If you are an Arkansas Razorback fan it has been a pretty tough last few weeks. You have had to endure the embarrassment of Bobby Petrino’s actions and live in angst watching the highly successful head coach be relieved of his duties.
Then there was the time between his firing and the announcement of John L. Smith as the new head coach on an interim basis. While waiting on Jeff Long to make the call regarding who would be leading the Hogs on the sideline next fall, there were moments when the Arkansas faithful dared to dream that maybe Jon Gruden or Pete Carroll would be leading the Hogs onto the field. There was even some combination of hope and dread that possibly Gus Malzahn would travel across state and become the man.
However, now the unknowns have cleared up, the spring game has been played in front of a tremendous crowd, and it is time for Razorback fans to take a deep breath and think about one simple question as they look ahead to their 2012 campaign: What is really different today than when the 2011 season concluded?
The answer: not a whole lot.
After Arkansas whipped Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl and suffered its only losses of 2011 to the two teams that would line up to play for the BCS National Championship, Hog fans thought 2012 might find their team playing for all the marbles.
If those were the expectations then, they should be just the same today.
Here is why.
First, there is Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis. When 2012 starts Arkansas will have the best quarterback-running back combination in the conference. The hope is that a healthy Davis will make opposing defenses respect the Razorback running game. The result will be an even better opportunity for Wilson to make plays with his arm and hopefully not be subject to as many big hits as last year.
Second, the great hope the Cotton Bowl brought was that maybe, just maybe, the Hog defense would be an improved unit in 2012. Paul Haynes' arrival from Ohio State would lead to better schemes and leadership on that side of the ball. Given the results from the 2011 edition of the Arkansas defense, this should be an easy achievement.
Third, the schedule has 10 games where Arkansas should have more talent than the other team. This means that 10 times the Hogs line up they should be the team favored by the oddsmakers. The toughest opponent from the Eastern Division is South Carolina. History has proved time and time again that South Carolina tends to just lie down and quit when it sees a Razorback uniform.
The challenges that were there at the conclusion of 2011 are still the same ones that existed then.
Start with the schedule. Alabama and LSU still stand between Arkansas and a national championship. Of course, that also means these same two teams stand between them and even an SEC West title.
Let's look at Alabama. Arkansas gets to take on a reloading Tide defense early in the season. The Alabama defense will be very good in 2012, but when it comes to Fayetteville there will be several players lining up who will still be a little wet behind the ears.
Alabama’s offense loses Trent Richardson, but expect to see a unit that is more diverse as QB A.J. McCarron has more options to throw to. Also, don’t expect the Tide's rushing attack to slow down much as they still have a stable of running backs and probably the best offensive line in the nation.
How good is the Tide’s front five on offense? There is enough talent that Nick Saban was comfortable moving Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Barrett Jones to center.
The Razorback challenge: Beat the Tide. By the way, for all of Petrino’s accomplishments at Arkansas, he was never able to lead the Hogs to victory over Saban. Possibly a new approach to this critical game from John L. Smith may change this dynamic.
Then there is LSU. Arkansas has experienced success against LSU under Petrino, and even prior to his arrival. In this traditional regular-season-ending game Arkansas seems to have a way of getting inside the heads of LSU on a consistent basis and doesn’t seem intimidated by Mike and the rest of the Tigers.
Here is what Arkansas faces this year: LSU may be even better than it was last season when it was really good (except for one pretty big game).
LSU returns a talented group of running backs, Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary, an incredible defensive front and the nation’s best punter. Just as important, QB Jordan Jefferson will no longer be around to line up under center.
If Arkansas expects to become an elite college football team, it is not the 10 games it is expected to win that will be the difference. It will be how the team performs against these two powerhouses.
Beyond Alabama and LSU the Hogs have several vital pieces from the 2010 and 2011 teams to replace.
Jake Bequette was the heart and soul of the Hog defense the last few years and his pass-rushing capability will be missed greatly. All-SEC receiver Jarius Wright is gone as is dynamic playmaker Joe Adams. While Wilson has talented receivers to throw to, these are guys who will be hard to replace.
Even though almost every challenge is the same for Arkansas football today as it was just a few short months ago, there is one big difference: Bobby Petrino will not be calling plays. Yes, his brother, Paul, will be, but he is not Bobby.
Petrino was the second-best coach in the SEC and one of the nation’s best play-callers. He had a knack for knowing when to take a shot and this is a talent that comes not only from knowledge, but is also instinctive. What is not known today is whether Paul Petrino has that same knack.
So, Razorback fans, take a deep breath. On paper a great season is just around the corner, and if your team is able to get wins against the two big guys you will find your school playing for all the marbles this season.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Gary Brown is the author of the new book Summer School: Leadership Lessons From the Lady Titans.