The Arkansas Razorbacks came into this season with a new Athletic Director, a new Head Coach, a new coaching staff, and a team made up primarily of either underclassman, with little on-field experience, or straight up freshman, that were playing football on Friday nights just last fall.
Along with the new coach (who is commonly touted as an offensive genius), came the new coach’s playbook, which is reportedly voluminous and complicated. So, in addition to having a very green team, the few upperclassmen we held onto had to learn a completely new offensive strategy from a coaching staff that is very different from years past.
Throw in our schedule, which is the toughest we have seen in years, and it is understandable why the general consensus was that the Razorbacks would be lucky to win even half of our games in this season of rebuilding. After the first few games, most folks residing outside the 501/870/479 area codes were pretty sure we wouldn’t see another win all year.
So it was no surprise to me last weekend, after beating #20 ranked Auburn, that all ESPN had to say was “How bad is Auburn? Even the Razorbacks could beat them!” It was no surprise, but it was still disappointing, because no one is seeing the big picture coming out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Honestly, unless you have seen every game, you will probably write me off as another one of those delusional drink the Kool-Aid Razorback optimists. But I am here to tell you, if you have watched every game, we wouldn’t seem nearly as delusional as everyone likes to believe.
First of all, yes, we were optimistic coming in to this season; primarily because of the much needed change in the coaching staff, as well as a few of the freshmen that they were able to pull into the fold right before signing day. Even in the midst of a last minute and volatile coaching change, we were able to not only keep ALL of our commitments to the former coaching staff, but were able to pick up Tyler Wilson (4 star QB), who was committed to Tulsa; and Joe Adams (4 star ATH), who was committed to USC. Both players have seen successful field time this year already.
In addition to those two players, we also had Ryan Mallett, Michigan’s 5-star QB out of Texarkana last year, transfer to Arkansas. He is red shirting this year (because of the transfer), but we sure are excited to have him for next year. We also had D’Anthony Curtis, Matt Hall (6’9″ 300lb OT), Jarius Wright, and Jericho Nelson; four 4-star freshmen coming in. The raw talent we have on our team right now is amazing. But they are young, and that was supposed to eclipse any prospect of having a competitive team in the 2008-2009 season. Sorry that us wee little piggies didn’t buy into that.
We started our year out with two non conference games that should have been absolute blowouts. Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe proved to be a little tougher than even the team had planned on, and we ended up squeaking by each team in the 4th quarter.
If you saw the games (and I did), you would have seen that our boys never got wide eyed… even facing double digit deficits at points in both games. You would have also seen that we had some really complicated plays that we pulled off with ease. Our offense looked incredible for much of both of these games, although at times it was inconsistent and there were some very obvious freshmen errors, which were to be expected. Our defense was anemic at best. With two seniors suspended, the senior leadership was indeed lacking and it was very apparent. In the first game, we were also missing our junior running back, Michael Smith (keep an eye out for this little dynamo that has been living in the shadow of McFadden and Jones for two years).
Our third week, against long time rival Texas, got postponed due to Hurricane Ike. As soon as we got the news, Petrino and his staff had the Bama plans printed and distributed to all the players. It has been widely reported that they switched game plans with an hour’s notice. THAT was impressive.
Unfortunately, having the extra time to prepare for Bama didn’t really help us much. They slaughtered us…in every direction. That was a letdown because usually the Arkansas-Alabama game is a toughy for both teams; coming from the same conference, there is a lot of natural rivalry present. This was the game that we all started realizing just how much work still needed to be done.
Turning around the following week and playing the Texas make-up game, we didn’t fare much better. They pretty much ran all over us as well. I didn’t see this game (maybe thankfully) because I reside in North Carolina where ABC chose to air the Seminole game instead, but I did get to listen to it via RazorVision. It was dismal. The amazing part about this was how the players and coaches seemed as perplexed as the fans…they knew how they practiced during the week, but something just wasn’t jiving when they took the field. At this point, from the interviews with the players, you could tell they were starting to get a little miffed.
The next game in our brutal series was against Florida. They had just been taken down by Ole Miss the week before and we knew that Tebow and the gatorboys were going to roll into Fayetteville with a chip on their shoulder. We didn’t expect to win this game, especially after Bama and Texas steamrolled us, but what we saw during the game was certainly uplifting.
The final score really wasn’t indicative of the game that was played. We were solidly in that game all the way through the 3rd quarter, at which point we imploded as a team and got blown out. However, overall, I was very pleased with our performance in this game.
Our O was dynamic, and our D did a great job of holding Tebow. We forced Timmy to throw his first interception in over 200 pass attempts. In the 3rd quarter, we were down by 10, we actually had a shot, things were going great, then it all fell apart in the 4th resulting in a final score of 38-7. I can tell you, we were certainly the happiest fans that ever got beat by 31 points. That is because we had been watching, and we knew it was a turning point.
Going into Auburn, even prior to Tuberville firing his offensive coordinator, we were feeling pretty good. Not wanting to get our hopes too high, we knew that we actually had a shot of pulling out a win, if we could just keep it together through the last quarter. We knew Auburn’s offense was nowhere near as good as ours (mainly due to the fact that they can’t decide on a QB and stick with it), but we knew their defense was definitely one of the best, ranked in the top 5 in the entire nation…and we weren’t quite sure, as dynamic as our offense has proven to be, if we could take the physicality of their D. But we did. We did everything we were supposed to do…we played the entire game, even the 4th quarter. Both offense and defense stepped up and played VERY well…resulting in a 25-22 much needed victory for the Razorbacks.
Now, to anyone that hasn’t watched Arkansas or Auburn play this year, the rational excuse here was that Auburn was in disarray over the abrupt dismissal of their O-coach, so of course Arkansas could take them. For those of us that have watched the Razorbacks AND the Tigers this year against varying opponents, Auburn did not play poorly compared to other games they have played this year. Their offense looked like it was getting tired in the third quarter, but they rallied back in the fourth. Tuberville, a master of the clock, made sure his Tigers had every opportunity for a come back up until the last seconds of the game.
Getting down to the last minute of the game, we were faced with punting the ball from our own end zone. Petrino knew that with our less than confident special teams unit, and a successfully blocked extra point by Auburn earlier in the game, that this was a risk we should not take. He decided it was a better bet to send senior punter, Jeremy Davis, out of bounds behind the end zone, giving Auburn a 2 point safety (putting them within a field goal of tying the game), than to risk a repeat performance of the earlier play. It was a wager that paid off. With less than a minute left on the clock, Auburn’s offense started moving down field on us relatively quickly, until Matt Harris intercepted a pass with 29 seconds left on the clock, securing our 25-22 victory.
We showed up, we played hard, we pulled some great new plays out of our bag, and executed them stunningly. We won the old fashioned way; we outplayed them. Even after the game, Tommy Tuberville commented that Arkansas was a better team than Vandy, no question. And yet ESPN made not one mention of the vast improvement seen in Arkansas, to them we won for no other reason than Auburn sucked.
So, here are my questions…isn’t it at least possible that Arkansas has a MUCH better team than anyone (besides us fans) realizes?
Does it not prove anything that the two teams that ran over us are ranked first and second place in the nation? And that those same two teams actually have an awesome chance of being the contenders in the National Championship this year?
Does it not prove anything that Florida, who looked down right sleepy against us, but looked rather bouncy against LSU, is ranked fifth in the nation and we were actually able to run with these boys for 3 quarters? Does it not prove anything that Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow both said that they played their best against us and Urban was quoted as saying that Arkansas has a very good offensive strategy?
Is it possible that the Razorbacks have turned a corner and while they still have a ways to go, could actually secure a bowl game this season??
Finally, is it possible that Arkansas can win the rest of its games?
In my opinion, yes. If you look at the remaining schedule, we still play a lot of well respected teams, such as Tulsa, who is still undefeated (albeit against a very weak schedule), Ole Miss (who is likely a much better team than anyone realizes as well), Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and good ole LSWho. However, if we have really hit our stride, all of these games could well turn out in our favor.
At the beginning of the season, I optimistically called for us to get 8-9 wins. That is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. I believe that we can win most of our remaining games. Furthermore, I do not believe that LSU will be the ones to beat us. I truly believe we have the better team and with it being our last game of the season, our freshmen will have an entire season of experience securely behind them.
I do think that we may lose one or two more games (just due to our stunning shade of green), but I think it will be to less suspect teams like Mississippi State or Kentucky. But again, there is the possibility that we will pull the rest of them out. I just have to wonder at what point we will start feeling some love from ESPN …probably never…at least not until we get a National Championship under our belts…which by the looks of things, may happen sooner than anyone thought possible.
One thing I know for sure, next year, we won’t lose nearly as many key players as we did this year. Our QB is a senior and will be replaced with 5 star Mallett (6’7″) who has almost a year of experience as a QB on a successful Division 1-A team. We already have a 5 star and several 4 star commits for next year and we will have a whole stable full of sophomores that have seen plenty of field action against some of the toughest teams in the country.
Our former coach, Houston Nutt had been long chastised for not being able to put a fence around the state of Arkansas and sign our in-state talent (like Kodi Burns at Auburn). Bobby Petrino will have no such problem, having already shown his skills in bringing in four and five star players from other states…many other states, not just the ones that border us.
And still, ESPN will continue to show their bias and give us no kudos. And because of that, our opponents won’t be expecting much from us. And that might not be a bad thing.