There was little reason to bother traveling to Auburn. The trip is just a little more than 1,300 miles round trip from Fayetteville. Saturday’s forecast called for 90 degrees of grueling Alabama sunshine, simmering in about 90% humidity with no breeze all day. Then there was the matter of the football game itself.
Arkansas was 1-2 after choking away an 18-point lead at Colorado State and getting run from our own stadium by North Texas 44-17. Video of the Mean Green’s fake fair catch punt return had gone viral far beyond the sports community, alerting God and everybody that the Razorbacks’ special teams may be anything but special.
In the other corner stood the 9th ranked Auburn Tigers. Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn had more than 50 million reasons to prove his team was better than the Hogs after flirting with Arkansas just long enough to earn a big raise during the offseason. Losing to LSU on a last-second field goal the previous week was expected to leave the Tigers feeling less than hospitable. And oh, by the way, Auburn had stomped a 56-3 mud hole in the Razorbacks when they last visited The Plains in 2016. Things weren’t nearly as bad last year, when the Tigers eked out a 52-20 win in Fayetteville.
It was clear that the herd of Hog Fans had thinned as the Tusk to Tail caravan headed southeast. On a typical SEC football weekend, we would be flanked by Arkansas SUVs adorned in Razorback flags and magnets, meandering along the Mississippi and Alabama highways.
On this trip we were virtually alone.
Our own travel party was hardly big enough to field a starting lineup this week. Vehicles originating in Fayetteville, Little Rock, Atlanta, and Florida all convened on campus Saturday morning. Before long, we had transformed a littered field by Auburn’s old track into a shady tailgate oasis.
“I wonder if Bo Jackson used to run on this track,” asked a guest as we unloaded gear and began to assemble our mobile tent city.
“Good question,” I replied. “I wonder if I could get a drink?”
Stashed among two loads of tailgating accesories was Tusk to Tail’s secret weapon. Though just about everyone has pop up tents and camping chairs, crock pots and big screen TVs, we are one of the few I’ve encountered with a full size traveling bar, complete with a wide beach-style umbrella offering several more feet of appreciated shade. Similar to how the party always winds up in a home’s kitchen, it is little wonder that the Tusk to Tailgate often centers around our bar.
Think of us as your tailgating sommelier. Rather than pairing a wine with your meat or fish, we mix the perfect drink to pair with this particular season of antipathy and despair. We offer support by the glass, and it is frequently greeted with an open gullet.
Our signature cocktail is known as a John Daly, because it’s an alcoholic adaptation of the classic Arnold Palmer. It’s a refreshing combination of sweet tea vodka and lemonade. Of course all the standard liquors are also available, as well as a wide assortment of beer. TTT makes a conscious effort to sample the local breweries when we travel. This week we bought a couple of six packs from Back Forty Brewing out of Gadsden. We chose their Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale for their names more than reputation, but both seemed genuinely well received. The cold Truck Stop I drank after we had torn down and loaded out after the game may have been the highlight of my Saturday.
These are confounding times for Hog fans. Just a few years ago, we made these trips because we expected to win, or at least have a chance. These days we don’t even find out who is playing quarterback until the Monday before the game.
Fewer people than I can ever recall care to see the Razorbacks right now, and that includes opposing fans. Ticket brokers and jilted Auburn season ticket holders waved thousands of unused tickets in the air outside the stadium, hoping to get pennies on the dollar from some last minute buyer. If you wished to shop online, the Stubhub app had decent tickets for $10 available on game day.
Inside the stadium, they managed to squeeze all the visiting Arkies into one section behind the band. It felt like we knew almost everyone there. We sat one row behind Randall Ford, and a few more back from Randy Cutting, both of whom have been traveling to see the Hogs play far longer than any member of TTT. Cutting’s crew joined us before the game, and some of the ladies wore matching tee shirts to celebrate their “left lane closed, hammered down roadtrip.” One new face in the visitor’s section was freshman linebacker Bumper Pool’s mother, beaming with pride from her son’s performance.
Once it became obvious this would be another lost season, we reduced all expectations. The Mean Green fiasco had us pining to just see noticeable improvement in at least one phase of the game. Saturday we got that improvement from the defense. You wouldn’t know it from the final score, but those guys harassed Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham all night long, and held Auburn’s potent rushing attack to less than 100 yards. They never quit.
It’s strange to take a moral victory from a 31-point beatdown. But Arkansas has not scored a touchdown in Auburn since Bret Bielema’s second season, back in 2014. Assuming Coach Chad Morris can ever get this offense going, a respectable defense would go a long way toward keeping the Hogs competitive. Having young players emerge as leaders gives something to build upon in the future.
On the flip side, the Razorbacks’ special teams performance was abysmal, continuously giving Auburn a short field, if not a return TD. Depending on who you ask, the Hogs’ special teams struggles resulted from either coaching or lack of talent. Following the Tigers’ return for a touchdown, Jim Harris opined there were “too many walk-ons on that kickoff team against Auburn’s speed.” The rest of Twitter seems to believe Arkansas needs a coach dedicated to special teams. Adam Ford pointed out that “The last Arkansas coach to have a dedicated special teams coordinator — Bobby Petrino — had fantastic special teams in Fayetteville.”
What Ford failed to mention was that special teams genius was none other than John L. Smith, the mastermind behind 2012’s “Season from L.” Be careful what you wish for.
I have little doubt that Morris and his staff are spread too thin stomping out fires elsewhere to teach kicking and receiving, too. But it is clearly too much a part of the game to leave ignored. It will be interesting to see how Coach addresses the units while attempting to harness any positive momentum from Saturday’s blowout at Auburn .
These are confounding times for Hog fans. There was little reason to bother traveling to Auburn, but those of us who went have few regrets. Some of us will travel again next week to Dallas to see Arkansas play Texas A&M for the first time since the Aggies hired coach Jimbo Fisher for $75 million.
We are Tusk to Tail. This is what we do.
Editor’s note: Welcome to the seventh season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by the River Valley Smile Center … because it’s another dang rebuilding year and you’re gonna need a good smile to get through the season. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.