, 2003 Oklahoma, 2004 USC, 2005 USC, 2006 Ohio State, 2007 LSU, 2010 Oregon
  • No. 2: 2001 Miami, 2002 Ohio State, 2004 Oklahoma, 2005 Texas, 2009 Alabama, 2010 Auburn
  • No. 3: 2000 Florida State, 2009 Texas
  • No. 4: 2003 LSU, 2006 Florida, 2008 Florida
  • No. 5: 2008 Oklahoma
  • No. 6: none
  • No. 7: 2007 Ohio State

We have 'almost' had a couple of other dramatic rises, of course; 2001 Colorado ranked 15th at this point, while 2007 Virginia Tech ranked 10th, and both catapulted to third in the final standings. In 2006, LSU rose from 11th to fourth. Still, odds favor an LSU-Oklahoma State title game, and if one of those teams slip, it will be very difficult to get somebody other than No. 3 Alabama or No. 4 Oregon into the equation. That much is clear.

Arkansas does have a shot at No. 1 LSU in a few weeks, however. The Hogs hold a certain amount of destiny in their own hands. If they were to beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge in the final week of the regular season, voters would obviously take kindly to that. The problem is, to rise four spots, they still might also need No. 2 Oklahoma State to lose. The most likely candidate to take down the 'Pokes: No. 5 Oklahoma. With No. 4 Oregon unlikely and No. 3 Alabama very unlikely to lose, Arkansas would need to not only beat LSU, but also get some serious love from both computers and pollsters (and, of course, beat Georgia in the SEC title game). It is certainly possible, but this scenario still falls into the "longshot" category.

What Can Davis Offer?

Arkansas still does have a shot, however, so an all-in move by Petrino could still be at least somewhat justifiable. So the next questions become, a) does Arkansas need help in the backfield, and b) can Davis provide that help?

The second question is difficult to answer, of course, since every player returns playing at a different level. That Davis was so consistent from day one last season (even if he was receiving far fewer carries at first) is an encouraging sign, but without getting Injury Expert Will Carroll involved, it is difficult to gauge what Davis might be capable of, and how much rust he might need to shed. For the purposes of this column, we will pretend that Davis will be 100-percent, full-speed the moment he hits the field. How much assistance will that give to the Hogs, especially against LSU?

That answer depends on how much you trust Dennis Johnson. Arkansas' current starter, Johnson has ignited over the past few weeks. Nagged by minor injuries, Johnson carried the ball just 27 times in Arkansas' first six games, gaining a tepid 113 yards (4.2) in the process. In the past four games, however, Johnson has played at a Davis-ian level. He gained 160 yards on 15 carries against Ole Miss, 52 in nine against Vanderbilt, 86 in 15 versus South Carolina and 97 in just 11 versus Tennessee. That is a brisk 7.9-per-carry average since October 22. He has very much looked like a high-ceiling, No. 1 back recently, and he would presumably hold his spot if or when Davis returned. Depending on the gameplan, then (Arkansas is still a rather pass-heavy team, even when they are running well), Davis would not have much to add. Unless Davis is definitely going pro after next year either way, then tearing a redshirt off for two regular season games of six to eight carries sounds like a flawed idea.

In the end, it should be pretty obvious that Bobby Petrino is going to play Knile Davis if he feels Davis gives him even a one-percent better chance of beating LSU. And right now, only Petrino and staff know if that is even a remote possibility. Davis would have to overcome both rust and a killer LSU defense to make any sort of contribution, and the odds of that are not amazing. Seeing him trot onto the field would give Arkansas fans visions of Willis Reed, but "six carries for 19 yards in an Arkansas loss in Baton Rouge" is still the most likely option. But if Davis were to go pro after next year regardless of a redshirt season in 2011, then there really is not much risk in giving it a shot.