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July 18, 2012

Hogs have ground to make up

John L. Smith expected to be a head football coach again in 2012.

However, Smith figured it would be at his alma mater Weber State. But, the poor decisions made by Bobby Petrino led to a series of events which put Smith in charge at Arkansas.

Smith had been the special teams coordinator the past three years under Petrino at Arkansas. Following the Razorbacks' 11-win season in 2011, Smith took the job at FCS member Weber State. But, Smith ended up being the interim head coach at Arkansas after Petrino was fired.

Now, the veteran Smith is taking over a program which is attempting to find a way to knock off LSU and Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Western Division. A year ago, the Razorbacks were unbeaten except for a pair of 24-point losses against the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.

"Those two teams did get after us last year," said Smith at SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. on Wednesday morning. "What takes place before we line up against those guys is important if we're going to beat them. We have to work harder in the weight room. We have to work harder in the summer time.

"The kids are accepting the challenge. They have to be tougher mentally to believe they can beat those guys. Then, they have to work in the weight room to be physically ready to compete against these guys."

Arkansas will play both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville this year. The Tigers have not made a visit to Fayetteville since 1992 when they lost 30-6. Of course, Smith is auditioning to become the full-time Razorbacks coach. There is no doubt that Smith wants to keep this job.

"Well, certainly," answered Smith in a question referring to his desire to be the Arkansas coach in the future. "Do I look stupid? But, that is to be determined. What is that number of victories I need (to keep the job) I don't know.

"I don't know I our athletic director (Jeff Long) knows what that number is. Arkansas gave me a chance. I want to do my best so they say that they want me back next year."

Smith has been a head coach at four other schools - Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. Ironically, Petrino was an assistant for Smith at every school except for Michigan State. Smith acknowledged that he has learned some things from his previous times as head coach.

"I am a big believer that you continue to grow," Smith said. "Looking back at Michigan State, I had to go through some battles. My wife had cancer. The president who hired me left. I've learned you can't take anything for granted. If you have a six-year contract, don't take for granted you'll be there for six years."

AUBURN

Two seasons ago, the Tigers won the national championship. But, in coach Gene Chizik's mind, that title came in the midst of rebuilding a program. Much of the credit for that 14-0 season and national crown must go to quarterback Cam Newton.

When Newton left for the NFL after one season, Auburn's on-field results dipped. The Tigers knocked off Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to finish with an 8-5 record. For Chizik, that victory was an important one in his building process.

"The Chick-fil-A Bowl was a big moment for us," Chizik said. That night a lot of young football players stepped up to the plate. That victory gave us some momentum as we propelled ourselves into the offseason. That game put us on the map as far as our confidence.

"After so many years, we have developed some depth and we have some experience. We have 16 returning starters and we have others pushing those guys. I feel a lot better about our program now than I did last year at this time."

Auburn had its problems last season in games against the SEC's best teams. The Tigers lost games to LSU, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas by an average score of 43-11. Auburn came no closer in those four games than its 38-14 setback at Arkansas.

However, the Tigers have been very good in close games. Auburn has won its last ten games decided by fewer than eight points. The Tigers' last defeat in a close game came against Alabama (26-21) in the 2009 regular season finale - Chizik's first season as coach.

"Our kids have found ways to win those close games," Chizik said. "It's ingrained in our kids those games decided by seven points or less are ones we'll win."

MISSISSIPPI STATE

The tone was different from Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen at this year's SEC football media days. There was little talk of Mississippi State cracking the upper echelon of the SEC West.

The Bulldogs felt they were ready to be the surprise team in the SEC in 2011. But, a seven-point loss at Auburn in the conference opener set the tone for the season. For the third straight year under Mullen, Mississippi State failed to beat any divisional opponent other than Ole Miss.

The Bulldogs have lost three games to Alabama by an average of 22 points, three games to Arkansas by an average of 18 points, three games to LSU by an average of 13 points and three games to Auburn by an average of 12 points.

"The entire league is so tough," Mullen said. "You have to bring your 'A' game each week whether it's a (SEC) West game or a cross-divisional game. Right now, what makes the SEC different is the depth of quality teams.

"The margin of error in winning and losing in this league is so small. That's the case in every game, not just one or two games. There are no games you can check off as a victory."

The Bulldogs needed a bowl victory against Wake Forest to finish with a winning record. Mississippi State brings back 11 starters from last season - just four on offense. The Bulldogs offense may look different with Tyler Russell as the definite No. 1 guy at quarterback.

"Tyler is a pure passer," Mullen said. "He's more like Alex Smith when we had him at Utah. Tyler is a drop-back passer. The stage won't be too big for him this year. We also have five senior wide receivers. We might use 30 percent of our offense we haven't used too much in the past."

FLORIDA

It is hard to believe that just four years ago the Gators were enjoying their second national championship in three seasons. Since Alabama defeated Florida one year later in the 2009 SEC title game, Gators' football fortunes have been in a slide.

Beginning with the loss to the Crimson Tide, Florida has a 16-12 overall record, including a 7-10 mark against SEC teams. Will Muschamp, in his first year as Urban Meyer's replacement as Gators coach, needed a Gator Bowl victory to avoid a losing season.

As amazing as it may be, Muschamp sounds like a coach trying to build a program.

"We didn't meet expectations at Florida last year," Muschamp said. "We didn't get the results on the field. But, we did all the right things off the field. We were good in the weight room. We had discipline. We are heading in the right direction."

Florida struggled on offense last season as it produced just 25.5 points per game. Muschamp had an explanation for the offensive problems - the injury to senior quarterback John Brantley.

"Brantley went down in the fifth game and he was not healthy until the Gator Bowl," Muschamp said. "So, we played two freshman quarterbacks (Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett). We lost Brantley and we lost a lot of confidence in our offense. That affected the whole football team.

"Then, we had a lack of depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage. We were outrushed in seven games. That's a sign of losing at the line of scrimmage. This is a line of scrimmage league. We were 113th in turnover margin. It's a minor miracle we won seven games."

KENTUCKY

The Wildcats' five-year streak of advancing to a bowl game ended last season when they came up one shy of the necessary six victories. A loss at Georgia in its 11th game extinguished Kentucky's chance at reaching the postseason.

However, Wildcats coach Joker Phillips feels good about what happened in the final month of the 2011 campaign. Kentucky split its last four games with victories against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Phillips, who has a 4-12 SEC record in his two seasons, is hoping that stretch was a sign of things to come.

"What makes us excited is how we finished last year," Phillips said. "A lot of true freshmen and true sophomore were thrust into roles last year. We saw a lot of those guys making huge plays in those games.

"We didn't reach our goal of making it into a sixth straight bowl game. But, one of our goals was to win our last game. We did that. We had lost our bowl games the previous two years."

Of course, no victory was more significant for the Wildcats than the one in the season finale against the Volunteers. Kentucky edged Tennessee 10-7 in an ugly game for its first victory against the Vols in 27 years. The Wildcats won the game with a wide receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback.

"It was big that we fulfilled one of our goals by winning the last game," Phillips said. "But, how we won the game was also important. We would not have been able to play like we did on offense if we did not play great special teams and if we did not play great defense.

"We ran the football. We protected the football. We played field position. We stopped the run and created turnovers. The way we won that game gave us a chance to grow the program. We don't have to score 35 points to win games. We just have to do all the little things."


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