It has come to this.
One Little Rock television station had a licensed therapist analyze the depths of despair Arkansas Razorback fans have fallen into after Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama.
The major news this week on the Arkansas front has been basketball recruiting and excitement toward basketball season.
Tickets for the Arkansas-Rutgers game are going for $10 apiece on one ticket site.
Rick Schaeffer, probably the most optimistic person on talk radio, agreed with a caller that if Arkansas doesn’t defeat Rutgers on Saturday, this season could result in a miniscule win total for the Razorbacks.
It’s both perceived and real.
Most of the Arkansas fan base has lost all confidence in the coaching and motivational ability of interim head coach John L. Smith, whose news conferences rival the shake-your-head, muff-the-ears of those YouTube videos by the women with the Hog hat and adhesive tape.
Much consternation has resulted from quarterback Tyler Wilson emerging as not only the leader of the team but the torchbearer for the whole program. Saturday, while Smith admitted he didn’t know what to say to the media or the team, and other coaches used the tired cliche, coachspeak of “We’ll just have to go to work and get better,” Wilson passionately told it how it was. He even called some of his teammates out. He accepted accountability and took ownership.
Now, for the reality check that was masked somewhat brilliantly by coaches and other observers of the program in preseason:
• This Arkansas team has too many holes and players lacking the skillset, particularly defensively, to be either conference or national title contenders. It’s probably a six- to seven-win team at best and possibly even if Wilson were healthy. That’s considering this is four- or five-win defense.
• That said, Wilson, who has really become the de facto interim coach, is more valuable to this team than everyone realized. Psychologically, he’s one who possesses the intangibles to turn what is realistically a six- to seven-win team into a eight- or nine-win team.
• I’ll admit I’m biased because he’s a friend and I’ve been a longtime admirer. That said, I advocated this during the motorcyle-crash spring and I’ll stand by it now: The best choice for interim coach at the time was assistant Tim Horton. He has the admiration and respect of most in the state and he’s a class act and there were reports that he was the coach recommended by the staff, Most importantly, he gets it, both what it means to be an Arkansan and the expectations that go with the Razorback tradition. Not putting him in charge is the greatest mistake Athletic Director Jeff Long made in that situation.
Now, here’s a reality check from another perspective:
• Alabama was projected as a loss in preseason, regardless of circumstances, by most of those who knew both programs. Only in a perfect storm would the Hogs have a chance to down the Tide.
• Louisiana-Monroe is a gritty, scary team that is better than expected.
• Outside of a handful of teams, the SEC seems to be down overall this year. If you judge the conference as a whole, it is not the best league in America this year even though it could still produce the national champion. You can certainly make the case that the revived Big 12 is stronger from top to bottom. Alabama and LSU appear great to really good. Georgia and South Carolina, possibly Florida, are pretty good. Kentucky seems pretty bad. Most of the rest, you can throw into a pile and draw names on any given Saturday.
• That said, if the Razorbacks can get a confidence-building win over Rutgers, then escape the passion and cultural shock with Texas A&M at College Stadium, they have a reasonable chance of making a nice October run that can carry into November.
All this is against the underlying current that this coaching staff now realizes that most of them will not be at Arkansas next year. They are human and they have families. They’ll no doubt be looking to their futures and making whatever connections they can for their next job. How that will affect their focus in the next few weeks is uncertain. They’ll all say the right things publicly, but it’s got to be the elephant in the meeting room, weighing on them privately, at least to a variable degree.
So, Rutgers, a ho-hum opponent at the beginning of the season, now shapes up as a huge game, the lynchpin for the rest of the season. The wheels could really fall off — both within and outside the program — with a loss.
Rutgers the key game of the 2012 season? It has come to this.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)