Arkansas won a football game last weekend. Sadly, that’s news.
It was even bigger news in Auburn, where Arkansas’ 24-7 win Saturday has some Auburn fans wondering if coach Gene Chizik (who won the national title just two years ago) deserves to keep his job. That’s how bad it is at Arkansas this year. If you lose to the Razorbacks, maybe your coach should be fired.
You don’t cheer in the press box, but you do generally wish good things for some players and teams, and I wished good things for Arkansas after I visited back in August. The season hadn’t started and the Razorbacks had been through a lot already. Head coach Bobby Petrino had been fired back in April (if you’re not caught up: He wrecked his motorcycle, his 25-year-old girlfriend was with him, he’s married, she was engaged, he gave her a job in the football program and a $20,000 bonus, now go wash your hands). John L. Smith (assistant under Petrino and former head man at Louisville and Michigan State) was coming back to run things, but on the choke chain of a 10-month contract. Despite that, folks in Fayetteville had so much hope. The Razorbacks had top-shelf talent on offense. The schedule set up beautifully, with Alabama and LSU (their only two losses in 2011) at home. Smith and his players -- especially quarterback Tyler Wilson, who delayed a shot at the NFL to come back -- didn’t hesitate to talk about Petrino. They also didn’t hesitate to talk about how they were gunning for the national title.
That ended in Week 2.
Louisiana-Monroe -- scheduled as a warm-up for the SEC -- came to Little Rock and converted a fourth-down pass for the tying TD, then a fourth-down QB scramble to win the thing in overtime. The Warhawks knocked Wilson out of the game, and he didn’t play the next week against Alabama. In the game Razorback fans had circled way back in January, it rained all day and Alabama won 52-0.
Think about that: Legitimate national title hopes, to 52-0 in three weeks. Skydivers don’t fall that fast.
Detailing the rest of the season amounts to kicking a hog when he’s down.
Wilson said some of his teammates quit on the team during the Alabama game. (Just a quick reminder: Wilson didn’t play in that game.)
Arkansas lost at home to Rutgers.
It turned out that Smith, who announced before the season that he’d have to file for bankruptcy, was in the hole for more than $40 million. (How does a football coach end up $40 million in debt? One bad land deal at a time.)
Smith referred to his team as “Alabama” at a booster luncheon.
Arkansas got crushed 58-10 at Texas A&M.
Several key players are hurt, including defensive end Tenarius “Tank” Wright – the Razorbacks’ best defensive player -- who’s out for the season with a shoulder injury.
This sort of thing happens in college football more than any other sport. It’s a short season played by young men jacked up on emotion. Most don’t have the maturity to find the brakes when things start rolling backward. One bad loss can crush a team for weeks. Two bad losses -- say, dropping one to a Sun Belt team, then losing to a big rival 52-0 -- can flatten a whole season.
So it was a surprise to see Arkansas whip Auburn at Auburn. It was especially surprising to see Arkansas’ defense take charge, forcing five turnovers and recording eight sacks. WR Brandon Mitchell, also a backup QB, threw a sweet touchdown pass off a reverse. Smith referred to the correct team in his postgame remarks. It was the best day the Razorbacks have had all season by about 20 miles.
Their goals have to be smaller now. They can beat the next three teams on their schedule (Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tulsa). They can hope to scare one or two of their last three opponents (Mississippi State, South Carolina, LSU). Wilson can work on his skills and hope the NFL’s still interested. John-El can practice explaining his credit report to new employers. Maybe the basketball team will be good.
Some fans want Bobby Petrino back, of course, even though he pulled loose the rock that brought the whole building down. Petrino has proven two things in his career: He knows how to coach football, and he can be trusted as much as a carnival psychic. He’ll wind up somewhere, Arkansas fans, and when his new team races out to an 8-0 start, just remember the yin that is bound to follow that yang.
The worst part about all this is that teams like Arkansas don’t get many chances. Their only national title (and it’s a disputed one -- other polls picked different teams) came in 1964. It’s hard for a relatively small state to recruit five-star players from outside the borders. You just have to hope team, coach and schedule all hit their peak at the same time. It’s like waiting for a shooting star. Except this one burned a hole all the way through the season.
Nobody knows who next year’s coach is going to be. Nearly all the best players are leaving. The Alabama and LSU games are on the road again. If you remember the biography of Bill Clinton, you know there’s a town in Arkansas called Hope. But Hope is a long way from Fayetteville.