Throughout Arkansas’ SEC tenure, one question has vexed its fanbase: How to make this program elite?
We bristled throughout the Nutt Era at suggestions from outside "the fence" that little ol’Arkansas should take its 7-or-so wins per year and be happy when a transcendent athlete comes through to elevate us to better-than-average stature.
Bobby Petrino proved that we were right to demand more, that Arkansas is a program that can crack the top 10 and stay there, that we can contend with the nation’s best.
Contend, yes. Beat them consistently? Well, not yet.
Now Bobby P., the architect of the team that won 21 games in the last two seasons is gone. Even in his absence, the 2012 team debuted at No. 10 in the AP poll, the highest opening spot for an Arkansas team in 23 years and a sign of how far the program has come.
Along with the elevated ranking, though, come higher expectations – which explains the worried hand-wringing in the aftermath of last week’s less-than-inspiring 49-24 win over FCS foe Jacksonville State.
Simply winning, even by 25 points, is no longer enough. Arkansas fans know what a good -- but not great -- team looks like. And just as the so-so seasons under Nutt were no longer enough to appease the Cardinal-clad masses a few short years ago, anything less than full-fledged greatness won’t satisfy us now.
This is a just and necessary step. Fan bases that don’t demand greatness, rarely receive it.
So how do we get there from here?
It’s clear, even after a sometimes-spotty showing against Jacksonville State, the offense remains at a level approaching excellence. The skill is there, the depth is there, and barring an unforeseen total unraveling, it will remain.
Which leads us to the defense.
Even under Petrino, the Arkansas defense couldn’t match its offensive counterparts’ championship caliber. That might fly in the Leaders Division, but to win big in the nation’s toughest conference, a half-great team isn’t enough.
Defensive improvement is a must. That’s no secret.
It’s the reason Paul Haynes was brought in to replace Willy Robinson at the end of the 2011 regular season. And just two games into his tenure, it’s far too early to make a judgment on Haynes’ ability in his new position; we’ve seen a strong showing in the Cotton Bowl and a lackluster one last weekend.
But that won’t stop a vocal segment of the fanbase from trying.
The calls have already begun, but fixing the defense isn’t as easy as hiring a defensive-minded head coach and installing a "Saban-style" scheme. If it was, Florida wouldn’t be struggling (mightily at times) against the likes of Bowling Green under Saban disciple Will Muschamp.
Since my seat on the couch for the Jacksonville State game didn’t come equipped with a coach’s cam, I’ll try to refrain from breaking down the breakdowns, but one thing is obvious: there isn’t a defensive scheme known to man that calls for allowing opposing receivers to run uncovered down the seam. It looks more like a problem of personnel.
The cold truth is that Arkansas has a smaller home-state recruiting base than any other school in the SEC, and that it’s easier (and a lot faster) to lift an offense with a few gifted skill players than it is to fill out a defensive two-deep with the kind of freakish, 260-pound linebackers the Hogs will see when Saban’s squad visits in about 10 days.
Does that mean the Hogs should abandon their hopes of building a dominant defense and convert to full-on Big 12 ball?
I don’t think so. It only means the answers aren’t easy. If they were, everyone would have them.
It also doesn’t mean Arkansas fans shouldn’t be disappointed in what they saw from the defense last weekend. While it played well for stretches, 21 first-half points against an FCS opponent simply doesn't meet the standard to which a top-10 team should be held accountable.
But before we give up on the 2012 team, or worse yet decide to scrap the system that’s carried the Hogs to the best two seasons since the Hatfield regime, it’s important to remember a few things.
Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas are not plug-and-replace players. That’s the kind of program depth Arkansas is aspiring to but has not yet achieved.
Tenarius Wright and Ross Rasner are playing in new positions and taking on new responsibilities in pass coverage; in four years, Darius Winston has yet to learn how to play the ball when it’s in the air; and the Hogs are still trying to figure out who to play where in the back seven.
These are not problems overcome by defensive play-calling. They’re simply the growing pains that come with the ascent up college football’s ladder.
This defense will get better. How much better is the question whose answer will mean the difference between good and great, and by extension, the one that will decide the fate of the 2012 team.
Maybe the bodies are in place that can carry Arkansas to the next level. If they’re not, one could argue that the current staff deserves its chance to correct whatever problems exist through recruiting and player development.
And perhaps they will, but only if they fast-track it.
Arkansas fans have grown weary of anything less than greatness. And what we want, we want now.