State of the Hogs: Independence

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State of the Hogs:

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt isn't content with tying Ken Hatfield's record with a sixth straight trip to a bowl game. No, the Independence Bowl isn't just a reward for the players this time around. It's a game that has meaning for the Arkansas program and Nutt. If ever a staff and team wants a victory in a bowl, it is now.

Will a victory over Missouri change the way folks outside Arkansas view the Arkansas program? Probably not. The Tigers are unranked and a victory won't propel the Hogs into the national rankings.

No, the need for a victory is needed to quiet some of the naysayers that have been snipping at Nutt and his program over the past two seasons. Some have the perception that Nutt has underachieved over the last few years. Never mind that he's had to deal with an NCAA investigation. Never mind that he plays in the SEC, the nation's toughest league.

I can remember the early 1990s when Arkansas was the laughing stock of the SEC, and no better than Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Wins were rare in the SEC, and even nonconference games against Memphis State and Southern Methodist were lost with regularity.

We can all agree that the team is more competitive, but that's not the problem with the naysayers. They scream for a better passing attack and for fewer DWIs or arrests for disorderly conduct. They also gripe at the personal fouls and trash talking on the field.

These are legitimate gripes. Nutt leaves himself open for criticism as long as they continue.

But what this is really about is expectations, not about style of offense or off-the-field trouble. If you win, none of it really matters.

Nebraska is a perfect example. Tom Osborne's record was superb in the 70s and 80s, yet he could not win enough to satsify fans. Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer owned Osborne. Osborne had a sparkling overall record, but few titles. Switzer won at a higher rate, won more titles and that's all that mattered.

Switzer had the off-the-field problems with a team full of problem childs. But he won and was celebrated throughout the Sooner land. Osborne did everything right, had no problems off the field but was starting to hear the grumblings from fans because he couldn't beat Oklahoma and Switzer and win national titles.

So what did Osborne do? He lowered his standards. He began to recruit a few outlaws. His team improved and he began to win championships. Fans were happy and looked the other way as his players began to show up in the police blotter.

When Osborne retired, Frank Solich was hired. He promised to rid the program of the off-the-field problems. He did that. The problem was that he didn't win enough. He did things right, graduated players and improved the character of the team. But he didn't win enough. He's gone now. There's no surprise there.

Arkansas has won at a decent rate under Nutt. Things are better. I don't recall Nutt losing to The Citadel, Memphis or SMU. And he is 2-0 versus Texas and decent against some tough SEC teams. But now expectations are higher. He must win at an even higher rate to quiet the naysayers.

Those off-the-field problems aren't nearly the reason why folks are unhappy with the program. They want more victories and more titles. That's the nature of fans. Win, win, win. That's the only way to quiet them.

I understand it. It's nothing new. It's nothing I haven't seen through history. And, that won't change over the next 50 years. Winning is the only thing that matters.

Is that right? Nope. DWIs and personal fouls should matter, too. Trash talking should be something that should not be tolerated. It's something that doesn't belong anywhere.

But that will not be what causes consternation among fans ... unless there aren't enough victories. They will tolerate most things if there are enough victories.

So, the challenge for Houston Nutt and his team is to win the bowl game. They need to leave fans with a fresh image of a well-played game in December. They need to win a bowl game to satisfy the fans and boosters.

Never mind that it is only Missouri, and not a top 10 scalp. Win this one and the gripes will go away for a little while, perhaps until a recruiting battle is lost for some player that may or may not even qualify for admission. The gripes will start all over again.

It's the nature of fans. They want more and are never satisfied.

Is it all bad? Not really. Just reality.

Nutt feels the pressure. He's tried to change a few things for this bowl trip in hopes of turning things around on the scoreboard over recent bowl trips. He knows he's only 1-5 in bowls and wants a victory in the worst way.

Nutt has demanded more attention to football for this trip and less on nightlife. His seniors say they will help him monitor the team and have asked their mates to curtail late-night activities in search of the elusive bowl victory.

The coaching staff put the Hogs through tough workouts in Fayetteville before arriving in Shreveport. They worked them in heavy contact drills and did much conditioning. They were perhaps the most strenuous bowl workouts since Danny Ford put his squad through two-a-days in Miami Beach at the Carquest Bowl in 1995.

Many of the seniors wanted these tough workouts. They want to go out in a classy manner in the Independence Bowl. They said that a victory is the most important thing on this trip, not fun. They want a victory more than a reward for a hardfought season.

I'll try to go to Shreveport in hopes of a good game. I'd like one kinda like the one I saw in Lexington, that seven overtime thriller against Kentucky. I kinda expect something like that with Matt Jones and Brad Smith squaring off at quarterback.

If that happens, I'll be happy. I won't gripe or complain. I enjoy the competition of college football and understand that there will be a winner and loser every time out.

That means there will be happy fans and mad fans every time. That's just the way it is.

 


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