It didn't take much to realize growing pains were imminent after two dozen seniors and five underclassmen departed after successful careers. In their place, the Hogs were leaning on a 10-member senior class, 18 new starters and several freshmen to navigate a schedule that included five ranked opponents.
The recipe for disaster came to fruition after Friday's season-ending, 43-14 loss to No. 14 LSU in Little Rock knocked Arkansas out of postseason consideration for the first time in Nutt's tenure. No one was prepared for the unusual feelings that go along with the early ending, but Nutt vowed the Hogs (5-6, 3-5 in Southeastern Conference) will spend the next nine months searching for solutions.
"It was unfamiliar territory when you're so used to getting ready for practice and setting up a schedule and all those things," Nutt said during Sunday's season-ending press conference. "That's disappointing and hopefully it won't ever happen again."
The Razorbacks will hold a season-ending team meeting this afternoon and Nutt said the work will begin almost immediately.
Nutt said several members of the staff were recruiting Sunday evening and will be on the road this week. Offseason lifting and conditioning programs will kick off later this week and Nutt said the Hogs should expect "a very tough offseason."
But Nutt said his returning players will welcome the challenge because of the bitter end to the 2004 season.
"They're going to be a lot hungrier," Nutt said. "Knowing that they've already tasted the feeling for the first time in a long time to hear about everybody else, six straight years, talk about what they got for Christmas. Where they went. The watch they got and the team they got to play. Now they get to sit home and watch everybody else play. I think that will be a sick feeling, a very motivating feeling.
"We want to get back to where we're supposed to be and work a little bit harder."
In the end, Arkansas was done in by an inability to make plays in close losses to Texas (22-20), Georgia (20-14) and South Carolina (35-32). The Razorbacks were plagued by turnovers and miscues during those three games.
"We could've easily won eight games as well as five," said freshman fullback Peyton Hillis. "Maybe this is just a sign for next year that we'll be even better."
Georgia and South Carolina were part of a four-game losing streak that tested the confidence of several youngsters. The Razorbacks were battered by consecutive losses at Florida (45-30), at Auburn (38-20) against Georgia and at South Carolina.
The four-game losing skid equaled the longest under Nutt. It also put the Razorbacks in must-win situations against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU.
"I can't remember when we lost that many in the middle of the year like that," Nutt said. "But, after the South Carolina game, to be able to regroup, refocus, say, ‘We're going to win this ballgame somehow, some way.' You know deep down inside there's not a lot of confidence. I thought that was a turning point to get ourself back, to get to Little Rock and to be able to fight for a bowl game.
"You just knew South Carolina was going to come back and haunt you. Deep down inside, that's the one you let get away."
As a result, the Razorbacks will miss out on bowl practices this month and won't step on the field until spring drills kick off in March. The 15 to 20 workouts for Arkansas would've been valuable opportunities for young players.
"Here's what hurts the most and makes you so sick is not to be able to go practice 15 to 18 to 20 practices of (quarterback) Robert Johnson, (receivers) Anthony Brown, Cedric Logan, who I thought was coming after he got over his injury," Nutt said. "All these guys, plus the guys that played this year that are young and still so inexperienced. To be able to go out and just get an extra month ...
"That's what, you wake up, you're just sick about."
But Arkansas will use offseason conditioning and spring practices to prepare to replace influential players like quarterback Matt Jones, tailback DeCori Birmingham, receiver Steven Harris, defensive end Jeb Huckeba and defensive tackle Arrion Dixon. The 10-member class was influential during their careers, but Huckeba said he sees plenty of promise in the returning Razorbacks.
"In the future, this team can be a more consistent team and they have a big future," Huckeba said. "This program is going nowhere but up with coach Nutt."
The Razorbacks will return 16 starters (7 offense, 9 defense) from a young team that learned valuable lessons in 2004. The biggest keys will be preparing an offense to operate behind new quarterbacks and improving a defense surrendered chunks of yardage without big-time players at linebacker or in the secondary.
Nutt said those will be challenging tasks that must be accomplished if Arkansas wants to return to postseason play next winter. But, if nothing else, the Razorbacks know they'll have plenty of experience returning next fall.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Nutt said. "I always feel like we're going to win and thought that way and prepared that way. We'd just like to do a few things better and we've got to do a lot of things better to improve. These guys are going to be a year older, keep getting better and go to work recruiting.
"It's always better when you have experience coming back. You have a year under your belt. I think all those things will help."
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