FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was embarrassed by the loss to Louisiana-Monroe, but spent last week motivating itself by repeating a message as it prepared for Alabama.
All was not lost after the disappointing nonconference stumble. The Southeastern Conference season was just beginning, so Arkansas’ record was still unblemished where it mattered most. All of the Razorbacks’ preseason goals were still attainable.
The harsh reality came in the 52-0 loss to Alabama on Saturday.
Arkansas (1-2, 0-1 in SEC) is nowhere close to championship level.
"You know, 1-2 is not even near where we thought we’d be at this point in the season," Arkansas quarterback Brandon Mitchell said.
Finding a way to motivate a team convinced it had the pieces in place to make a run at the SEC title now becomes the challenge for coach John L. Smith and the rest of his embattled staff now. The 2012 season is just three games old, but Arkansas already has secured its place as one of the nation’s biggest disappointments. And the Hogs are dangerously close to turning in a freefall for the ages if the slide continues.
Defensive tackle Alfred Davis was asked if he was worried about the future as the Hogs try to shift their focus to Saturday’s game against Rutgers (3-0) in Razorback Stadium. Davis, one of Arkansas’ six captains, believes there’s too much pride to cave no matter what has happened the past two weeks.
"I know I’m not going to stop working," Davis said. "I’m not going to let the man beside me stop working regardless of what the outcome of this football game was."
Is it feasible? It remains to be seen after Arkansas reached a new low last Saturday, suffering its worst Southeastern Conference in school history. The 52-point loss topped the 49-point blowout at Florida in 1997 (56-7). It also was the first time the Hogs had been shut out since 1995 and its first shutout loss in Fayetteville 1966.
Even more, Alabama’s rout became was just the fifth time Arkansas had allowed 50 or more points while being shut out in school history. You have to dig way back through the media guide to find the others (1943, 1918, 1916 and 1894).
Smith admitted he didn’t know what to say and, even worse, didn’t know what to tell his team, as Arkansas tried to search for answers in the aftermath of Saturday’s loss. Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes echoed the sentiment, saying he felt "kind of the same way" after watching nothing go right during the blowout.
"You feel like you’ve got a good plan," Haynes said. "It still comes down to just going out there and executing, and at times we did, and at times we didn’t. And with a good football team like Alabama, when you don’t, it’s going to hurt you."
It’s no secret the frustration is mounting in the Arkansas locker room.
Smith, coaches and players have spent the past two weeks emphasizing the importance of quelling any finger pointing in the locker room amid the mounting losses. Smith, whose 10-month tryout to date has likely done nothing more than convince athletic director Jeff Long he’s not the permanent solution for the Razorbacks, said he hasn’t given up on his team or its ability to remain unified.
"I have total confidence in these guys and that the seniors are going to pull us together and the rest of the team is going to pull together," Smith said. "I don’t think they’re going to splinter and everybody start pointing fingers and going their own way. It’s easy to quit. It’s easy to criticize somebody else. That’s the coward’s way out, and these men are not cowards. They’re not going to do that."
Tyler Wilson had his own message a few minutes later, though, when he marched into the interview room and pointed a proverbial finger at his teammates after their lackluster performance in the second half. Wilson didn’t play because of his head injury, but was disgusted by what he saw from the sideline and voiced it Saturday.
He said his team "at times gave up" in the loss.
The scathing review was one Wilson didn’t have to provide publicly since injured players usually don’t appear in Arkansas’ postgame media room. But Wilson asked for the stage and used the podium as a forum to challenge his teammates and vow he would do everything in his power to make sure it didn’t happen again.
"You’ve got to start with one (win) before you can get the rest of them," said Wilson, who remains questionable for Saturday’s game. "But I give you my word I’m going to do the best in my ability and the best in my power to make that happen."
Arkansas hasn’t even reached the one-month mark in the 2012 season, but it’s already gut check time for a sputtering football program.
Lose again and continue what may already be remembered as one of the most disappointing seasons in school history. Win and regain a glimmer of hope in a season that feels like a lost cause after just three weeks.
"It makes the situation harder," Davis said of Arkansas’ 1-2 start. "But we can’t just give up and lay down and not try to finish the season."