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Arkansas's Roller Coaster Keeps on Going // SEC 2012: The New SEC

Hello, there.
Hello, there.

If there's one team that's fighting Tennessee for the title of "most dramatic" in the SEC, it's Arkansas. The Razorbacks might actually take the crown too because it's been going on for longer.

Houston Nutt brought in a high school coach named Gus Malzahn to run the offense (and bring some important recruits) in 2006. The two couldn't get along, and the coach and recruits left. Nutt was then ousted after the following year, with his text messages FOIA'd by the team's own fans in the process. The school found an excellent coach in Bobby Petrino to replace Nutt, but he had to leave an NFL team before his first season of coaching it was even over to take the job. Petrino's highlight was the 2011 Sugar Bowl, a game Arkansas lost in part because Jim Tressel covered up his knowledge of players' NCAA violations that should have put five key Buckeyes on the sidelines. They instead got the very unusual penalty of getting to play the bowl game but being suspended to start the next season. A few months ago, Petrino was fired after having an affair with someone he would hire to his staff. The university then became the first I'm aware of to hire a coach away from another school just to be the interim boss. Oh yeah, and Ryan Mallett happened somewhere in there.

If ever a program was in limbo, it's this one. Other schools have gone through interim head coach seasons recently, but you knew that the staff would be wiped away when the new guy came in. Arkansas's football staff, on the other hand, is one that just about any head coach would want to have around.

Guys like Paul Petrino and Tim Horton on offense are very well respected, and the new defensive leaders Paul Haynes and Taver Johnson came from an Ohio State system that was always at or near the top of the Big Ten. There was plenty of speculation that Garrick McGee would replace Petrino sooner than later, and he could conceivably take the job and keep the staff. Jeff Long could go in a completely different direction and they all could leave. There's no way to know now where things are going.

It's going to be a very interesting thing to watch as the season goes along. John L. Smith's age, history, and 10-month contract mean that he's exceptionally unlikely to get the full-time head coaching job. He did, however, leave Weber State after just four months because of his expectation of Arkansas being able to compete for a national championship this fall. It's not an unreasonable expectation either.

The offense looks stacked despite some losses at receiver. Tyler Wilson is the conference's best quarterback, and Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson make a tremendous running back tandem. The defense suffered some losses, most notably Jake Bequette, but it also has upgraded coaching. Alabama and LSU lost a ton of talent to the draft, and if you remember, the Hogs beat LSU in 2010 and very nearly knocked off the Tide in the same year. If things break right, it could be a year to remember in Fayetteville.

It also could be a year to forget if the uncertainty about the future takes root in the team psyche. Alabama comes to visit in Week 3, and if the team gets its doors blown off, that could dampen morale and expectations for the entire remainder of the year. Smith could, in that scenario, go from interim coach to outright lame duck overnight. To bring it back around to Tennessee, this team is the Vols' counterpart in the West division when it comes to having the widest variety of possible outcomes.

The fall could promise the highest of highs or the lowest of lows for Arkansas, and after (or perhaps before?) it's all done, the frenzy of a full-on coaching search will commence. At this point, does anyone expect nothing less of the place where the unusual is business as usual?