Latest Team Rankings
Free Text Alerts
|College Teams||High Schools|
September 14, 2012FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | It was going to be about Alabama anyway.
If Bobby Petrino had never wrecked a motorcycle, it was still going to be about Alabama. If Petrino had never made an ill-advised hire of a woman with whom he was having a relationship, putting her on the payroll behind his athletic director's back, it was still going to be about Alabama. Had the Razorbacks not hired John L. Smith away from Weber State ... had ESPN talkmeister Skip Bayless not picked Arkansas as the 2012 BCS champions in the preseason ... had the Razorback defense not yielded 550 yards to Louisiana-Monroe ... had Tyler Wilson's bell remained unrung ...
It was going to be about Alabama anyway, and LSU later this year. Those are the two teams that dominated offseason conversation in this state, the two behemoths crowding out all of the sunlight not just at the top of the national polls, but - more suffocating for Arkansas - at the top of the Southeastern Conference and the SEC Western Division as well.
This was supposed to be the year in which Arkansas broke that stranglehold, at least in the collective minds of Arkansas fans, which includes, basically, the entire state. There is little dissent here when someone starts a cheer of "Woo Pig Sooey!" Arkansas is the only state in the entire SEC area in which there is no other team playing in the SEC or a major conference, or, as is the case in Louisiana and Missouri, with an NFL franchise.
For the rest of the nation to believe, though, Arkansas was always going to have to show it could get past Alabama. So in that sense, nothing has changed. But in another way, last week's loss to Louisiana-Monroe has changed everything. Suddenly, the Alabama game isn't the stage-setter for a coronation. It is the last-ditch effort to keep the Titanic from sinking.
First, the players have to keep faith in a coach who did not recruit them - although Smith is not unfamiliar, having served as an assistant under Petrino before taking the Weber State job last December and then returning. That also includes deflecting questions about Petrino, who is being thought of more fondly as his firing fades and the Hogs struggle.
"We are not even focused on what our previous coach would have done," Razorback safety Ross Rasner said this week. "We are in the here and now and in the present."
Smith, the former head coach at Michigan State and Louisville before coming to Arkansas, has the same philosophy.
"There comes a point where you have to tear off the rear-view mirror," he said, responding to a question about the loss but expressing thoughts that might apply to the entire span of six months of turmoil. "You have to say, 'What am I going to do from here?'"
It is a question that the entire state has pondered since April 5, when embarrassing details of the Petrino motorcycle wreck first became public knowledge, although its full ramifications took a few more days to unfold. Since then, Arkansas has resembled a "Twilight Zone" episode as much as a football program.
"In a word, the whole thing has been surreal," said Bo Mattingly, host of the "Sports Talk With Bo" radio program that is syndicated across the state. "The mood has been disbelief. The fan base has gone on a complete roller-coaster ride.
"When Petrino was here, the fans were really hopeful that they could beat Alabama and LSU. This was going to be year five for Petrino, the best year so far, and they were playing those teams at home, in Fayetteville."
With a favorable schedule and a big-time quarterback in Wilson, fans were able to overlook a few trifling concerns that ranged from the recuperation of star running back Knile Davis from an ankle injury - which caused him to miss the 2011 season - to graduation losses in the receiving unit to a defense that had never been upper-shelf SEC quality under the offensive-minded Petrino.
Then came the crash.
"After that, there was a whole cycle of emotions," Mattingly said. "Immediately after Petrino was fired, the majority of Arkansans understood that it had to happen. And After John L. was hired, those fans bought back into the optimism. They felt like he could keep things going. Paul Haynes (the new Arkansas defensive coordinator) has done a pretty good job in the Cotton Bowl. Paul Petrino was still here. John L. had only been gone for five months, so he knew the players, had worked with all but one of the coaches. He was going to keep continuity.
"Some people even thought the change would be a good thing in the short run. Here was a guy who was so different from Bobby. Petrino was a guy who was hard on everybody. In a one-year scenario, John L. might be a breath of fresh air. The fans thought back to 1998 when Houston Nutt came in and took a group of Danny Ford players that had been beaten down, then went 8-0 until Clint Stoerner fumbled in Knoxville."
All that optimism, though, required that the Razorbacks start strong and stay healthy. The season is still young, but neither of those things has happened thus far.
"We can't focus on that," Smith said, trying to stay positive. "All we can look at is what we can do going forward. So far, that has been good. I thought Tuesday was our best day of practice all year, and Wednesday was better than that."
Day-by-day practice reports will not entirely placate a fan base that has been focused on an entire triumphant season.
"People are outraged," Mattingly said. "They want somebody to blame. A lot of them are blaming John L., obviously. Some are blaming Haynes. A few are blaming Jeff Long (the Arkansas athletic director) for firing Bobby. But a lot of people know that if you have to start blaming, you start with Bobby Petrino. He is the one who created this mess in the first place."
If Arkansas can somehow pull a huge upset against Alabama - Las Vegas makes the Razorbacks more than a three-touchdown underdog - then most of the problems will go away, although Smith himself admits even that might not heal all the wounds.
"A cure-all?" Smith asked, responding to a media question on Monday. "I don't know if you ever get that."
There are questions beyond this season, too. Arkansas will either have to retain Smith or, far more likely, hire a new coach at the end of the season - and it might be a long time before Arkansas is talked about nationally with the gusto it enjoyed in the spring.
"The biggest glaring issue is lack of leadership," Mattingly said. "When you go from a guy like Bobby to someone as passive as John L., you have to notice. People had noticed, so by (last) Saturday night, that nightmare was already in the back of people's minds as a possibility. It was bad. You could just see the frustration. But by Saturday, the fans will start coming around. They will buy back in."
The question, then, is whether this game is an entire season - maybe an entire era - for Smith and Arkansas. Perhaps the Alabama game means that much. But then, it probably always did, even before last Saturday.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0225.