Right At Home In The SEC

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jason Allen has the unique distinction of being Arkansas' last quarterback to play in the Southwest Conference and the first to take a snap in the Southeastern Conference.

Allen, who led the Hogs to a 14-13 victory against Texas in 1991 in Little Rock, can't believe how far Arkansas has come since joining the SEC in 1992.

On Saturday, Arkansas will kick off its 100th game since joining the SEC when it hosts No. 10 Georgia at 6 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

"I think it's come light years from when I played," said Allen, an Oklahoma native who works for Tyson Foods. "Nothing against where it was then, I just think we had hit a low cycle as a program in where we were at that point and it was just exposed greater when we went to the SEC."

It didn't take long for Arkansas to make an impression as the Hogs beat South Carolina, who joined the SEC the same season, in the 1992 opener and stunned No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville.

"That was like throwing down the calling card," said Ron Higgins, a columnist with the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "You just don't go into Knoxville and win.

"But it was like, 'Here you go! We're Arkansas! We're here! Deal with us!'"

The addition of Arkansas and South Carolina was part of former SEC Commissioner Harvey Schiller's failed vision of a "super conference" he hoped would eventually add Florida State, Miami, Texas and Texas A&M to its membership. Lots of those who followed the SEC closely didn't exactly think of the Hogs and Gamecocks as an upgrade.

"From that perspective, both Arkansas and South Carolina came in here with a little baggage," said John Adams, the long-time sports editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "And I think a lot of SEC fans have looked at them and what did they bring to this league and I wondered that myself."

Despite being a sub .500 team in the SEC (46-51-2), Arkansas' football program has brought a sense of competitiveness that has earned the respect of most around the conference.

In comparison, South Carolina is 35-65 since joining the SEC.

"I think Arkansas has done an outstanding job of blending in to this conference," said Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who has been in the SEC since 1982. "When you play Arkansas, you know you're going to be playing a team with what you would call a lot of SEC players.

"They've been consistently one of the best programs around the league."

Arkansas has won three SEC Western Division titles and has played in the SEC Championship game twice, although the Hogs were routed by Florida (1995) and Georgia (2002).

Some are amazed by how far the Razorbacks have come considering the recent NCAA probe and the small population of the state. Others wonder if the Hogs will ever be able to take their program to the next level by winning an SEC championship and becoming a regular in the Bowl Championship Series picture.

"I think of Arkansas as an eight or nine-win, mid-level bowl-type team, and I don't see it dropping far below that," Adams said. "My question is, 'Can it get better than that? On its best year, can it go 11-1 and compete for a national championship like (coach) Houston Nutt said he wanted to do when he took the job (in 1998)?'.

"That's the question that hasn't been answered."

Earning Respect
After being called a "traitor" by opposing fans during its last season in the SWC, Arkansas was not welcomed with open arms into the SEC.

"I just remember it being a big respect factor," Allen said. "It was like, 'Hey, you're stepping up into the big time! Who do you think you are? We're going to welcome you!' and those kinds of things."

Respect, and surprise, came after the win at Tennessee and even more so after running back Madre Hill helped lead the Hogs to their first Western Division title with a 6-2 record in 1995. They lost 34-3 against Florida in the championship game.

"That's when people started realizing the possibilities," said Hill, now a graduate assistant with the Razorbacks. "Before that, I think a lot of people didn't respect our talent and still kind of looked at us as outsiders.

"But after that, they still didn't have to like us, but they had to respect us."

Between the '92 win at Tennessee and the '95 championship run, the Hogs gained a reputation as a team that could upset anybody at any time.

In 1997, they knocked off No. 11 Alabama and No. 14 Mississippi State.

"If you're a team that's playing for a national or SEC championship, you don't want to play Arkansas," Adams said. "Not early in the year. Not late in the year.

"And certainly not in Fayetteville or Little Rock."

Changing Gears
The Razorbacks quickly realized needed different types of athletes to keep up in the SEC.

"In the SEC, speed is the No. 1 priority," Hill said. "Through recruiting, we have gained more speed. When I was here, there wasn't as much overall speed as there is now. Looking at this team as a whole, they're a lot faster than us."

Said Higgins: "Arkansas in the Southwest Conference was in slow motion. The SEC plays at road-runner speed."

The first two seasons in the SEC were especially tough, especially with opponents fielding bigger and faster players than the Razorbacks had ever faced.

"The size and the speed of the teams we were playing were better across the board," Allen said. "Yeah, we had Isaac Davis, Henry Ford, Darwin Ireland and some players that stood out at their spots, but then we looked at the Tennessees, the Alabamas, the Auburns and the Georgias and they had players that we simply couldn't stack up against.

"We still played hard and stayed in it and usually would get beat in the fourth quarter because we didn't have the depth."

The change in recruiting finally came to fruition in 1995 under Danny Ford.

"That's when we truly started competing," Allen said. "I think that's when we began to find our identity and we beat some teams that we weren't supposed to. And I think that's been a defining moment in our program."

Arkansas director of football operations Louis Campbell was on the coaching staff in those early SEC days and remembers what it was like playing with less than a full deck.

"Back then, we were happy if we could go .500 in the league," Campbell said. "Now everybody is upset if we don't go to the SEC Championship (Game) every year.

"So that just shows how much the expectation levels have been raised since. And you can see how far our talent level has come up with the way we're able to compete day-in and day-out against the top programs in the league."

Raising Expectations
When Nutt arrived in 1998, Arkansas had the talent, it just didn't have the leadership to take the next step.

But Nutt breathed fire into the program by instilling a winning attitude and enthusiasm, components that didn't exist during Ford's five seasons.

"Even when we were winning in 1995, we didn't get too many pats on the back," said Hill, who played for both coaches. "We got a spark with coach Nutt coming in. He pretty well laid the groundwork for the program because we needed a facelift and we were coming from a completely different coaching philosophy.

"He came in with an upbeat, positive attitude and it trickled down to the players. He had positive reinforcement that we responded to well and helped our team truly blossom."

In fact, the Hogs have won more games than any other team in the SEC West since Nutt was hired.

"Since Houston's been there, they've really flourished and competed week-in and week-out," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, a Camden native. "They've added a lot to the conference. I think coach (Frank) Broyles (Arkansas' athletic director) moving from the old Southwest Conference years ago to the SEC was a big move, not only for our conference, but for Arkansas."

Even most of those early critics now agree.

"I think it was certainty a smart move in hiring and keeping Houston Nutt as its coach," Adams said. "I think he's good for the league. I think he's one of the top-four coaches in the conference.

"They always play with a lot of emotion and I think Houston Nutt has only enhanced that because I think his teams are good in big games and are good in an underdog role."

Despite how far the program has come since 1992, it's evident the media's expectations of Arkansas remain low since the Hogs are regularly picked by SEC reporters to finish at or near the bottom of the Western Division every year.

"I think what they are waiting for is for Arkansas to be consistent throughout a season," Higgins said. "With Houston, you've either started fast and finished slow or started slow and finished fast -except for his first year (1998) when they came flying out of the gate and ended up in a bowl game against Michigan. That was really the only season they stayed consistent all the way through.

"Since then, they've been very streaky. You don't know what to expect out of them."

Adams has watched Tennessee out-recruit the Hogs for some of the top players in Arkansas such as tailback Cedric Houston (Clarendon), defensive lineman Greg Jones (Jonesboro) and receiver Bret Smith (Warren).

"That makes me wonder about Arkansas' recruiting," Adams said. "To me, it can't afford to lose its top in-state players to another SEC school. It doesn't have enough of them. I can't see why anybody that's from Arkansas wouldn't want to play for Arkansas.

"But then, maybe it's the fact that they don't see Arkansas competing for a national title."

Nutt offered some rebuttal.

"Tennessee can't lose its top recruits from Memphis to us every year," Nutt said. "We go and get Kenny Hamlin (a starting safety for Seattle's Seahawks) and three or so recruits out of Memphis every year.

"I know they can't lose that."

In Arkansas' defense, recruiting did hit a lull from 2000-2003 as the NCAA investigated the program because a booster overpaid some players during summer employment. Arkansas, which was placed on probation, still is paying for that as the Hogs sport 10 fewer scholarship players than the NCAA allows.

"I think it's a long process, especially when you've been handcuffed," said Nutt of reaching SEC elite status. "Now that (the NCAA) stuff is behind us, I think last year's recruits were better and this year's group is going to be even better, so you keep building.

"To get to that next step, that BCS level, I tell you, it's a who's who conference when you say 'LSU, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee'

"This is real football."

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