Friends and colleagues of mine continually assume that this post-apocalyptic string of Pearls is an escalating challenge from week to week. "Man, how are you going to write about THAT?!" is the general inquiry after another chapter of Razorback futility in 2012 is written. It will occasionally be delivered with any number of colorful modifiers.
Believe this: It's actually substantially easier to scrawl a "fan's perspective" style of column when the faction you represent is unspeakably pissed off. Arkansas fans reach a particularly rarefied level of lunacy when things are rotten. The past four weeks have engendered a rather awkward sense of unity. The fan base isn't fractured like it was at various data points on the Hog timeline of the past quarter-century. Instead, everyone generally agrees on the fundamentals: the coaching staff is historically and tragicomically inept, the roster is depleted in all the worst possible ways and any prospective fix is daunting.
Where the rumblings might turn aggressive is in the immediate aftermath of, say, a 48-point drubbing by an unranked Texas A&M team that's supposedly cutting its teeth on purported "big boy" football. Where things go sour is when passionate people start to wonder when it's the right time to put John L. Smith & Co. into exile mode. You'll doubtless find a measure of division on that question, because nobody can honestly point to an example — good or bad — of an interim coach being replaced with another interim coach in the midst of an already lost season.
Optimism has petered completely out for 2012, which I suppose is akin to saying that Keith Richards has done some drugs. When the schedule liberated the Hogs from their fishtank, they somehow looked more disjointed being the away team than they did in the span of four games in Arkansas. New Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin, a firebrand who inherited a fair nucleus from the deposed Mike Sherman, saw a lot of tape that made him salivate so he turned a redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel completely loose, and it paid off in spades. Manziel became the latest quarterback to turn the Arkansas game into a Davey O'Brien Award mixtape. Three of the last four QBs who have faced the Hogs have ended up winning their conference's Offensive Player of the Week honors, and the only one who didn't just happens to be the helmsman for the consensus top-flight program in the country.
As Manziel dissected the helpless Razorback defense to the tune of 51 unanswered points, his counterpart began to show tangible emblems of his own regression. Tyler Wilson has been championed for months for his poise, as NFL-ready as any quarterback in the country. Rain and utter desperation certainly betrayed him at Kyle Field, but for the first time since he became a starter, Wilson was completely out of sync despite receiving plausible pass protection for a change (zero sacks) and knowing that A&M's secondary was inexperienced and employing rather soft man coverage. There were a couple of terrible reads early in the game that squashed whatever hopes Arkansas had of staying in the game.
Wilson losing composure and zeal is something that seemed unfathomable a month ago, even if you felt like this team was massively oversold as a chic title contender and was really just an average SEC also-ran. The stark, sad fact is that all of the plaudits bestowed on Wilson were unfair, and he now bears the weight of all that praise and his NFL draft status is destined to suffer accordingly. Meanwhile, the coaches collect their paychecks and tick off each game on the schedule, readily embracing this newfound lame-duck status. I'm not saying that the losing doesn't cause them misery, or that it doesn't affect their long-term viability for future employment, but their collective margin for error was much greater. At least Knile Davis has the chance, if not the desire, to return to the team next fall to prove all of his fumbling and lost yardage was an anomaly.
The A&M game occurred on the heels of a titillating piece by Eric Crawford wherein the former Louisville Courier-Journal writer distilled the "Bobby Petrino effect." In summary, Louisville tanked when Petrino fled for the NFL and the consensus among former players was that once the atmosphere of intimidation and the obsession with minutia had vacated, the air went out of the balloon and the Cardinals couldn't gain footing again under the ill-fated successor, Steve Kragthorpe. It was germane to current events in Arkansas, what with the Hog locker room transitioning from a presumed Gestapo to something like Romper Room in a matter of weeks. Smith's demeanor on the sidelines couldn't be more antithetical to the pursed lips and piercing glares of Petrino, and the Razorbacks' performance reflects it.
That's not to be viewed as an endorsement of rehiring Petrino, regardless of how you may read it. The Hogs need that degree of player discipline again, but can ill afford the lack thereof from the headmaster himself. And you simply won't find that combination wandering the streets in October, so Smith & Co. have carte blanche to take this rickety old time machine right back to 1990 unfettered, much to our great dismay.