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Solidly second tier


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Nobody was delusional enough to think that a reeling Arkansas team would be able to summon any kind of miracle when the reigning titans of college football came calling last Saturday. When Tyler Wilson donned a headset instead of a helmet just before kickoff against Alabama, the die was cast.

Actually, that's not fair.

It was cast on Jan. 4, 2007. Nick Saban officially became the head coach at Alabama that day, spurning the Miami Dolphins after two middling years because he relished the challenge that wilted others: becoming Bear's true successor. Since that time, he has done everything in his power to cripple other programs, Arkansas principally. The impetus for a 52-point pasting of a once-proud team, what with its slew of proven returning assets and fleeting hopes of authoring a power shakeup after the past couple of seasons, begins and ends in the trenches. Alabama builds from the nucleus outward: linemen on both sides must be massive, agile and versatile. How many times has an All-American like Barrett Jones been shuffled around from one position to another and continued to play at the highest level? When a guy like Marcel Dareus leaves for the professional ranks and a massive rookie contract, another anchor like Jesse Williams is just casually dropped onto the chessboard. You can smirk and mutter about cheating and what-not, but until such conspiracies are legitimized, the fact is that Saban is the hardest-working coach in the country for 365 days a year. In 2008 and 2012, I feel certain he didn't take Leap Day off, either.

Arkansas has no physical toughness like this, and thanks to moribund, groan-worthy "leadership" from a bunch of coaches who will be fortunate to sling Amway products in six months, the Hogs are even less resilient from an emotional standpoint. For about 10-12 minutes of game time Saturday, with the crowd in that nervous posture with one fist in the air and the other hand squarely wrapped around the car keys, Arkansas played inspired and empowered. It did so not because of John L. Smith's magical butt-cuppings, as he demonstrated to Tracy Wolfson before crow-hopping his way to the locker room, but because it simply had no choice. Large kids though they may be, the Razorbacks have enough maturity to know that they can't simply trudge out before 70,000-plus and just play grabass for a couple of hours.

Then again, they also cannot send deep snaps flailing or let catchable passes deflect away or clang field goals off the uprights. Arkansas could not get out of its own way, as has become commonplace in clashes with the Tide. Once again, Alabama forced some errors on the Razorbacks' part, but simply allowed others to happen. All the while, AJ McCarron played error-free football, throwing simple but crisp passes, reading blitzes (to be fair, Arkansas's blitzes could be spotted by passengers in a Learjet overhead) and eluding whatever token pressure the Hogs attempted to bring. His stable of running backs was on point, seeing and exploiting running lanes and securing the slippery football nicely on a day where Arkansas fumbled a whopping eight times.

If what happened against Louisiana-Monroe left Hog fans staggered, then the achingly stark afternoon in Fayetteville was the knockout blow. The gulf between Alabama and Arkansas is gaping now, and you can assign the blame for that to Bobby Petrino, but not for the reasons you think. It wasn't a careening Harley Davidson that contributed to the problem.

The fact is that for all Petrino's wondrous play-calling ability, for his innate and clearly non-genetic vision for how to break down a defense, he could only reach modest heights on the recruiting trail and it ultimately left his team stalled at the second tier. His best team at Arkansas was the 2010 squad that reached the Sugar Bowl, and that team still could not close the deal in a home game against Alabama that for three quarters went about as well as it could. The Hogs systematically blew the doors off lesser squads the past three seasons but once faced with muscle, the fight went awry and often sharply. On certain, isolated occasions, the Hogs did display the ability to grind their way to victory, but let's not forget how often commentators fawned over our quick-strike ability. If you can score in a matter of seconds, it may make for beautiful homemade highlight reels on YouTube, but in yet another golden age for Alabama, it simply doesn't win titles.

And thanks to eight horrible days in September, the 2012 Hogs can take that vision off the board yet again. Tyler Wilson gave an impassioned, Tebow Lite postgame address that suggested he wasn't going to let demoralized teammates and inept coaches ruin his final autumn in Fayetteville. The cold reality of the program's stature should not keep him and other deserving players from putting together a commendable enough season to build a lucrative pro career upon.


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