J.R. and Henry: Pressure, criticism and opportunity come with the SEC head coaching job
In the head coaching business, pressure comes with the territory. And with the pressure and enough time, eventually comes failure. And if that failure becomes consistent, sparse criticism becomes widespread. Ask Arkansas Razorback head coach Houston Nutt. Even a 2-0 start in the Southeastern Conference didn’t silence his critics, who have grown in number and volume over the last few years.
But that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. It’s true at every program that has fans who care.
But along with the pressure and criticism, also comes opportunity -- the kind of rare opportunity that can revive a lackluster career and energize a fan base. Nutt and his Razorbacks had that kind of opportunity last Saturday against Auburn on the plains in Alabama. And for one of the few times in his nine-year career in Arkansas, Nutt took advantage, and Arkansas pulled away to a relatively easy 27-10 victory over the nation’s second-ranked team.
Going into the Auburn game, there was great confusion among the “Nutt Nation” as to why so many Razorback fans continued to criticize Houston even though Nutt and his Hogs had forged a 2-0 conference record. “We’re winning!” was the familiar refrain, “What are you complaining about?”
Well, many were complaining because after hearing for most of the off season that this Razorback team would be nothing like last year’s disappointing version, they instead saw an inexperienced and vulnerable USC team come into Fayetteville and roll over the Hogs 50-14. Patience is a virtue, but “wait until next year” starts to sound like an excuse for a gullible fan base rather than a genuine promise for future success if used too often. And conference wins over Vanderbilt (21-19) in a game that could have gone either way, and against Alabama (24-23 in 2OT) in a game where the Hogs were dominated and won thanks to freshman kicker’s meltdown, justifiably did not allay concerns that the team wasn’t demonstrating much improvement.
That all changed on Saturday. An Arkansas team dominate a legitimate SEC power. And while some may say that the Tigers were overrated at No. 2, Auburn was undisputedly the bellcow of the SEC West. At least until Saturday.
And it was not just that the Razorbacks won, but that they did it in convincing fashion, by simply dominating the Tigers in the trenches. The second half was a clinic of what successful SEC football has always been about. Controlling the ball, controlling the clock and running the ball. The Razorback offensive and defensive lines were the bigger men Saturday, and Hog running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were the primary beneficiaries, as each posted more than 100 yards rushing and a touchdown.
But don’t discount the legitimate threat that freshman Mitch Mustain gives Arkansas at quarterback. While he only threw 10 passes, he proved himself in the first two drives of the game and Auburn had to respect the possibility that he could burn the Tigers through the air for the rest of the game. In short, it was a total team effort. The Razorbacks were well prepared and focused, and Houston Nutt, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Reggie Herring all deserve plenty of credit.
As a result, and with Florida’s impressive win over LSU 23-10 in the Swamp, Arkansas has a de facto two-game cushion in the division race. Although the SEC’s tiebreaking rules where three teams are involved are more confusing than a Wally Hall analogy, with Auburn tangling with Florida next week, and LSU traveling to Knoxville to take on Tennessee, it could very well turn out that Arkansas need only to beat the two Mississippi schools and win one of three against South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU to represent the SEC West in Atlanta. At this point, anything other than a division crown would be a disappointment. Could even Rick Schaeffer have dreamed that a month ago?
With this win and with NCAA Division 1-AA Southeast Missouri State on tap for Saturday in Fayetteville, we hope Nutt will spend this week focusing on recruiting and leave the coaching to Malzahn and Herring. A blockbuster win, along with an SEC West lead and a national ranking, can get this staff into the homes of the kind of recruits that can make Arkansas more than an occasional surprise. Go lock up in-state players Lee Ziemba and Kodi Burns right now.
But before we think about next year, for the first time in too long, there’s actually something to talk about this year. Nutt deserves credit for taking advantage of his opportunity and putting his team in as strong a position as they’ve ever been at this point in the season. But use caution, Hog fan. Houston’s never been much a front runner. Take the 5-0 conference start and 6-2 finish in 1998. The team that was the recognized choice to win the West in 1999 that ended 4-4 in conference play. The 2003 team that went from the Top 10 to unranked after three games in October. Arkansas has been good for an upset now and again, but consistent success has been missing.
But those criticisms are for another today, perhaps and we hope only for yesterday. Very simply, Nutt got the job done Saturday, Arkansas is 3-0 in SEC, and a top 10 ranking is a very real possibility with this month’s schedule ahead.
Houston has put himself and his team in position. Now, what will he do with this wonderful opportunity?
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column at Little Rocking every Monday and Thursday.