Arkansas eyes "statement game" in season opener
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP)
It's not often that a Heisman Trophy hopeful calls a season opener against an FCS opponent a ''statement game.''
The game is far more than a garden-variety season opener for Arkansas, which went through an offseason of upheaval following coach Bobby Petrino's April 1 motorcycle accident with his mistress aboard. He was fired after it was learned he had hired the woman to work in the athletic department.
Former Michigan State and Louisville coach John L. Smith was hired in Petrino's wake, and the Razorbacks are eager to prove that Smith - who served as an assistant the last three seasons at Arkansas - is exactly the right answer for an experienced team with national championship aspirations.
''A lot of people have questions about this team, with everything that's gone on,'' center Travis Swanson said. ''We don't have any personnel changes, we have a coach who's been here in this program, so it's not like it's a philosophy that's different. I know people have questions with us, so we're going to try and let people know that we're the same team.''
The game also marks a return home of sorts for Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe, who led Arkansas into the Southeastern Conference 20 years ago. Crowe was the head coach of the Razorbacks from 1990 until after the 1992 season opener - a game the Razorbacks lost 10-3 to the Citadel. He was gone the following day.
Very little about the Arkansas program today resembles what Crowe left behind. The stadium has undergone a massive renovation and expansion and the Razorbacks are 21-5 over the last two seasons, a far cry from the 9-15 record Crowe amassed while at the helm.
''I don't think I'm going back to the Arkansas I left, and that's really a compliment,'' Crowe said. ''I do know the words to the fight song, though. I promise you, when they play it I'll be having the words in my head. I just hope they don't play it that much.''
Crowe said the game came about because of his relationship with Petrino, who he called after Kansas State returned a contract unsigned for this slot following Jacksonville State's narrow defeat to Florida State in 2009. The Gamecocks are no stranger to close games against FBS schools, and they beat Mississippi in double overtime two years ago.
The Razorbacks are well aware of that game and they know all about Jacksonville State running back Washaun Ealey, a Georgia transfer who led the Gamecocks with 1,082 yards rushing last season. Ealey had 87 yards on 18 carries against Arkansas while with the Bulldogs in 2010.
Along with Wilson, who earned first-team All-SEC honors last season while throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns, the Razorbacks have their share of playmakers as well. Arkansas led the SEC in total offense and scoring last season, which was Wilson's first as the starter.
The senior bypassed the NFL draft following last season, and he's made no secret of the fact that he did so to win an SEC and national championship.
''I think they're the best offensive football team in America,'' Crowe said. ''I think (Wilson) is better than the guy out at Southern Cal (Matt Barkley), because I think he's a better overall athlete.''
The Razorbacks are also expected to return one of their other top playmakers Saturday when running back Knile Davis takes the field for the first time in a game since Sugar Bowl two seasons ago. Davis led all SEC running backs in rushing in 2010 with 1,322 yards, but he missed last season after breaking his left ankle during preseason camp. The junior didn't take a live hit until a week ago during a closed scrimmage.
Smith said Davis is ready to go, though he expects to ease him back into action. For his part, Davis has reminded himself that the season is a marathon, not a sprint - especially with a visit from defending national champion Alabama looming in two weeks.
''This is not (my) first season,'' Davis said. ''I know how it's going to go. It's going to be a long season in the SEC, but we want to start off right and I think we will.''
Since taking over for Petrino, Smith has done little to alter the Razorbacks' style or preparation methods. Both have worked well in recent years, with back-to-back double-digit win seasons, and Smith expects no less this season.
''I'm excited about it; I'm fired up,'' Smith said. ''I know our kids are going to be fired up and are looking forward to having a good year, having a great year, having a special year.''
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.