Congratulations, Arkansas fans. The Razorbacks just knocked off Ole Miss in a hard-earned SEC road game, and improved to 6-1 overall.
The celebration should end right...now.
Coming into the game, Arkansas sat at No. 9 in the BCS poll. Barring a major upset higher in the poll or a loss by Oregon, Arkansas will likely flip with Oregon for the 10th spot when tomorrow's polls are released. Today's performance, 'victory' aside, did not look like a No. 9 team. Over the next few days, armchair quarterbacks and radio show hosts will likely hand out a number or explanations or excuses for the lackluster performance, including but not limited to, "It's the SEC, it's always tough," or "It was the first game off of a bye week, they were rusty," or even "It was an early kickoff, and early kickoffs make road games even tougher." I won't elaborate on these, except to say, "Tell that to Alabama." If Arkansas wants to compete with The Tide consistently, excuses such as these just won't fly.
I will, however, introduce my own theory about why Arkansas scraped past one of the worst teams in the FBS today: They have failed to capture the value and power of old-fashioned rivalry.
It should be obvious to Arkansas fans. Houston Nutt is our old coach. He left under massive scrutiny and controversy, taking 3 million Arkansas dollars with him to Ole Miss, a division competitor, leaving in his wake a football program on the rails and in the cellar. His replacement, Bobby Petrino, came to the team with his own controversy, but no one could legitimately suggest Petrino was not a good football coach. Even many of his critics during this period pointed out that Petrino is known as one of the most keen offensive minds in the game, on any level. However, what caught many of us off-guard were the sudden claims that combined with their questions (and outright assassinations) regarding Petrino's character, were the claims that Houston Nutt was a "great coach," and that Arkansas would "regret" letting him go. Were these guys reading the teleprompter backwards? Petrino, average coach with questionable character. Nutt, future Hall of Fame coach and stand up guy. Something was amiss.
Arkansas fans, without any further detail, these are ingredients for a rivalry.
Let's discuss rivalry for a moment. Dictionary.com provides a rather bland definition of rivalry:
However, they provide better insight with synonyms: opposition, antagonism; jealousy. These are the real stuff of rivalries.
In the 2008 matchup in Fayetteville (a game attended by the author), Ole Miss pulled out a fourth-quarter victory, and left the field to chants of "Hous-ton NUTT! Hous-ton NUTT" from the visitors section. Razorbacks fans were even treated to Houston Nutt's own son spitting on the Razorbacks logo at midfield (see antagonism, jealousy). The gauntlet had been thrown down.
In 2009, Arkansas traveled to Oxford full of confidence behind the arm of Ryan Mallett and a quartet of young receivers who were beginning to make noise around the conference and even nationally. Surely, Arkansas would return to Fayetteville victorious, and Houston Nutt would be seen for the clown that he is. Right? I mean, that's how we all feel about this game. Isn't that the case?
Sadly, the day did not belong to Ryan Mallett and Bobby Petrino, but Jevan Snead and Houston Nutt as well as Dexter McCluster, who posted career numbers on the day, after having sat for most of the season, inexplicably, and came into the contest on fresh legs. Did Houston Nutt delay McCluster's season just for this game?
In 2010, a much-improved Arkansas offense defeated Ole Miss at Razorback Stadium, despite a strong second-half comeback attempt by the Rebels. Surely now, they will burn effigies of Houston Nutt on Dickson Street, right? Well...no.
In fact, though many Arkansas fans are open about their dislike for Nutt and sing the praises of the day Bobby Petrino arrived in Northwest Arkansas (December 11, 2007, to be exact), many members of the media as well as a startlingly significant portion of the fanbase seems ready to "move on" from the Houston Nutt era. We don't need these "distractions" they claim. "It was four years ago." Listen up, Arkansas Sports Media guy: Tell that to the Yankees and the Red Sox.
If you want an explanation for why Arkansas, who, on paper and in the polls should dominate Ole Miss every season, yet seems to struggle against this team every year, look no further than Houston Nutt's halftime sideline interview during today's game: "This is an emotional game." Really? I mean, I thought we were supposed to "move on"? The history of the game, at least from the Ole Miss sideline, would suggest he means it, and his team gets it.
Houston Nutt, of whom I am no fan, gets that one thing: The value of a rivalry, however "contrived" or "four years ago" it may seem to some, and he knows how to get his players to play for that rivalry. Our inability to recognize this as a team, a coaching staff, and a fanbase, and capitalize on it with, in the immortal words of Ezekiel and Samuel L. Jackson "great anger and furious vengence", nearly cost us a game, and ultimately, the hopes of a season. It may have anyway, depending on how the polls view our "victory."
I'm sorry. There is no other explanation that captures the reality of what we have witnessed not only today, but for four years. We don't get fired up for this game, and they do. It's "just another game" to us. It has all the ingredients of a rivalry that would swing heavily in our favor, yet, we seem to be afraid to throw the match.
Today, we escaped Oxford with a win, but we may have been exposed. Not as a team that isn't really very good, but a team that doesn't play with (please forgive the Nuttism...) heart, and a team that doesn't know how to recognize that it's been made a target. This singular game should be a lesson in the value of this idea, and the lesson should make us a better team, not only against Ole Miss, but every other team we face.
If we are all very lucky, Houston Nutt will remain in Oxford for one more season. If he is gone at the end of the year, we are forever stuck with this reality: 2-2. That's the best we could do during the four years Nutt chewed his nails on the Ole Miss sideline. With any luck, we'll at least get a shot at 3-2.
I am glad we pulled out the win. Perhaps, as I said, it doesn't necessarily indicate that we should be worried about the rest of the schedule as much as it indicates how Nutt prepares for this game. But I'm bothered by the fact that we can't do better than a narrow 5-point victory against one of the worst teams in the nation, with several of its starters on the sideline with injuries, and I can't help but wonder if it's just because we didn't care as much as they do. That is a loss in itself.
Perhaps if we had been paying attention all along, we would be 4-0, and Dictionary.com would replace "Harvard and Yale" with "Arkansas and Ole Miss."