Monday, August 30, 2010

Arkansas Anticipation

Here in Dallas, the official start of the NFL season is about two weeks away, and the complaints about the Cowboys, from whom much is expected, already have begun.

"The Cowboys' first–team offense, which had been anything but sharp in the first three preseason games, looked even worse Saturday night in a 23–7 loss to the Houston Texans," writes Tim Cowlishaw in the Dallas Morning News.

Losing a football game to Houston — even in the preseason — has never gone down easily in Dallas. Over the years, the Cowboys have had intense rivalries with many teams — but losing to an instate rival, even (or, perhaps, especially) when not much is expected from that rival, is just downright intolerable.

Texas, like most Southern states, has a reputation for being religious. But the real religion around here is football.

And Dallas may be the most egregious offender. In the nearly 40 years of its existence, Texas Stadium's distinctive rectangular hole in the roof was said to be there so God could watch his football team play.

(The first time I heard that, I wondered what was keeping God from watching the teams that played in stadiums that had no roof or anything else that might obscure the view from on high.)

I even read an obituary once in a Texas newspaper that said the deceased would be enjoying seats on the 50–yard line for God's football games. (The assumption, of course, was that heaven has a football team. But no mention was ever made concerning who that team would play. Hell's Angels, perhaps?)

I'm not a Dallas native, and I'm not a Cowboys fan so it really doesn't matter to me if Dallas doesn't live up to its fans' expectations.

But I do understand the almost religious fervor that accompanies the start of football season here. I grew up in it — in Arkansas.

Now, there is no professional sports team in Arkansas (other than the minor league baseball team that plays in Little Rock). But the statewide devotion to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks has always put the fan bases of many NFL teams to shame.

When I was a child, the Razorbacks were always ranked going into a season. They didn't always finish the season in the then–Top 20 — in fact, they seldom won the Southwest Conference, the now–defunct conference in which they once competed — but the fans still went into every season convinced the Hogs would win them all.

And, then, with each loss, even when the loss was expected, the anguish in Arkansas was excruciating.

Nevertheless, in spite of some brutal setbacks, the Hogs always seemed to come through when you least expected it.

One of the most astonishing was the day in 1981 when the Razorbacks took on their old rivals, the top–ranked Texas Longhorns, two weeks after losing to TCU for the first time in more than 20 years.

At that time, TCU was not the nationally recognized football program it is today. The Horned Frogs were regarded as one of the weakest teams in the conference in those days, and a loss to TCU was devastating for a program as proud as Arkansas'.

I was a student at Arkansas at the time, and I can assure you that there was little enthusiasm on the campus for that game with Texas. But the Razorbacks surprised everyone with a 42–11 rout.

Half a dozen years earlier, there was a similar feeling as the Razorbacks prepared to face Texas A&M in the regular–season finale. The undefeated Aggies had beaten the rival Longhorns the week before; Arkansas was in the midst of a seven–year losing streak to Texas and had already lost to the Longhorns.

The winner of the game would be bound for the Cotton Bowl — which may not sound like much now, but in those days, it was the reward for winning the Southwest Conference.

And the winner was Arkansas, 31–6. So the Hogs came to Dallas to face Georgia in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1976, and won that game, too, 31–10.

A few years later, Arkansas came close to winning the SWC but came up short — thanks to another loss to Texas. The Razorbacks were invited to play #2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on New Year's night, a game that didn't attract much attention in the days leading up to it, in large part because coach Lou Holtz had suspended three starters for rules violations.

The Vegas oddsmakers took the game off the board, assuming that OU would crush Arkansas. But, instead, it was Arkansas that won the game in a romp, 31–6.

Well, there have been great moments — and crushing defeats — in the years since.

But it seems the Razorbacks have been making fewer appearances in the rankings than they used to. They seemed to be on an upward trajectory a few years ago, when Darren McFadden was the runnerup in the Heisman Trophy voting two years in a row, but they slipped back when McFadden left and Arkansas went through a coaching change.

Now, however, all is right with Razorback Nation again.

The season begins this week, and the Associated Press has Arkansas ranked 17th. Five other Southeastern Conference teams are in the AP's Top 25 — but only two are ranked ahead of the Hogs, and only one of those teams (defending national champion Alabama) will face Arkansas during the regular season.

I've got to admit I've been fantasizing about an SEC title and maybe even a berth in the national championship game, but I'm far from the only one. It really is nice to be able to eagerly anticipate a football season again, but I think we all need to take a minute or two and remember that there are many obstacles to overcome.

For one, the Razorbacks may be playing in the most competitive division in the most competitive conference in the nation. Two other schools from their division — LSU and Auburn — are in the Top 25, and another one (Ole Miss) got some votes in the poll. The only school in the division that seems likely to be a "breather" — at least by comparison — is Mississippi State, but anyone who watches SEC football knows there are no breathers in that conference.

At some point, I believe MSU will be the "spoiler" for someone. It might well be Arkansas.

And, while there is a lot of talk among Arkansas fans these days about the Heisman prospects for strong–armed quarterback Ryan Mallett, people do get hurt playing football, and many good football teams have seen their hopes go down in flames because a key player was injured.

I hope the Razorbacks can successfully negotiate the mine field that the SEC schedule can be. And I hope no one crucial to the team — least of all its Heisman prospect at QB — gets hurt.

All I can do is hope.

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