Ranked high in preseason, Arkansas now at bottom of pack

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas’ 2012 season started with a mixture of promise and turbulence.

Three months later, the wreck of a season lurches to a stop when the Razorbacks play LSU at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. All that is at stake for Arkansas is the “The Boot” trophy and the hope to at least see 2012 end on a high note.

The Razorbacks (4-7) expected to play for much more than pride the day after Thanksgiving.

Arkansas was coming off a Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State and was ranked No. 10 in the preseason polls.

Arkansas had top-tier offensive talent such as quarterback Tyler Wilson, tight end Chris Gragg and receiver Cobi Hamilton, and 2010 star Knile Davis was returning at tailback after missing the 2011 season with a broken ankle. The Razorbacks would score, score, score their way to victory after using the same model to go 21-5 the previous two seasons.

Even the firing of coach Bobby Petrino because of an off-the-field scandal during spring practice didn’t seem to dim the enthusiasm. Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long brought in former Razorbacks assistant John L. Smith to be the interim coach and the expected continuity would allow Arkansas’ talent to shine on the field.

That was the prevailing thought. Given Arkansas’ national ranking, the thought prevailed more than just in overly optimistic Fayetteville.

The wheels wobbled in a less-than-impressive season-opening victory against Jacksonville State and then came off in an overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe, a game in which Wilson missed the second half with a concussion. Wilson missed the next game, a 52-0 drubbing by Alabama.

The promise was gone by then, replaced by survivalism and the now-overarching wonder of whom Long would hire to save the program in 2013. Ugly losses continued to pile on: 58-0 to Texas A&M, 38-20 to South Carolina, 45-14 to Mississippi State.

As the losses added up, the overlooked weaknesses in the Arkansas juggernaut were exposed to the harsh light of SEC realism. The offensive line was erratic, the receiving corps had no playmakers after Hamilton and Gragg, the running game was inconsistent with the tentative Davis and the fumble-prone Dennis Johnson.

The defense had a quality front line but there were holes everywhere else and little depth. When injuries hit, and they hit hard this year, the young replacements were overmatched.

“Obviously surprised,” said safety Ross Rasner, who leads the Razorbacks with 79 tackles. “It’s a little bit of a disappointment this year. I think football is a game of adversity, and sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t.

“It’s not one thing you can point to and blame somebody for. I think this year the ball hasn’t been bouncing our way.”

Players insist the coaching turmoil wasn’t a factor compared to the rash of injuries that struck the team, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive end Tenarius Wright, the team’s most important defensive players and team captains, missed most of the season, and cornerback Tevin Mitchel missed about half the season.

“You always go into the season with high expectations,” said defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. “You’re kind of realistic about what it’s going to be and how much can you really expect from those young guys. You’re talking about the SEC West. It’s tough football.”

Fullbacks Kiero Small and Kody Walker missed almost the entire season, and Gragg struggled with a knee injury that caused him to miss six games counting Friday’s season-ender against LSU. Davis, averaging 3.3 yards a carry, never showed more than a sliver of a glimpse of the form that helped him gain 1,362 yards in 2010.

“I’m very surprised. How surprised are you?” said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. “Surprised, but as it went on when guys got injured and things started happening, there are times you look out and see who you’re actually playing with. It makes you a little concerned.”

While Wilson has mostly played well, he has been battered behind a porous offensive line. He has thrown for 3,028 yards and 20 touchdowns but also 12 interceptions after throwing just six in 2011.

Hamilton has been the one unquestioned bright spot with 80 catches for 1,237 yards and 5 touchdowns.

“Adversity, it just came,” Hamilton said. “We struggled to get over it. It was rough in the early (going).

“The biggest thing about this whole year is we stayed together. You look at other teams in the country that have our record, they really don’t show the togetherness.”

The Razorbacks will have to settle for togetherness in a season that otherwise fell apart.