Four years ago, Bobby Petrino arrived in Fayetteville and started proving himself from the start. Arkansas’ new coach promised to unite a fan base that had been fractured in the months preceding Houston Nutt’s ignominious departure, and started fulfilling that with a 5-7 season throughout which the team markedly improved. Ryan Mallett came aboard the next season and began smashing every passing record in sight on the way to an 8-5 finish and a Liberty Bowl win. In 2010, Arkansas rose yet another level with 10 wins while losing to defending national champion Alabama and eventual national champion Auburn in fairly tight games. Yes, the Hogs lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but reaching a BCS bowl was another sign things were pointing up. Anything seemed possible for Petrino, who’d done the near-miraculous in three years.
Now, this season.
10-2 should be a great record. It should represent consistent excellence. Yet something doesn’t sit well.
It appears Arkansas’ improvement has stagnated, especially in light of recent years in which the Hogs appeared on the cusp of breaking through against Florida and Alabama, playing them tough to the end. Had a couple calls gone the right way in those games, a couple mistakes avoided, the Hogs win. There was something comforting in the thought that Arkansas could have won those games, and as it improved would win them.
All pretenses of closing the gap were double nuked in a 38-14 September loss at Alabama and last week’s 41-17 loss at LSU. College football’s best teams manhandled Arkansas on both sides of the ball.
It’s possible that after the Hogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead on LSU they could have stayed ahead longer. What if Dylan Breeding hadn’t punted the ball off the right side of his foot, inadvertently misleading the coverage unit and setting up LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu for a 92-yard touchdown return late in the first half?
Or, a little later, what if the refs ruled running back Dennis Johnson had possession of the ball when his back hit the ground at LSU’s 39-yard-line? Instead, they ruled he fumbled, setting the Tigers up for a drive which would put them up 21-14.
In the end, though, it was the superior athletes on LSU (and Alabama) inflicting the mortal wounds, not Arkansas itself. Hog receiver Jarius Wright admitted to as much: “If we were in another conference, we probably would be playing for a national championship. Unfortunately, we’re in the SEC West with two great teams.”
There will always be at least a couple great teams serving as Arkansas’ benchmark, whether Florida two years ago, or Auburn last year or LSU this year (and Alabama every year). No matter the opponent, for Arkansas to start winning more SEC statement games than it loses, it needs more game-changers. Such a development appears more likely on offense, where Arkansas could improve next season despite losing three senior star receivers. The offensive line will gel, Knile Davis should be healthy and it’s possible Arkansas will land the nation’s top recruit in receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
But it’s hard to imagine the defense improving much, especially when this was the season it was supposed to emerge as one of the SEC’s best. Instead, LSU battered Arkansas for 286 running yards on 46 carries. While Arkansas defenders totaled two tackles for yard loss (6 yards in total), LSU defenders made 7.5 tackles for yard loss (54 yards in total).
You will know Arkansas has true game-changers on defense when it prevents these kind of rushing stats against an elite SEC foe while racking up similar tackles for loss numbers.
Quite simply, the Hogs need to recruit bigger and better defenders (in the near future, linemen and linebackers are especially critical) and see a higher percentage of its defensive recruits turn into stars. The Hogs must tackle better and more consistently, which would make playing tighter man-to-man pass coverage possible (something rarely seen against LSU). The latter problems can be ironed out with improved coaching, but more intimidating defensive players will continue to be a major challenge for Arkansas’ coaches going forward.
Everybody wants the next Tyrann Mathieu, Nick Fairley or Barkevious Mingo, but these All-American defenders tend to grow up in states like Florida, Alabama and Louisiana as fans of the local programs with which they eventually sign. Wresting a couple similar talents from the Deep South is only one challenge facing Petrino. He must also decide whether someone else could do a better job than current defensive coordinator Willy Robinson.
To elevate the Hogs from a No. 3-caliber program to a No. 1-caliber one, UA coaches and administrators have a quite a challenge ahead of them. Indeed, the Razorbacks’ brass next test of mettle is turning bronze into gold.
Originally published in Sync magazine.