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September 11, 2012

HURT: They're not giving up at Arkansas, yet

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | The college football season is barely two weeks old and Arkansas coach John L. Smith is already urging Razorback fans not to abandon ship.

"This is the same football team, the same program, the same coaches as before," Smith said at his Monday press conference. "They deserve (the fans') support, we need the support. Either you are in the boat with us or you are out."

"Before" refers to a happier time, back when the Razorbacks were ranked in the top 10, when they had quarterback Tyler Wilson healthy and no loss to Louisiana-Monroe on their resume. Now, the mood outside the football complex in Fayetteville seems apprehensive, and the players on the inside are talking in terms like, "We've got John L.'s back." (That was from Razorback safety Ross Rasner.)

Under the best of circumstances - an undefeated season still going, Wilson unscathed rather than fighting the aftereffects of a concussion, running back Knile Davis back to his 2010 form, no rash of other injuries that includes the top two fullbacks - Arkansas would have been an underdog to Alabama. But Smith rejected the proposition that "the mountaintop" - a win over the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll - had become unattainable.

"I don't think it's any higher than it was," Smith said. "We're just going to make the changes we're going to. And and then go out and get after it.

"They are big and physical on defense," Smith said, describing the Crimson Tide. "You have to get a little knock off the ball, be able to run against them. They do a great job in the secondary. You just have to have a great game plan against them and execute it well.

"As you start to play the better teams, you find out your long gains turn into medium gains, your medium gains turn into short gains. You have to be under control. You have to understand that you aren't going to just be able to throw it up at will and score."

That brought Smith back to the question of who would be doing the throwing for the Arkansas offense. The Hogs' interim coach didn't entirely rule out Wilson, but it is hard to imagine the recovery speed that would be required for someone still experiencing "grogginess" Monday to be ready to go against Alabama - or any Southeastern Conference defense - by Saturday.

Smith said having Wilson would be "icing on the cake," hardly words brimming with confidence concerning his status. The likelier quarterback choices are Brandon Allen, who came on in relief and took the loss against Louisiana-Monroe, or Brandon Mitchell, who has played more at wide receiver than quarterback.

"The first thing we have to do regardless is run the ball," Smith said, returning to an earlier theme. "Beyond that, I think Brandon Allen will be fine. He knows how to play the game, and we (coaches) know that he can play."

Despite that, Smith said any final decision on a starting quarterback would come later in the week. And none of the sudden uncertainty seems to have rattled the confidence of the Arkansas players.

"We still feel like we are a top-10 team in the nation," tight end Chris Gragg said. "And we are 0-0 in the SEC. I know our coaches are going to have a great game plan. We just have to execute."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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