FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson would love nothing more than to play the role of spoiler this week.
Any hopes of a bowl game ended in a loss at Mississippi State last week for the Razorbacks (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference), who began the season ranked in the top 10.
What began with national championship dreams, even following former coach Bobby Petrino’s firing in April, will come to a certain end when Arkansas hosts No. 8 LSU (9-2, 5-2) on Friday. How things play out after that for the Razorbacks, including the identity of their new coach, is unknown.
The Tigers still have expectations of a BCS bowl game – and are clinging to hopes of re-entering the SEC and national championship pictures.
“This is it,” Wilson said. “... So, why not go out there and light it up one more time? That’s how I’m looking at it.”
Wilson wasn’t the only one to let his guard down this week.
Interim coach John L. Smith, whose return after taking over for the scandal-ridden Petrino is unlikely, fought back tears while looking back at the Razorbacks’ disappointing season. Arkansas began the season ranked in the top 10 before an early season loss to Louisiana-Monroe sent it tumbling from the polls and began a four-game losing streak from which the Razorbacks never recovered.
Smith, whose open personality was welcomed upon his return in April, took criticism for his same upbeat nature once the losses began to pile up. His coaching fate now lies in the hands of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long following Friday’s game.
“We’re sorry again we couldn’t have maybe done more,” Smith said.
While the Razorbacks’ postseason is expected to be filled with transition to a new coaching staff, LSU is hopeful of a return to a BCS bowl game and possibly more.
The Tigers appeared out of the SEC and national championship pictures following a Nov. 3 loss to Alabama, but they are currently the highest-ranked, two-loss team and could potentially player their way back into next weekend’s conference title game. Of course, that’s only possible if Auburn shocks the No. 2 Crimson Tide this weekend — and LSU wins.
“We don’t control our own destiny,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “But winning 10 games and going to a BCS bowl is exactly our motivation. Our season is not over. We have to finish the season strong. We want to get a win over Arkansas and see what bowl game we can get.”
The Tigers hope the rebirth of their once-anemic passing game continues on Friday against the Razorbacks, who are 115th in the country in allowing 292.1 yards passing per game. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggled in the starting role earlier this season, but he’s averaged 284.3 yards passing over his last three games.
A win would also give the Tigers double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years under coach Les Miles, who is well aware of the difficulty of playing against Wilson and Arkansas — which has won three of its last five games against LSU.
“When you watch their film, you can see why they were ranked in the top 10 to start the season, and they’re still there,” Miles said. “The quality players have played hard. John L. Smith (is) in a tough position in this last game, but I’m sure that he’ll be ready, and I’m sure that this Arkansas team will play inspired.”
Injuries and fallout from the transition from Petrino — who was fired for hiring his mistress to a position in the athletic department and initially lying about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident — were too much for Arkansas to overcome this season.
Still, Smith pleaded for fans to support the Razorbacks this week when they host LSU in Fayetteville for the first time since 1992, the school’s first season in the SEC. Arkansas’ home game with the Tigers has been played in its home away from home in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium since, and it’s been the sight of several memorable last-second finishes between the rivals.
One of those dramatic games was a 31-30 Arkansas win in 2008, a game that gave the Razorbacks a 5-7 record in their first season under Petrino. The game was a springboard to future success for Arkansas, which was 21-5 the last two seasons and won the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State last season.
Wilson’s senior class was a part of much of the success. And given the circumstances of the season, he couldn’t think of a better way to close out his career.
“Little Rock’s great, and it’s been tradition to be there, for sure,” Wilson said. “But, not being able to go to a bowl game at this point, to wrap up my career here in Fayetteville is the perfect ending. This is where you’d want to play your last