- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Arkansas’ national championship hopes are certainly gone.
Likewise, it’s unrealistic to think that the Hogs could rally to win their first-ever SEC championship at this point.
To some in the Ozarks, one of the most anticipated seasons in school history might as well be over, and we’ve played all of three games.
Where do these Hogs go from here?
Much of that depends on whether or not John L. Smith can still motivate this football team and how much of the team’s ear Smith and his staff still have.
Finding ways to motivate any team when its primary goals are all but gone three weeks into the season can be an overwhelming task.
“We just have to get back on track with a win,” said Smith, who’s been besieged by criticism from fans really from the first game on when the Hogs looked anything like a top 10 team in a 49-24 win over FCS foe Jacksonville State.
Of course, the bottom fell out the next week when the Hogs blew a 21-point lead and lost 34-31 in overtime to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock. And then last week, No. 1 Alabama rolled into Fayetteville and humiliated Arkansas 52-0 in a game that could have just as easily been 72-0.
Smith knows how nasty the climate is surrounding the program right now, and he’s not naïve. Fans are openly calling for his job.
He said they can keep calling.
“I don’t listen to that crap,” Smith said. “I just focus on these guys and trying to do what we can do, what we have control over. So I don’t worry about it.
“It’s not going to be the first time, not going to be the last time (fans lash out with criticism). … Say what they want.”
They’re going to keep saying, too, unless Arkansas can find a way to salvage this season and get on the kind of roll Georgia did a year ago after starting 0-2.
To do that, two things will be paramount: Getting senior quarterback Tyler Wilson back on the field and healthy and shoring up a struggling defense that has given up 110 points in three games.
There aren’t any more so-called tune-ups on the horizon, either.
Unbeaten Rutgers comes to Fayetteville on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are one of the best teams in the Big East this season and are coming off a 23-13 win at South Florida. Moreover, that game was two Thursdays go, so Rutgers has had extra time to prepare for the Hogs.
Wilson practiced Tuesday and looked sharp, but is still waiting to be cleared by doctors to play in the game. He’s optimistic, and there’s no question that his return would be a huge boost.
His value as a passer and getting the offense jump-started is one thing, but having his leadership back on the field may be as important as anything for the Hogs.
“I’m not going to go out there on the field unless I’m able to give everything that I’ve always been able to give,” said Wilson, who suffered a concussion against Louisiana-Monroe and then wasn’t cleared by doctors to play last week against Alabama.
“So, if I’m healthy, I’m going to run out there and do what I’ve always done. I’m not going to approach the game any different, Maybe there will be a little bit … game one and two it was like play those two guys as the underdogs, in your eyes and our eyes. So you maybe approach that a little differently.
“Now, you feel like your backs are against the wall a little bit, so let’s go fight. Maybe that’s the difference in the way you approach the game. I know that that’s the way I’m going to approach it. I have my whole life.”
Even if Wilson does return this week, he’s not going to be lining up on defense for the Hogs.
They’re thin and inexperienced in the secondary, especially with cornerback Tevin Mitchel being out, and they’ve also struggled with their discipline on defense and fading in the second half.
Special teams blunders haven’t helped, and when you’re 119th nationally out of 120 teams in turnover margin (two gained and 10 lost), your defense is going to find itself in a lot of tough spots.
The Hogs’ players said they took down their schedule in the weight room and that the only game up there was the Rutgers game Saturday.
That’s not a bad move, because if they lose a third straight, even making a bowl game this season could be a stretch.
“It’s just time to go out and do it,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “The talking is over. It’s time to go do it.”