Razorbacks' improvement lies in the eye of the beholder
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas made a two-victory improvement from 2001 to 2002 and advanced to the Southeastern Conference championship game by grabbing a share of the Western Division title in dramatic fashion.
However, instead of guarding against an offseason full of celebration hangovers, the Razorbacks spent the time defending their postseason performance and trying to focus on what went right throughout the year.
Arkansas was 9-3 after Matt Jones' 31-yard pass to DeCori Birmingham produced a 21-20 victory over LSU in the final game of the regular season.
But embarrassing losses to Georgia (30-3) in the SEC title game and Minnesota (29-14) in the Music City Bowl left Arkansas feeling sour about an otherwise solid season.
"It was bad. It was really bad, especially the last game," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "If you win that, you win 10 ball games and you have that momentum. It was a bad feeling in January."
Nutt said the Razorbacks ran out of gas after playing 11 straight weeks and overcoming the emotional loss of senior defensive co-captain Jermaine Brooks, who was kicked off the team following his arrest on drug and weapons charges, on which he was later convicted.
"There's some things there that are behind us and we're going forward," Nutt said. "We still won. We won nine last year but that's not the way we want to finish. Winning nine out of 12 was a great season."
Critics also point out that Arkansas lost to Kentucky at Fayetteville, the Wildcats' first SEC road victory at a place other than Vanderbilt since 1999. Also, there were narrow victories over Louisiana-Lafayette (24-17) and Mississippi State (26-19), who was winless in SEC play for the first time since 1988.
While the Razorbacks don't have to play 11 straight games without a week off this year, their schedule didn't get any easier. Arkansas plays at Texas, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, and its trip to Alabama is followed by home games against SEC preseason favorite Auburn and Florida.
To combat that schedule, Nutt is looking to diversify an offense that led the SEC in rushing last year behind All-America tackle Shawn Andrews. The 6-foot-5, 370-pound tackle was the Razorbacks' first sophomore to earn that honor.
He'll be joined by three other starters on the line, but leading rusher Fred Talley, who was third in the league with 1,119 yards, is gone. Fifth-year senior Cedric Cobbs and sophomore De'Arrius Howard, who gained 595 yards and rushed for seven touchdowns last year, will take his place.
Quarterback Matt Jones is the top returning rusher with 614 yards, but the junior who led Arkansas to two of its biggest victories ever is on the move.
As a freshman, he led the Razorbacks to a seven-overtime 58-56 victory at Ole Miss in 2001. Last year, he was 2-of-13 before two completions for 81 yards in the final 34 seconds beat LSU.
However, a loose shoulder joint keeps Jones from throwing all the time in practice, so he split his spring workouts between wide receiver and quarterback. Nutt hopes to use Jones' speed and his 6-foot-6 frame to give Arkansas the deep receiver it has lacked in recent years.
"He's a playmaker and he doesn't mind the ball being in his hands," said Roy Witkke, Arkansas' new quarterbacks coach.
For Jones to spend much time at receiver, senior Ryan Sorahan will need to perform.
In two years at Arkansas, Sorahan has thrown just 73 passes, with six interceptions. His only touchdown pass came late in the Razorbacks' loss to Minnesota last year.
Sorahan, who can file a medical hardship appeal and receive another year of eligibility after playing in just three games in 2001, had a good spring. He didn't throw an interception during four major scrimmages and he's worked the hitch out of his throwing motion.
Nutt said he's not sure how the two-quarterback system will work. He's only sure that Arkansas needs it to work well.
"That's going to be the subject until we walk out there on the field for that first game," Nutt said. "I'm glad we have both of them. We're going to need both of them.
"Matt Jones has won some games for us. That's why it's so hard to say 'Go out there and play wideout.' He's a phenomenal athlete."
Nutt will try to tie a mark set by two former Arkansas coaches with a sixth straight bowl berth this year. Current South Carolina coach Lou Holtz led the Razorbacks to bowls in his first six years at Arkansas from 1977-82. Current Rice coach Ken Hatfield led the Razorbacks to a bowl game in all six years he spent in Fayetteville from 1984-89.
Nutt (39-23 in five seasons) returns 16 starters, 17 if fullback Mark Pierce returns from a personal leave of absence, so he's excited about Arkansas' chances of making up for last season's finish.
"I have a good group of guys that have won a lot of games," Nutt said. "We have a good junior and senior class."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index