Let it not be said that Rick Reilly doesn’t know how to find his way to left field. This week he wrote:
Grub’s, the best college bar in America, will nearly come unhinged when Arkansas wins the BCS national championship over Oklahoma. It’s the first national title for Arkansas since 1964, when it went undefeated under Frank Broyles. (Yet Alabama, which lost its bowl game to Texas that year, still claims it as theirs. Whoa, Tide!) Anyway, chili cheese fries for everybody!
This paragraph hits two notes I usually take with a nugget of salt: Rick Reilly making predictions, and anyone saying Arkansas is going to win anything. I mention the latter as an Arkansan who can tell you exactly where he was when Clint Stoerner fumbled against Tennessee in 1998, when Reggie Fish dropped a punt against Florida in the SEC title game in 2006 and when Ryan Mallet gifted a late pick to the Ohio State D in the 2011 Sugar Bowl.
Under both Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino, the Razorbacks have tended to play almost precisely in that gap between what’s expected of them (usually a fifth-place finish in the SEC West) and what they’re capable of. Once in a while, they’ll bottle lightning, knocking off Texas or squeaking past ’Bama or smoking Auburn or winning the only two seven-overtime games in history. Against LSU the past four seasons, in games that accumulated four overtime periods, Arkansas is 3-1. The Hogs of recent vintage have been, in one regard, better than the Tigers, minus the titles. Mostly, they’re just good enough to break your heart.
But Arkansas fans rarely see beyond the high points when they hear national media predictions. Part of that is a subtle disappointment that not everyone who covers college football for ESPN displays the same reverent homerism of the in-state reporters. But there’s also an indignant streak mirrored in other Southern states, surely. Having determined that football played by teenagers will be a chief cultural touchstone, and having decided that support for sport will surpass, in many regards, actual education or development in the state, Arkansans can’t bear the thought that no one notices the Hogs nor cares as much as they do. And there’s some truth to the feeling of being overlooked. When the Hogs have ended the season ranked in the past decade or so (#12 in 2011, #15 in 2006) they have begun the season ranked lower (#17 in 2011, unranked in ’06). They tend to be, not unreasonably, underrated.
Which brings us to Reilly’s prediction, which is both absurd and strangely plausible. Arkansas lost three games last year, all to teams that were ranked No. 1 at some point in the season, and all in close contests. (Weird as it sounds, that 65-43 Auburn loss was much closer than it might appear.) The receiving corps goes five deep. The running back corps, even accounting for a preseason broken ankle on its top returner, goes three or four deep. The starting QB, Tyler Wilson, is green but promising. The defensive line might be the best the school has had in 20 years. Petrino has taken to announcing a line his father instilled in him: “Potential my ass; it’s performance that counts.”
The bad news is an untested o-line and a schedule full of sharp objects: at #2 Alabama, at #4 LSU, plus #8 Texas A&M in Dallas, with home games against #23 Auburn, #12 South Carolina and #20 Mississippi State. But beat ‘Bama and that table could be run. Heck, lose a game on that slate and maybe you still play for the SEC championship — and the last five teams to win that game went on to win the national title.
Aaaaaand now Reilly’s got me talking crazy, too. But what the hell. It’s late August. If you can’t picture the Hogs winning the title now, you’ll never get to.