FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas opens the 2012 season against Jacksonville State.
It’s a nonconference game against an opponent from a lower level (Football Championship Subdivision). So the Razorbacks, who are heavy favorites, have much bigger tests looming. But the way Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson sounded Monday, the Razorbacks are preparing for an enormous opportunity tonight.
“This is a statement game for us,” Wilson said. “This is the first time you guys are going to see us live and the rest of our state. And we’re going to put on a show.”
Arkansas, which is five months removed from Bobby Petrino’s program-shaking motorcycle ride, as well as a handful of arrests and dismissals, finally emerges from the shadows of an ugly offseason when it plays Jacksonville State at 6 p.m.
The Razorbacks are under new leadership in John L. Smith, who will work the sideline as a head coach for the first time since 2006. But Wilson and the Razorbacks see the opener as an opportunity to prove little else has changed with the program as it begins a journey Arkansas hopes will end with championships.
“A lot of people have questions about this team with everything that’s gone on,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “But we haven’t had any personnel changes. We have the same coaches, and we have a coach who’s been here in this program.
“So it’s not like there’s been any change in philosophy. … I know people have questions about us, so we’re going to try and show them we’re the same team.”
The Razorbacks are trying to add another impressive chapter to its recent run, which included last season’s 11-2 finish and a No. 5 ranking. Familiar faces like Wilson, running back Knile Davis, linebacker Tenarius Wright and receiver Cobi Hamilton remain, too, helping Arkansas earn a preseason No. 10 ranking.
Smith said his team isn’t concerned about the preseason positioning, though.
The goal, beginning tonight, is to take a step toward a championship.
“We have to have singleness of purpose, singleness of vision and make sure we concentrate,” Smith said. “It can’t be next week. It has to be this week. It has to be this play, this moment in time. If we learn to do that we can be a good football team.”
Smith, who is nearing the halfway point of the 10-month contract he agreed to in returning last April, hasn’t been shy about embracing expectations for the program this season. There’s no guarantee for his future past the 2012 season, so Smith understands the stakes as he guides Arkansas with optimism.
“I’m fired up,” Smith said. “I know our kids are going to be fired up and looking forward to having a good year. Having a great year. Having a special year.”
Players have equally embraced the coach’s return, understanding his decision to leave Weber State last spring was key to providing stability through rocky times.
They have stood strong on their own, too. It’s well-documented Wilson and linebacker Tenarius Wright emerged as leaders the moment Petrino’s firing was announced to the team. Several others have followed suit, since.
Players insist the turmoil did nothing but band them together for the season.
“After all the stuff that happened, it’s really between each other,” receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “We committed to each other that this is a team. We’re going to stick together no matter who is coaching us. Whoever is coaching us, the players don’t change. That’s what we said at the beginning and that’s what we’re riding through.”
It begins against a Jacksonville State team that has done the unthinkable before, knocking off Ole Miss 49-48 in an overtime thriller to open the 2010 season.
Jack Crowe, who was fired at Arkansas’ coach after a similar loss to The Citadel in the 1992 opener, said it’s clear how big of a challenge his team faces today. Bobby Petrino won’t be on the sideline, but what remains has impressed Crowe.
“I tell you what’s there,” Crowe said. “He built a hell of a football team.”
Tonight’s game will be the first time Paul Petrino has called plays for the Hogs after working with his brother in 2008 and 2009. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes also rolls out a defense looking to build off last January’s Cotton Bowl success.
Arkansas, which does have questions at positions like linebacker, safety and the offensive line, is confident the reviews will be favorable when the night is over.
“We just have to go out and do what we’ve been coached to do,” Hamilton said.
“These last two or three weeks, these last three or four years, if these guys are just doing what we’ve been coached to do our whole career good things will happen.”
The coaches and players are deserving of it, too, after surviving the rocky offseason.
So Arkansas sees tonight as not just the first opportunity to show it is a championship-caliber team. It’s a chance to let everyone know the tumultuous offseason has not been a distraction as they press on toward their lofty goals.
“After all we’ve been through, this is a long-time coming,” cornerback Darius Winston said. “It’s the first game. Everyone is pumped up and excited and ready to get after it. That’s why it’s a statement game. You want to show you’re ready.”
JACKSONVILLE STATE AT NO. 10 ARKANSAS
KICKOFF: 6 p.m. TV: PPV.
WHERE: Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville.
RADIO: Razorback Sports Network.
SATELLITE RADIO: Sirus (Ch. 107), XM (Ch. 200)
2011 RECORDS: Jacksonville State Gamecocks, 7-4, 6-2 (tied, first) Ohio Valley Conference; Arkansas Razorbacks, 11-2, 6-2 (third, West) Southeastern Conference.
LAST GAME: Jacksonville State defeated Tennessee State 38-16 on Nov. 19 in Nashville, Tenn.; Arkansas defeated Kansas State 29-16 on Jan. 6 in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
SERIES: First meeting.
COACHES: Jacksonville State, Jack Crowe (81-52, 12th season; 95-82 overall, 16th season); Arkansas, John L. Smith (0-0, first season; 132-86 overall, 19th season)