Commentary

Hogs, John L. sink to new low

Originally Published: October 2, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. Honk if you love John L.

If ever a team could use a hug, it's Arkansas. The program has sunk lower than a Razorback's belly and the free fall into football oblivion could continue Saturday at Auburn.

[+] EnlargeJohn L. Smith
AP Photo/Pat SullivanJohn L. Smith is in over his head with Arkansas.

The Razorbacks have lost four in a row for the first time since 2004. They're winless in the SEC. Winless against FBS opponents. They could finish 4-8, maybe worse, without buckling their chin strap.

The disgraced and banished Bobby Petrino is the one responsible for this mess. A motorcycle and a mistress is never a good combination. His accident and bungled cover-up set into motion a series of events and decisions that now haunt Arkansas every Saturday.

Athletic director Jeff Long meant well when he hired John L. Smith to replace Petrino. It was sort of a friends-with-potential arrangement. If Smith could lead the preseason No. 10-Razorbacks to double-digit wins and a BCS bowl (or, to hear some Arkansas fans, a BCS Championship appearance), then maybe the interim tag would be dropped for good.

Instead, Smith has been a semi-disaster. It's not just the goofball news conferences ("Smile!"), or the often disengaged sideline demeanor, or even the verbal bear traps he steps on (at a recent public appearance he referred to Arkansas as Alabama). Truth is, that's part of Smith's charm; he's a character.

The real problem has more to do with perception. Smith was a head coach at Louisville and Michigan State. He was an assistant coach on Petrino's Arkansas staff. He has credentials.

But the nanosecond Long hired him on an interim basis, that's when the jersey thread began to unravel. Players and staff know the difference between a principal and a substitute teacher. Smith is the substitute teacher.

19. Honk if you love John L. -- Part II

Petrino wasn't my particular brand of vodka, but you had to give him credit for being a creative offensive coach and a flat-out SOB when it came to attention to detail. He was obsessed with football excellence and his teams usually reflected that obsession.

Long underestimated the power gap between Petrino and Smith -- or any interim coach, for that matter. Being an interim anything creates doubt. Interim kneecaps you.

Petrino ruled by fear. He wouldn't take no for answer. When he left, a certain amount of mental toughness on that Arkansas team left with him.

One NFL talent evaluator I spoke with who has spent years following the SEC put it this way: "Bobby Petrino did such a great coaching job there. He had gotten people to forget that Arkansas was Arkansas. Now Jeff is going to have a hard time filling that job."

Let that phrase marinate for a moment: He had gotten people to forget that Arkansas was Arkansas.

His point was this: Alabama and LSU aren't going anywhere. SEC newbie Texas A&M is going to grow in stature and recruiting power. Florida and Georgia are reestablishing themselves. South Carolina wears big-boy pants now. And one of these days Tennessee is going to figure it out.

So where does that leave Arkansas? In the middle third of the SEC during most years. It's a good job, but it isn't an elite job.

Angry Razorback fans are emailing me as they read this. They'll point to the passionate Arkansas following, the upgraded facilities, the wins under Petrino.

Email away. First of all, you can't rip me any worse than I've been ripped by European golf fans during the past few days. If there's a Nigel or Ian in the United Kingdom, I've heard from them. And they're not happy.

Second, it's like Harry Callahan once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." Arkansas has some limitations. I'm not saying it can't one day win a national championship, but the Alabamas and LSUs have inherent football advantages.

18. Honk if you love John L. -- the end

In retrospect, Long might have been better off hiring a full-time coach when he had the chance. Maybe he was sensitive to hiring away a coach so late in the spring and didn't want to stick it to another program or NFL team. If so, he didn't seem to mind putting Smith's previous employer, Weber State, in a last-minute bind.

[+] EnlargeJeff Long
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe Bobby Petrino fiasco put Arkansas AD Jeff Long in a tough spot.

Maybe Long didn't want to be rushed into a decision, so he took an educated flyer on the familiar Smith. He figured Smith could keep things together during 2012 and then Long would have some hiring options at the end of the season.

Turns out it was the wrong button to push. He made the right decision, but hired the wrong guy. Either that, or he made the wrong decision and then hired the wrong guy.

If it were five-card draw, Smith was dealt an ace, a 10, a 7, a 4 and a 2. And the cards got worse when star quarterback Tyler Wilson suffered a concussion, and the Razorbacks lost not one, but two fullbacks (especially the ultra-valuable Kiero Small), and the defense was exposed as early as the opener against FCS member Jacksonville State.

So in some ways, Smith never had much of a chance. And it's not going to get much better.

Long said recently that he remains "steadfastly behind" the Arkansas players and coaching staff. "… I will not abandon them."

Good for him. Of course, I'm not sure what else he could have said. I will abandon them?

But what happens if the Razorbacks keep losing? Then what? What if enough top-rated prospects begin waffling or bailing on Arkansas because of the uncertainty and negative mojo?

Long has been put in a terrible situation by Petrino. Smith has been put in a crummy situation by Long, those key injuries and a Paul Haynes-devised defense that can't stop anybody.

Of course, John L. is history. He might be an eccentric, but he didn't deserve this. I say that knowing full well that he put Weber State in an awful position when he left. But between his bankruptcy, the recent death of a younger brother and the tribulations of this season, 2012 has been a horrific year for Smith.

Arkansas officials will tell you that Long won't have any problem finding an upper-tier coaching talent to take the job. Maybe, but I think the available tier would have been higher in the pre-Petrino scandal days.

If I'm Long, I look for a defense-minded coach. Alabama wins with defense. LSU wins with defense. Florida is winning with defense. To survive in the SEC, that's what you need.

So maybe that's a Charlie Strong at Louisville. Or an NFL assistant coach. Anyway, names will emerge. Chances are, Long already has completed his short list of candidates.

It's only October, but the countdown has begun on Arkansas' season. What began with so much promise is now reduced to calendar watching.

Seven games and counting.

17. Heisman Trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

• West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- Smith can't swing a yard marker without breaking another passing record. What he did against Baylor would make Spock's head hurt. The guy had more touchdowns (8) than incompletions (6). There are quarterbacks who can't do that in skeleton drills.

• Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein -- The Kleiner faces Kansas on Saturday. The Jayhawks are ranked 90th in rushing defense and 88th in total defense. Yeah, I think he's going to have a good day.

• Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- Had 300-plus yards the hard way against Michigan State: 179 yards passing, 136 yards rushing. K-State's Klein applauds him.

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- Starting to put up the numbers and make some national noise. Let's see what he does against Georgia on national TV.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
J. Meric/Getty ImagesEJ Manuel moved out of the front seat in the Heisman race after a so-so game versus USF.

• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- Played well enough in win against South Florida. But not well enough to stay in the front row.

• UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin -- Fifteen carries, 111 yards against Colorado. Eh.

Semi-sleepers:

• Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones -- What can I say? I'm a sucker for dreads and crushing tackles.

• Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o -- What can I say? I'm a sucker for Hawaiian linebackers who had a bye week.

• Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- Another so-so numbers week, but I can't bring myself to wave goodbye.

• USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- There's still time, Matty Boy, to make a run at a front row seat. Thursday night ESPN game at Utah awaits.

• Clemson running back Andre Ellington -- Boston College can tell you what kind of player he is.

Thanks for stopping by the booth:

• Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- Ohio State held him to 45 yards on 17 carries.

16. Geno Smith -- addendum

Thanks to the world famous ESPN research department, I'm able to tell you that Smith is out-Robert Griffin III-ing the original RG3.

Griffin III won the Heisman a season ago. His numbers were staggeringly impressive. And Smith's are better.

After four games in 2011, Griffin III had 1,481 total yards. Smith has 1,826.

Griffin III had an 82.1 completion percentage. Smith is at 83.4.

Griffin III had thrown 18 touchdowns and only one interception. Smith has 20 TD passes and 0 interceptions.

Griffin III's Baylor team was 3-1. Smith's Mountaineers are 4-0.

Griffin III beat Texas. Smith faces the Longhorns in Austin this week.

15. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

"I felt like we were viewed as a little high school team that was just coming in here. It was going to be ugly. They looked at us like nobody. They called us Townson, Towson State -- they called us everything but what we are, Towson University. That's why when we came out and punched them in the mouth, they weren't ready for what we had."

--Towson defensive end Frank Beltre on the 38-22 loss to LSU (courtesy of the Baton Rouge Advocate).

14. BMOP -- runner up

"We didn't come to pick up a check. We were coming here to win."

--Towson defensive back Jordan Dangerfield (again, courtesy of the Advocate).

13. New favorite nickname

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley and Keith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley and Keith Marshall combine for a formidable 1-2 punch for Georgia.

How can you not love what they're calling Georgia freshmen running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall these days in Athens?

Gurshall.

Get it? There was the legendary Herschel Walker at Georgia. Now there's the budding greats Gurley and Marshall, who happen to wear jersey numbers 3 and 4. And that just happens to be Walker's now-retired jersey number: 34.

Gurshall combined for 294 yards and 5 touchdowns in the win against Tennessee last week. They've combined for 15 touchdowns this season.

Is that any good?

12. The picks

As my good friends in the U.K. like to remind me, there are no sure things. I don't know about that. I think Florida State over Savannah State was a sure thing.

Anyway, this week's choices:

USC over Utah, Utah State over BYU, Northwestern over Penn State, Auburn over Arkansas, North Carolina over Virginia Tech, Stanford over Arizona, TCU over Iowa State, Oklahoma over Texas Tech, Michigan over Purdue, Oregon State over Washington State, Georgia over South Carolina, Texas over West Virginia, Texas A&M over Ole Miss, Notre Dame over Miami, FSU over North Carolina State, Ohio State over Nebraska, Oregon over Washington, UCLA over Cal. (Last week's record: 9-3. Overall: 62-17.)

11. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

Last week I almost picked Baylor over West Virginia. Baylor lost by 7.

I almost picked Oklahoma State over Texas. Oklahoma State lost by 5 on some weird officiating.

But I put all upset eggs in the Arizona basket and almost got the win against Oregon State. The Wildcats lost by three.

As for this week's Upset Special decision-making process, I thought hard about: Arkansas over Auburn (but then I remembered I just wrote the entire front end of this BMOC about why Arkansas' season is on the brink of total collapse) … Nebraska over Ohio State (the Buckeyes are living dangerously at the edge) … Texas Tech over Oklahoma (I didn't like what I saw from the Sooners in the loss to K-State. And this one is in Lubbock, not Norman.).

Went With: Florida over LSU.

The Gators got a much-needed bye week heading into this game. It's in the Swamp. And does anyone really have a feel for how good LSU is yet?

(Last week's record: 0-1. Overall: 1-4.)

10. This is not a misprint -- update

Last week we wrote about Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who set a Division I record by passing for 730 yards in ODU's 64-61 win against New Hampshire. I don't drive my car 730 yards some days.

This week he stunk it up. Which in Heinicke terms, means he only completed 32 of 42 passes for 360 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 45-37 win against Richmond.

And he also rushed for 42 yards and a touchdown.

And he also punted once.

Slacker.

9. Zoomie alert

[+] EnlargeCody Getz
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCody Getz isn't the biggest running back, but he's piling up numbers on the ground for Air Force.

The second-leading rusher in the country is 5-foot-7 and could crack 2 bills only if were holding a 45-pound weightlifting plate while standing on the scale.

The answer to this trivia question is Air Force's Cody Getz, who had exactly one FBS scholarship offer out of high school in Georgia. Now he's averaging 170.8 yards, which means he rushes for more yards per game than he weighs.

Getz is 165 pounds, maybe 170, tops. "He's a little dude," said an AFA official.

Nobody knew what to expect out of Getz, mostly because he hadn't played much. He entered his senior season with 286 career rushing yards. He threatened to surpass the career total in the season opener against Idaho State, when he rushed for 218 yards.

And it's not as though Getz doesn't run between the tackles. The Falcons run their share of counter plays, which means he mixes it up inside.

8. BMOC player of the week

The finalists: Anybody who played in the Baylor-West Virginia game; anybody who played in the Marshall-Purdue game; anybody who had to keep stats for the Baylor-West Virginia game or Marshall-Purdue game; Georgia's Gurley and/or Marshall; Miami quarterback Stephen Morris (566 yards, 5 TDs in win against NC State).

And the winner is … West Virginia's Smith. Mountaineer fans would burn a couch on my front lawn if I didn't pick a guy who passed for 656 yards and threw 8 touchdowns.

7. BMOC coach of the week

The finalists: Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill (MTSU loses to FCS's McNeese State in its opener, beats Georgia Tech on the road and now faces Arkansas' favorite team, Louisiana-Monroe); Duke's David Cutcliffe (helps get Peyton Manning back on the field, ends Wake Forest's 12-game win streak against the Dookies and has Duke 4-1 for the first time since 1994); Texas' Mack Brown (two nice road wins in a row -- at Ole Miss, at Oklahoma State); Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes (the unbeaten Bulldogs are fifth nationally in points scored and just beat Virginia); Oregon State's Mike Riley (another quality win, this time at Arizona).

And the winner is … Stockstill.

6. BMOC flop of the week

The finalists: Arkansas (Up 10-7 at the end of the first quarter, then gives up 51 consecutive points at Texas A&M); Georgia Tech (for what it's worth, the Yellow Jackets, a frequent nominee in this category, were 27½-point favorites against Middle Tennessee -- and they lost by 21 to MTSU!); LSU (Towson players wouldn't vote Tigers in top 20 after 38-22 LSU win); Minnesota (didn't really expect the Golden Gophers to win at Iowa City, but thought they'd do better than an 18-point loss); Stanford (had 12 days to prepare for Washington after upset win against USC, but only managed 10 first downs in loss to U-Dub).

And the flopper is … Georgia Tech.

5. If there were a playoff

(And there will be in two more years … )

Shoulder Pad Bracket:

Alabama vs. Notre Dame

If it happens, take the under. Bama and Fighting Irish are ranked 1 and 3 in scoring defense and 2 and 15 in total defense.

Chin Strap Bracket:

Georgia vs. Florida

Depending on what happens this Saturday, one or both of these teams soon could be off the Chin Strap list.

4. Long memory

[+] EnlargeLSU's Brad Wing
AP Photo/Steve FranzLSU punter Brad Wing had a good time versus Florida last season.

Remember last season's LSU-Florida game? The Gators do.

That was the one where Florida trailed 24-3 at halftime and lost 41-11. The Gators had a grand total of nine first downs. It got so bad that LSU's punter scored a touchdown and then got penalized for taunting (negating the score).

When a punter makes fun of you it's a really crummy day.

Said Florida coach Will Muschamp in his weekly presser Monday: "I told the guys all along, don't ever forget the feeling you have right now. As a competitor it ought to motivate you. If you're truly a competitive guy, it ought to motivate you not to be in that situation again.

"I know I used it and I think the players -- I've tried to continually remind them about October, about the fourth quarter, about not being outscored, about all of those things."

3. Blackout

Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville is asking Red Raiders fans to do the Johnny Cash thing this Saturday and wear all black for the Oklahoma game.

"We'll wear all black in the game," he said during his Monday news conference.

Blackouts are nice gimmicks, but Tuberville would rather have shutouts. It won't be easy against an OU team with something to prove after the recent upset loss at home against Kansas State. And did I mention that OU had its 39-game home win streak ended by Tuberville's team last season?

"Interesting scenario of playing Oklahoma," said Tuberville. "All of the things that have kind of built up of them losing and then losing to us last year and then coming on the road. So it will be a big-time atmosphere."

I'll admit it -- I did a double take when I saw Texas Tech, not, say, Alabama, was ranked No. 1 in total defense, pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Then again, the Red Raiders have been full of surprises this year.

They're ranked (24th in the coaches poll). They're unbeaten (4-0). They're four-point underdogs to OU (even though Tech has won the past three games against the Sooners in Lubbock).

Not bad for a team picked in the Big 12's preseason media poll to finish 9th out 10 teams.

2. Two-liners

Everybody's favorite underdog, Savannah State, is still searching for its first win in more than a year. The Tigers are 0-2 in paycheck games (Oklahoma State and Florida State) and 0-2 in MEAC games (they just lost to Howard 56-9). … Here's a trivia question for those outside the ACC: Who is one catch away from becoming the conference's all-time career receptions leader? Answer: Duke's Conner Vernon, who caught some of those Peyton Manning passes when the soon-to-be Denver Broncos quarterback was working out in Durham.

1. The BMOC Top 10

No. 10: Texas (4-0)
Next: West Virginia.
Welcome to the Top 10. Nice to see you again. It's been a long time.

No. 9: LSU (5-0)
Next: at Florida.
FCS member Towson led big, bad LSU at home, 9-7, late in the first half of last Saturday's game. So, please, no complaining about the ranking. Maybe the Tigers were looking ahead to the game at Florida. For LSU's sake, let's hope so.

No. 8: West Virginia (4-0)
Next: at Texas.
I know what you're saying: How can a team that just scored 70 points in a win against Baylor be ranked No. 8? Because that same team gave up 63 points.

No. 7: Florida State (5-0)
Next: at North Carolina State.
Was FSU's performance against an ordinary South Florida team a post-Clemson letdown or a warning sign?

No. 6: South Carolina (5-0)
Next: Georgia.
Outscored Kentucky 31-0 in second half after realizing, "Hey, we're losing to Kentucky.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesOregon QB Marcus Mariota looked like a freshman at times versus Washington State.

No. 5: Oregon (5-0)
Next: Washington
Watched first half of sleepwalk against Washington State and thought, "Really?" Then Ducks outscored Wazzu 28-7 in second half. First-time QB Marcus Mariota looked like a freshman.

No. 4: Notre Dame (4-0)
Next: Miami in Chicago.
How about this for a muscled-up scheduling stretch: Miami, Stanford, BYU, at Oklahoma. Combined opponents' record: 12-5. Hurricanes are very young, but they're also 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in eight seasons.

No. 3: Florida (4-0)
Next: LSU.
And so it begins -- the deciding portion of Florida's season: LSU at home, at Vanderbilt, South Carolina at home, Georgia in Jacksonville. Gators have had an extra week to prepare for LSU.

No. 2: Georgia (5-0)
Next: at South Carolina.
So I'm tweeting from the Ryder Cup about how Georgia is without a doubt the second-best team in the country. And then Tennessee scores 20 consecutive second-quarter points to move ahead. And this week the smart guys in Vegas have Georgia a two-point hairy dawg to South Carolina. But in the words of Team Europe captain Jose Maria Olazabal: "I believe."

No. 1: Alabama (5-0)
Next: Bye week, then at Missouri Oct. 13.
Nick Saban gets two full weeks to tell the Tide how overrated they are. Bama is down to three healthy scholarship running backs and lost a starting wide receiver in win against Ole Miss. Depth is becoming an issue for the Tide.

(Five on the fringe: Oregon State, Kansas State, Ohio State, Stanford, USC.)

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter