Arkansas assistant coach Nick Holt has seen plenty go wrong with his team in the last couple weeks.
He’s seen the Hogs lose their top quarterback, best cornerback and best two fullbacks. Then he watched a Sun Belt team take full advantage with an upset that many consider the worst loss in program history. And even within the confines of his Broyles Complex office, he’s surely heard something from the chorus of dire prognostications surrounding his squad as it heads into this afternoon’s showdown with No. 1 Alabama.
Nobody outside of Arkansas gives the Hogs much of a chance against the national champions. If the Hogs couldn’t beat Nick Saban the last two years, when they had a non-stopgap head coach and healthy star quarterback, what chance have they now?
But before writing this team off, consider Nick Holt has seen something else.
It happened five years ago, when Holt was coordinating the defense of powerhouse Southern Cal, a team that shared plenty with these Crimson Tide. USC was essentially the mid-2000s version of Alabama. Like the Crimson Tide, the Trojans had rolled through their first few games as favorites to win another national title.
Like today’s Crimson Tide, the ’07 Trojans had pumped out two national titles in the previous four years, had the game’s consensus best head coach (Pete Carroll) and had just replaced their offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian for Lane Kiffin). Like Alabama, USC had also signed enough consecutive top recruiting classes, giving the program more depth than a Darren Aronofsky flick.
It’s unlikely Nick Holt anticipated what would transpire on October 6, 2007, when the unranked Stanford Cardinal came to town. USC had waxed Stanford 42-0 the previous year, and for all the world looked as if it was going to demolish the Cardinal once again. The Cardinal had lost their first three conference games while breaking in a new head coach and defensive coordinator. They stumbled into the USC game without their senior starting quarterback, T.J. Ostrander, who’d been sidelined by a seizure.
Kismet, magic, a whole lot of luck (before Andrew)—call Stanford’s stunning 24-23 win whatever you want to call it. But in the end, the powerhouse Trojans simply had a rare off day—they gave up five turnovers—and the Cardinal played well enough to take advantage. The Cardinal defense, for instance, held stout on a critical 4th-and-goal right before halftime. Although their offense was out-gained by 224 yards, Stanford converted its only two fourth-down attempts. The backup quarterback came on to complete 11-of-30 passes for 149 yards, but he played smartly when it counted.
Sure, there are differences between these situations. Most notably, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was then a young up-and-comer making his first college coaching splash. Arkansas’ 63-year-old John L. Smith has been around the block once or eight times.
But like anything else in life that must be played out away from the Excel spreadsheets and algorithms which make up our modern life, football’s a fickle thing. Fickle enough that an unranked team can lose its top-gun quarterback and still upend the nation’s juggernaut du jour.
Nick Holt has already seen this unfold firsthand.
Could he again?