They endured a stunning offseason dismissal and were hit hard by injuries, often leaving young and inexperienced players to fill roles they were never expected to play.
It resulted in a season derailed, not tinged here and there by mere disappointments, but by utter devastation.
Clearly, we’re not talking about the LSU Tigers here.
The subject of this little football melodrama is the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Talented but troubled, and to a large degree rudderless after head coach Bobby Petrino lost control of his motorcycle and his professional life in a messy April scandal, the Razorbacks plummeted abruptly from trendy but dark horse BCS contender to the nation’s biggest flop.
The University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks started Arkansas careening down this road to nowhere on Sept. 8 with what was then a shocking 34-31 overtime upset in Little Rock. The LSU Tigers can put the Razorbacks on ice for the winter with one more defeat Friday in chilly Fayetteville.
Losing Petrino exposed vulnerabilities that interim coach John L. Smith and the rest of Petrino’s former staff were incapable of papering over with any degree of success. Petrino turned out to be the team’s MVP, and it isn’t as though Arkansas could trade for another franchise player.
Meanwhile, LSU retained stability at the top with Les Miles, sometimes a little erratic behind the lecturn but invariably rock solid when pressed into crisis mode.
The slow-motion glacier fall that has been the Tigers’ season, shedding key players like parts falling off a junked car, could have easily resulted in the kind of season Arkansas has endured.
All told, the body count is now 22. That’s the number of players who have been lost, for a game or for the season, since this summer because of injury, suspension, academics or transfers. That list includes 10 players who were projected starters or who started games at some point.
And oh, yes, there was an unwelcomed visitor named Isaac who came along in September just to test everyone’s Katrina/Rita reflexes.
And yet here LSU is, with one game left in the regular season, still clinging to shreds of Southeastern Conference and BCS title hopes but more than that ranked in the top 10 with legitimate hopes of a BCS bowl (no small achievement) on the line.
Miles will earn few if any SEC coach of the year votes — Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin already has one hand around that trophy. But this may be one of his best jobs yet. At some point or another, LSU lost what is almost the equivalent of an entire starting 11 on one side of the ball. Yet with a win and a friendly assist from Florida State on Saturday to beat Florida, LSU could find itself in the Sugar Bowl.
“It’s a lot easier to keep your guys healthy and go with what you came in with,” Miles said.
“Hopefully this is a number we never have again, but there are always guys who have to step in and play big in key games. I don’t want to mention them, but I can think of four or five guys who have stepped into the breach and made the play.”
It’s the sort of resourcefulness the Razorbacks have lacked, the ability to adjust and regroup, persevere and battle back.
It’s a fine line between overcoming and giving in, as thin as a sheet of paper from a football playbook. Maybe if the Razorbacks found a way against ULM instead of having their BCS dreams tossed in the shredder just two weeks in, the season might have turned out differently. Not with championship rings perhaps — Arkansas did lose 52-0 to Alabama, 58-10 to Texas A&M and 45-14 to Mississippi State, nothing paper thin there — but at least with a bowl. At least playing for something besides a hideously huge gold-plated trophy (“The Boot”) and the hollow satisfaction of ripping up LSU’s hopes of another top-10 finish and BCS bowl berth.
“Arkansas hasn’t handled adversity well on the field all season,” said Robbie Neiswanger, beat writer for the Arkansas News Bureau.
And so the Razorbacks find themselves here. It’s not unfamiliar circumstances in this rivalry for one team or another to be riding high and the other to be in dire straits, just like it isn’t unfamiliar for the downtrodden team to jump up and bite the winning one.
Remember LSU clobbering Arkansas 35-10 in 1999 with Hal Hunter as interim?
That game turned out to be a line of demarcation between LSU’s struggles of the old century and its unprecedented success in the new.
It was then that LSU fought back from massive, program-sized adversity. It’s a quality Arkansas football is trying to find within itself.