Thursday, August 26, 2010

Everyone Loves a Good Road Story

Even more than Ryan Mallett, high expectations seem to be the dominant storyline as the Arkansas Razorbacks make their way through fall camp.  The reasons behind the buzz are obvious. The Razorbacks have a Heisman Trophy front-runner in quarterback Ryan Mallett, return the vast majority of their other offensive weapons, and look to be much improved and more experienced on the defensive side of the ball.  

Even Hog fans with the shortest of memories, however, certainly cannot forget that the Razorbacks went 0-4 on the road last season, and must factor that in when contemplating the Razorbacks' fortunes this year.  Winning them all, while a longshot, is undoubtedly the Hogs' goal this season.  But you can't win them all unless you win them on the road.  So can they?

Skeptics of Arkansas will immediately point to the Hogs' .000 road record in conference last season as an indicator that the 2010 Hogs' chances of an SEC Championship (or beyond) are somewhere between slim and none.  That is fair criticism, but there are counterarguments to be made.  More than anything, it cannot be denied that the 2009 road schedule was more difficult than the 2010 slate will be.  In 2009, every opponent Arkansas faced on the road featured a Top 15 Scoring Defense.  Alabama, of course, finished the season as the national champion, and Florida finished ranked #3.  The other two road opponents, Ole Miss and LSU, also finished ranked.  No disrespect intended to Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, but none of those opponents on paper stack up to any of the four teams Arkansas traveled to meet last season.  

Not to be ignored when examining the dismal road record Arkansas put up in 2009 is the fact that the Hogs were criminally setback by pitiful officiating during their game against Florida, and then stunned by an equally egregious gaffe against LSU, both of which likely cost them victories.  0-4 is still 0-4, but in my eyes, the Razorbacks played well enough to win in both Gainesville and Baton Rouge, two of the toughest places to play in the country.  Turn 0-4 into 2-2 and the 2009 Hogs are suddenly 10-3, and the skeptics screaming about having to prove their mettle on the road are much less convincing.

Thinking about it that way led me to begin investigating Bobby Petrino's record on the road as a head coach.  Was last year an anomaly?  What about the 1-3 road campaign in 2008?  Do we attribute that to the utter lack of talent left to him by outgoing Houston Nutt, or is there something else that is keeping Petrino from attaining success away from home.  The answers might not be definitive, but they certainly shed some light on the apparent disconnect between Petrino's 1-7 SEC road record and his reputation for meticulous preparation, come hell, high water, or unfriendly confines.

As a collegiate head coach, Petrino has compiled an 18-14 record in regular season away games, a winning percentage of 56%.  Not stellar, although the 1-8 record in his first two seasons at Arkansas significantly tarnish the shine off the 17-6 mark he built at Louisville, where he won on the road at a 74% clip.  His two stints on the surface could not be any more disparate, but there is a common thread that appears when taking a closer look at things.

In his 14 losses as a head coach at Louisville and Arkansas, Petrino lost an astounding NINE by a field goal or less.  Only one of the other five losses occurred while he was at Louisville, a 45-14 defeat at the hands of South Florida that is the only real head-scratcher in the bunch.  The rest of those "bad losses" came while Petrino was with the Hogs, rebuilding a depleted talent base and facing a murderous schedule.  Among them, Texas destroyed the Hogs 52-10 in Austin  in 2008 en route to a 12-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl victory.  Last season, Alabama handled the Razorbacks 35-7 in Tuscaloosa on their way to a national championship.

Even with the murderous schedule Petrino has faced the past two seasons, he has still managed to coach his team to within a field goal more than half the time.  The Hogs lost heartbreakers on the road to Kentucky and Mississippi State in 2008, and Florida and LSU in 2009, all decided by a field goal or less, and three of the four featuring missed 4th quarter game-winning or game-tying kicks by Alex Tejada.  Yeouch.

Petrino lost his share of heartbreakers at Louisville, too, including overtime games to South Florida and West Virginia, and a 28-25 loss at Rutgers in 2006 that knocked the Cardinals out of their bid for a BCS National Championship.  It also turned out to be their only loss on the season.

So what does all this mean?  If you're a Hog fan, it means exactly what you likely have already known.  That Bobby Petrino will not coach himself out of any game, but especially one in which the deck is stacked against his team with a hostile crowd and potentially less-than-impartial officiating.  Far more often than not, his team will have an opportunity in the fourth quarter to either win or extend the game.  And as we have heard so much, that is all you can ask for when you're on the road.

If you look at the four games on Arkansas' road schedule this season, the thing that stands out is the certainty of what the Hogs bring to the table, versus great uncertainty in each of their opponents.  Georgia and Auburn are breaking in new quarterbacks.  Mississippi State is searching for a replacement for the great Anthony Dixon.  South Carolina is mired in controversy, and could potentially be without the services of one of its best players, tight end Weslye Saunders, for the entire season.

The Razorbacks, on the other hand, return three-quarters of last season's offensive and defensive starters, and  are virtually assured of being a better team than last year, when they went 3-1 at home against this season's road slate.  The odds of the Petrino getting back to his winning ways on the road seem favorable, to say the least.

As long as they don't have to kick it.

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