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The biggest win of a year that isn't over


ONE STEP CLOSER: Joe Adams and the Hogs topped LSU and now await their bowl destination.
  • ONE STEP CLOSER: Joe Adams and the Hogs topped LSU and now await their bowl destination.

Arkansas fans should be getting pretty familiar with the odd Rube Goldbergian operations of the BCS this week. Lots of outcomes have to fall in place, get checked off the list and tumble like dominoes before postseason fates are sealed every season. An apt analogue for the selection process might be the elaborate automatic breakfast preparation that begins "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" — only our eventual morning meal would be a meeting with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl.

I like that matchup, both in terms of our chances and what it means for the program going forward and indulged in a little premature note-taking during what most northerners call simply The Game this weekend. While the Buckeyes took care of their biggest rival in short order on Saturday, I'm not sure we haven't beaten better teams this season. Enough gun-jumping, though: there'll be plenty of time in December to assess our bowl opponent, whatever team that may be, and Arkansas already played and won its biggest game of the season.

To quote Bobby Petrino: "Whew!" What a glorious performance. The Razorbacks overcame a sloppy first quarter to explode right before half. By the end of the third, LSU looked thoroughly beaten. When Knile Davis wasn't muscling the ball down their throats, one receiver or another was making their coverage look foolish. By now you've relived those moments again and again, and that won't be the end of it. We may never forget the details of this game.

Those helpless safeties slamming into each other at Cobi Hamilton's feet. That little dance Joe Adams used to hypnotize a cornerback. Ryan Mallett's "legendary" bullet to Hamilton on the sideline. The endless television timeouts that repeatedly confounded our eagerness. The point in the game where Davis ran the ball so well that Petrino couldn't even think about calling in a pass play. Jerico Nelson's pure ownage. That hilarious "Sacred Hoops"-like ESPN segment with Garrick McGee and Mallett's chinstrap beard. Alex Tejada's tackling skills. That final minute and a half when we all thought the refs might find a way to screw us over. The near-safety/fumble that sealed the deal and the victory formation that wound down the clock in the most respectful way possible.

High-level performances propagate more high-level performances. Recruits see Ryan Mallett throwing for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns two seasons in a row and take note. Recruits do a double-take at three of our receivers accruing 600-plus receiving yards. Recruits find a disconnect between our defensive performances and our defensive reputations. Recruits recognize a coach who knows how to put his team in a position to win. Recruits notice how many players get a chance to make something happen every week and file that away in the dreams.

More important than anything Petrino has done as a head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, he has begun to instill a culture of winning. That means not simply coming out on top in 10 of 12 regular season games, but also feeling fairly certain that the team is capable of winning all season long. It means remaining competitive in every contest, losing only according to the breaks of the game rather than some native lack. Clearly, this program is finding its way back to that level, and there's every reason to believe and expect that it will be there into the future. Coaches, players and administrators move on, depth of experience waxes and wanes, but the culture of winning is a lasting thing.

I'm glad that the Hogs are enjoying the prospect of a Sugar Bowl berth. A BCS appearance would be great for the program. The players would have a lot of fun and get an opportunity to perform on their biggest stage yet. But more important than any series of events — any circumstance that places them in contention with this team or that and in this bowl or that — is the overwhelming sense that they belong among the best teams in the country, that they could play and win against any team in the country.

I think many commentators underestimate the number of players who feel that way at the end of every season, and in turn how that sense of accomplishment resonates throughout the rest of their lives, how it binds them to their teammates and, further, to a given community. One day, maybe soon, I'll use this space to share my thoughts on the BCS system. The debate between playoff and status quo is in the air, as it is every season, but it seems to be reaching new levels of partisanship. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this: If we're going to find any value in amateur sport, regardless of what some computer or voter or hypothetical tournament outcome suggests, the final assessment — the only assessment that truly matters — is determined by a player's heart.

Follow Derek Jenkins throughout the week and during games on Twitter @aboynamedsooie.

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