The 2012 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic was actually the final game of the Razorbacks' 2011 season, was played in a stadium other than the Cotton Bowl (where AT&T service likely was sketchy due to network traffic) and it was anything but a classic. Now that I've gotten my quasi-Voltaire opener out of the way, a just dissection of the game can begin.
It isn't folly to assert that Arkansas's 29-16 win over Kansas State merits a GW Bush-style "Mission Accomplished!" banner being draped on the exterior of the Broyles Complex. The Razorbacks' crude, bewildering performance was still somehow dominant, and the byproduct is the university's first 11-win campaign and season-ending Top 5 ranking in over three decades. They didn't come to paint, although there were times during the exhausting four-hour affair that I felt like one of the Petrino brothers was drawing up plays in crayon.
As is commonly the case in bowl games, the box score from Friday's game was inadequate as a guidepost of the Razorbacks' dominance. The Wildcats only scored two touchdowns and had only one sustained, productive offensive drive. Tyler Wilson had an unremarkable game statistically (216 passing yards, touchdown throws to Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton) but was generally on target; conversely, the Wildcats' Collin Klein was victimized by dropped passes and butchered by a Razorback pass rush that produced a season-high six sacks. It was by no means a complete performance, but as was the case when it handily vanquished a solid South Carolina team back in November, Arkansas was largely responsible for all the points on the board...for both teams.
Six weeks between games is profoundly ridiculous and seemingly avoidable, though I'm not inclined at this time to elucidate the ways and means to overhaul this clunky, inefficient engine known as the BCS. What I do know is that for all the visible and understandable flaws that this hiatus created, Arkansas did what it did basically all season long: started slowly but authored enough big plays to take control of a game against a lesser opponent. As fate would have it, departing players did the lion's share of the work, with Joe Adams igniting a stagnant team with yet another electric punt return, Wright tacking on the last 88 receiving yards of a record-setting career and Greg Childs and Broderick Green making big catches and runs. Jake Bequette closed out his march toward the NFL with two more sacks and Jerico Nelson capped off the win with his longest-ever interception return.
Looking back, what Arkansas did en route to its finest season since Jimmy Carter and Leif Garrett roamed the Earth is an odd mix of phenomenal and frustrating. Playing an entire season without its best player — and that's not to disrespect anyone on this squad, but to simply emphasize the value of a player like Knile Davis — is hardly a prescription for success, but the Razorbacks ably overcame that deficiency. Injuries to Bequette and Tenarius Wright torpedoed the Hogs' admittedly faint hopes in Tuscaloosa. Garrett Uekman passed in November. The Hogs narrowly escaped disaster in the first trip to Dallas and the jaunts east to Oxford and Nashville. They played lights-out in Fayetteville, a welcome development that has loomed large as recent rumblings about abandoning War Memorial Stadium games have surfaced.
The Razorbacks' long-term health will depend greatly on their ability to get out of their own way. They were crippled by laggardly first quarters here and there, and because the defense failed to carve out any kind of identity as a stopper, Arkansas seemed to suffer greatly on the rare occasions that it turned the ball over. The nucleus remains strong for 2011, but now that the Hogs have solidified themselves as an upper-tier program, the appeal to banner recruits is only enhanced. It is one of the nation's most profitable programs, per a frequently retweeted Forbes report, and it now carries more cachet than it ever has.
Trouble is, as the Arkansas brand improves, so does that of the SEC at large and particularly so goes it for the titans in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge that played for the crown Monday night. Alabama's thorough beating of LSU in the title game may have very well discouraged Hog fans who wonder how the hell we are supposed to excel when we have a virtual NFL expansion team on our schedule every September. The reality is that Arkansas is just as far removed from the Nutt era as Alabama is from the Mike Shula regime; in many ways, our progressive advance to this point is as pronounced as the one that Nick Saban has overseen to the southeast. At some point, perhaps we'll catch the Tide at ebb.