After recording 21 wins over the last two seasons, Bobby Petrino had Arkansas on the brink of contending for the SEC West title in 2012. On Tuesday evening, all of that progress came to a halt, as Petrino was fired, ending his four-year stint in Fayetteville.
The end of the Petrino era is no surprise, especially after he lied to athletic director Jeff Long about the details of his motorcycle crash. Petrino did not disclose to Long that Arkansas athletic department employee Jessica Dorrell was also involved, which forced his indefinite suspension last week. Although Petrino had a chance to return, it seemed the odds were stacked against him from the beginning.
While Petrino was not one of the most liked people in college football, he certainly knew how to coach. In four seasons with Arkansas, he recorded a 34-17 record with an appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
With Alabama, LSU and Auburn all winning national championships over the last five years, competing in the SEC West was no easy task. However, Petrino brought Arkansas to the doorstep of becoming a consistent SEC contender and had plenty of pieces to push Alabama and LSU in 2012.
The Razorbacks have 12 starters returning for 2012, including first-team All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson, and running back Knile Davis is back after missing all of last season with an ankle injury. Even though the receiving corps was losing three key members, Arkansas returned plenty of options for Wilson to throw to in 2012. With most of the core returning, the Razorbacks expected to have one of the best offenses in college football.
However, all of that is out the window for Arkansas, as Petrino was fired on Tuesday night, leaving a potential top-10 team scrambling to find answers just as spring practice was almost finished.
Taver Johnson has been selected as the interim coach, but Long indicated he could look to hire a full-time coach outside of the program after spring practice. Although Long is optimistic, it’s going to be very difficult to pry a coach away from another program at this time of the year. Is it possible? Absolutely. However, it’s very unlikely a current head coach leaves after spring practice to take over at Arkansas.
If Johnson is selected to lead the program in 2012, he certainly has some pieces to work with. The Razorbacks have plenty of firepower on offense, but the defense is the biggest hurdle to competing for a SEC title. New coordinator Paul Haynes brought some fresh ideas and new energy, but three key performers from last season’s group are gone. The lack of improvement on defense has been the biggest reason why Arkansas couldn’t overtake Alabama and LSU in the West.
The Razorbacks should still have a dynamic offense, but Petrino’s playcalling and gameplans will be missed. With Bobby Petrino gone, his brother – Paul Petrino – will be expected to call the plays in 2012.
What does this mean for Arkansas’ position in the SEC West race?
Considering what the Razorbacks are bringing back on offense and with Alabama and LSU visiting Fayetteville, it wasn’t crazy to think Arkansas could have won the division. But after Petrino’s firing, the Razorbacks are no longer a threat to win the West. Although Johnson is capable of leading the team for a season, look no further than North Carolina and Ohio State for case studies. Both programs had interim coaches in 2011 and underachieved.
With the uncertainty surrounding the program, it seems clear Arkansas will be picked by most to finish third in the SEC West this season. Auburn, Texas A&M or Mississippi State could threaten the Razorbacks for third place, but each have question marks at the quarterback position.
Not only is Arkansas in danger of falling from third place in the division, but a ranking among the top 10 teams in the preseason is unlikely.
Firing Petrino wasn’t an easy one for Long, and this decision will have a significant impact on Arkansas in 2012 and beyond. The Razorbacks had a chance to make a BCS bowl appearance or contend for the national title. Instead, Arkansas will likely finish with eight or nine wins and be fighting for a spot among the top 15-25 teams. The Razorbacks could also take a hit in recruiting, especially if no permanent coach is named before the 2012 season.
You never want to write off a team of Arkansas’ caliber before the season starts, but Petrino’s departure has raised some serious doubts about this team’s ability to stay in the SEC and national title picture.