Last year, and now again this year, the excellent Arkansas blog Razorback Expats and A Sea of Blue have exchanged questions prior to the game between the two schools. Stephen and John do a great job covering the Arkansas Razorbacks, and once again, they are back to answer my questions about the 2008 version of the Hawgs with former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino at the helm.
After all the bruhaha with Houston Nutt last year, and after losing Darren McFadden and Felix Jones to the NFL, Arkansas still managed an upset of perennial power Auburn on the Plains. That was a bit of a surprise, but can the newly-resurgent Razorbacks run out of Commonwealth Stadium with another upset? Let's find out.
Without further ado, let's get to the Q & A:
First off, let me ask a question about Bobby Petrino. How did Arkansas fans feel when Houston Nutt left and Bobby Petrino walked away from the Atlanta Falcons to take the Arkansas job? How do they feel about that situation now?
Ah yes, the patented Razorback coaching drama! The Houston Nutt thing was complicated...we won't rehash that whole story here, but the quick summary is that various controversies had left the fanbase extremely divided, and people were frustrated that the Hogs had never quite lived up to the potential of having once-in-a-lifetime talents like McFadden and Jones on the team. Personally, we were always in the middle (recognizing some good and bad things about Houston), but it did seem like that, after 10 years, he had worn out his welcome and it was time for a fresh start.
Nutt's departure was followed by an extremely embarrassing coaching search in which the job was seemingly dangled in front of every halfway decent coach in the South, with the only result being that a lot of guys got fat raises to stay in their current positions (random side note: we've since learned that most of the candidates who didn't take the job have been cursed). So, when we wound up getting Petrino it was both surprising (by that point, most people had resigned themselves to a lackluster hire) and exciting (Hog fans were eager to find out more about this newfangled invention called "the forward pass"). In short, people were psyched.
Fast forward ten months and people in Arkansas are still feeling really good about Petrino. Yes, there are some - ahem - issues with the way he's left past jobs, and we're not under any illusions that he's a Razorback for life. But, he also knows what he's doing on the football field and has injected a lot of excitement into the program. The other thing to understand is that after generations of being the butt of jokes, Arkansans are a tightly knit bunch, so when Petrino was subjected to the white hot (and
fairly over the top) rage of the national media for daring to leave Atlanta it created a 'circle the wagons' effect that probably made people like him even more. To sum up, this has been a tough year on the field, but optimism for the future has probably never been higher in Arkansas.
Arkansas was expected to have a very young team this year due to the loss of McFadden and Jones, as well as having some defections and the usual transitional difficulties with the coaching change. Has the season so far been better, worse or about the same as you expected?
Well, before the season started a lot of people caught Petrino fever and had expectations that could only be described as ridiculously high. And to be fair, we had a bit of that Kool-Aid ourselves, picking the Razorbacks to win six games this year.
But, after struggling to avoid being humiliated by two bottom-feeding teams, and then getting utterly whipped by three of the best teams in the country, it's safe to say that expectations have been reset to a more realistic level. We'd say that, right now, most Hog fans realize the team simply isn't very good and that this is a build-for-the-future kind of year. At this point, the expectations and performance are matching up pretty well, although it would certainly be nice to pull off another SEC win or two (if Arkansas fans could only win one remaining game, I think Ole Miss would be a near-unanimous pick).
Right now, Arkansas is 88th in total defense, giving up almost 390 yards per game, largely due to getting pounded on the ground at a 208 yard/game clip. But Arkansas has just been through a meat grinder of Alabama, Texas, Florida and Auburn, and has played the second-toughest schedule in the league next to Georgia. The schedule seems to get easier now. Do you think that brutal early schedule will help the Razorbacks against Kentucky? If so, why? If not, why not?
Yeah, that schedule was pretty insane. Over the course of three weeks we played three of the top five or six teams in the country (including the current #1 and 2) and gave all of them ample opportunities to show off why they're so highly touted. It was painful.
But, now that we've run that gauntlet and even finished it with a big win over Auburn (which, to be fair, isn't the same team it was even a few weeks ago), things are looking up. I wouldn't say that the impact of schedule will be a game-changer against UK, but having played all those teams and lived to tell the tale probably helps us a bit, just in terms of confidence and knowing that the worst (probably...knock on wood) is over. The key thing is that we got the win last week...if you'd talked to us before that I would have given you an answer about how the schedule had crushed the spirit of a young team. Now, though, I'm guessing that they feel more battle-tested than anything.
Arkansas is coming off its best game of the year against perennial SEC tough-guy Auburn. The Hawgs were able to convert over 50% of their first downs, and racked up 188 rushing yards against an Auburn team that had been one of the toughest against the run. To what do you attribute Arkansas' success against Auburn, and do you think it can continue against Kentucky? Do you think Arkansas could suffer a letdown after its big win vs. Auburn?
Last question first: A letdown is a very real possibility. This is a very young team that just experienced its first conference win, its first road win and its first win that didn't leave you feeling more embarrassed than happy (as their alarmingly close wins against mighty non-conference foes Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe did). And after the brutal beatings of the preceding three games, the team had to be on Cloud Nine after Saturday's victory. So, yeah, the potential for a letdown is very real.
As for the first part of your question, one of the frustrations of the Hogs' season before Saturday was that the offense would frequently mount long drives, only to sputter around the 30-yard line or so. On Saturday, they finally made it into the end zone a few times, although the offense still got bogged down in Auburn territory more often than you'd like. Overall, the game was probably closer than it should have been: Arkansas dominated Auburn statistically, but costly interceptions and terrible special teams play helped keep the Tigers in it until the final seconds.
Saturday's win was much-needed for the team and much-appreciated by Hog fans, but it remains to be seen if it was more the result of an improved Arkansas team or of an Auburn team that appears to be in a free-fall.
Kentucky has the #1 scoring defense in the SEC and is in the top four in most defensive categories. How do you think Arkansas will go about attacking the UK defense on Saturday?
Even though the Hogs currently rank last the SEC in total rushing yards for the season, junior running back Michael Smith has recently emerged as the offensive star of this team. He averages 119.8 yards on the ground a game; he's versatile, too, hauling in 43.4 receiving yards per contest. He's small, so there are concerns about his durability, concerns that have only grown stronger in light of the failure of a solid back-up to emerge. He is sure to be at the center of Petrino's game plan on Saturday, and if he's ineffective, it's very hard to see Arkansas winning.
As you know, the passing game is a big part of Petrino's offensive philosophy, and the Hogs rank third in the conference in total passing yards, so they will attempt to complement Smith with an air attack. But quarterback Casey Dick has had an up-and-down season, and the receiving corps is young and prone to mistakes, so this part of the Razorback offense can be rendered ineffective. Freshman Joe Adams has shown signs of emerging as a go-to receiver, so he's someone to keep an eye on Saturday.
Kentucky is third in the league in turnover margin at +1 per game, and Arkansas is dead last at -1.6/game, but Arkansas has turned the ball over less lately. How big of a factor have turnovers been for Arkansas this year? Have most of the turnovers been forced, or unforced, in your opinion?
Turnovers have been a problem for the Hogs this year, although they were so thoroughly beaten in their three losses that you could hardly say turnovers were the only reason they lost. Still, this is a team with a thin margin for error, and, as mentioned above, turnovers helped keep the Auburn game in doubt until the final seconds. Off the tops of our heads, we'd say that most of the turnovers have been unforced (two of Casey Dick's three interceptions against Alabama had to be among the ugliest of all-time).
Overall, the defense and special teams have been in a season-long battle for the title of "Biggest Problem on the 2008 Razorbacks."
Right now, UK looks a lot like Auburn in that they have a strong defense but a weak offense. Do you think that this is a better situation for Arkansas on the road than playing a powerful offensive team? Finally, what do you think the final score will be?
We definitely think it is a better situation for Arkansas. Up until the Auburn game, the defense had looked pretty horrid (although, admittedly, that was a pretty weak offense the Hogs faced last Saturday). Going up against a high-octane offense on the road would surely spell doom for the Hogs (see Longhorns, Texas). Come to think of it, going up against up a high-octane offense at home would also surely spell doom for the Hogs.
As for a game prediction, we're kind of torn. Part of us wants to believe that they Hogs have turned a corner and that, with the Murderer's Row portion of the schedule mercifully out of the way, they're ready to grab a few wins and finish the season on a positive note. The other part of us knows that Auburn's defense was a little banged up and that the Tigers appear to be a team in the midst of a collapse; that part of us fears that Saturday's victory will, as the weeks go by, appear less and less impressive.
Still, for the sake of being positive, we'll say that the Hogs will win another nailbiter, 24-21.
We'd like to thank Stephen and John for doing the Q&A with us again this year. As always, it is great to get the excellent insight on the Razorbacks that these guys are able to provide.
Be sure to visit Razorback Expats for the other half of the Q&A.