Conventional wisdom dictates that Arkansas head coach Chad Morris deserves time to get the football program turned around. The Razorbacks (2-9 overall, 0-6 SEC) have been down in the ditch with Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle since that fateful April Fool’s Day in 2012. Arkansas is on its third coach and second athletic director since then, and have just a 13-42 conference record to show for it.
Outside of the win column, Morris has done some things to earn the fans’ patience. The Head Hog has been killing it on the recruiting trail, reeling in commitments from 4-star studs nearly weekly. The signing class of 2019 stands to be the highest rated at Arkansas since the experts started ranking these things some time ago.
Though the losses keep piling up, notable progress had been observed on the field. It sometimes feels like two steps forward and one step back, but you could still see Arkansas working to get better. Whether it was the defense holding firm in the loss to Texas A&M or the offense managing to put 31 points on the Alabama team that shut out LSU and Mississippi State consecutively, the Razorbacks nearly racked up enough moral victories to become bowl eligible. Even last week’s 24-17 loss to LSU, a game where the Hogs appeared to be stuck in mud for the first three quarters, had a somewhat happy ending as the boys battled back to make the final score seem more acceptable.
It was hoped the momentum from that fourth quarter outburst would carry over to this week’s matchup with Mississippi State. That was one of the few incentives to travel to Starkville for yet another 11 a.m. kickoff. It was the Hogs’ fifth early start this year.
Since 1999, Tusk to Tail has had at least someone in the stands for every game but one. That someone is usually the Godfather of Tailgating Craig May, but he is always joined by others. Our collective streak now stands at 168 straight games, and 248 of the last 249, but the streak was in jeopardy this week. TTT’s interest in traveling to the game may have been at an all time low.
“It’s hard to get excited about a game when you know you’re going to get demolished,” said May.
I used every argument at my disposal to convince May to ride down with Mark Wagner and me. Starkville is just over four hours from Little Rock, and both main routes feature classic food stops, including Charlie Vergos Rendezvous in Memphis or the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Miss. Tickets were already paid for, and hotel rooms were cheap. The weather would be sunny and clear, with highs in the mid-60s. And of course, even a bad day of SEC football beats a good day on the couch.
By Friday night, the three of us were barreling down the Mississippi highway with a belly full of Rendezvous ribs.
Tailgate tactician Dale Cullins was sitting this game out, so we were left on our own for planning. Cullins typically whips up a crock pot full of cheese dip and orders a platter of chicken for our guests. The three of us joked that we could split a 10-piece order of McNuggets and a jar of Cheez Whiz. In the end, we had nothing but the essentials: two bottles of liquor, some beer and mixers, a stack of red plastic cups, and some ice. Our entire party fit inside a small cooler that we carried with a shoulder strap.
Any worries that we would have no place to go were put to rest when we got to campus. There are only a handful of fans committed to attending every game, and we have come to know them all. Randall and Sherry Ford have been following the Hogs far longer than our gang, and have amassed an entourage of their own. We have combined forces for several traveling tailgates in the past.
Mark, Craig, and I dropped by the Ford’s tent, which provided a shady place to sit, listen to music, and visit with old friends. It felt like an early start to Thanksgiving. Once in the stadium, we ran into the rest of the Razorbacks die-hards, including Randy Cutting and his crew. Aside from the players’ families and the pep band, we knew most of the Arkansas travelers in the sparsely filled visitor’s section.
Mississippi State tends to get a bad rap. Starkville seems aptly named as a small college town nestled among fields of cotton and cows. Perhaps the smallest stadium in the SEC, their facilities were crude and outdated just a decade ago.
And then there are the cow bells.
On TV, 50,000 metal clangers practically blend together to form a sort of loud white noise. Inside Davis Wade Stadium, you can hear every damned one.
Once you get past the cacophony, however, Mississippi State is not a bad place to be. Their fans are generally warm and welcoming. The stadium and its facilities have been updated. The giant video boards and sound system are as nice as you would find in a much larger stadium, and keep the fans engaged throughout the game. Concessions cost literally half as much as what they charge in Fayetteville.
Although our ranks had thinned, I was feeling pretty good about my decision to travel to Starkville. Could last week’s momentum carry forward against State? It did, for about a quarter and a half.
The Hogs remained within striking distance despite struggling to score on the stingy Bulldog defense. Connor Limpert’s 32-yard field after halftime cut the deficit to 17-6, but the wheels had already begun to fall off. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw four touchdown passes and ran for another score to rout the Razorbacks 52-6. It was the Hogs’ worst game of the year by far, and it came in the next-to-last week of the season.
Accusing an athlete of quitting is one of the worst things that can be said, so I won’t do it here. But across Twitter, several players were singled out for their lack of effort, and nearly all of them are seniors. The Mississippi State media even alleged that some Arkansas players were flirting with members of the Bulldog dance squad when they should have been warming up for the game.
Assuming that is the case, do you blame Coach Morris for failing to get his upperclassmen to buy in, or use this season’s performance as proof that he can’t succeed until his roster is filled with the caliber of athlete he has been recruiting?
It is clearly going to take time to get the Arkansas football program turned around. But based on the thinning ranks within the visitor’s section Saturday, the clock has started ticking.
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.