The overriding feeling in the Ozarks was that this would be Bobby Petrino’s best football team at Arkansas.
But now that he’s not going to be around to coach that team, where do the Hogs go from here?
As we saw with both North Carolina and Ohio State a year ago, it’s never easy to navigate a season when your coach has been sent packing in the months leading up to that season.
Granted, Butch Davis was fired at North Carolina about a month before the 2011 season began, and Jim Tressel was forced out heading into June.
So Arkansas’ coaches and players at least have a little more time to process the situation, but this is the kind of thing that can fester for even the most resilient of football teams.
One day, Petrino is there, firmly in control and feverishly building on last season’s No. 5 finish in the polls.
And then one ill-fated motorcycle ride later, he’s gone.
There’s no way to prepare for such a sudden transition, no textbook, no therapist who can all of a sudden make everything right again.
Put yourself in the place of the Arkansas players.
Petrino had guided them to this position, and together, they engineered the kind of success the Hogs haven’t had for 30 years. He talks about doing things the right way, being accountable to your teammates and never losing sight of the fact that you’re representing an entire university and an entire state when you put on that Arkansas uniform.
Those words ring hollow now, and the only thing more hollow is the feeling that everybody associated with the football program must be experiencing.
There are so many unanswered questions going forward.
Petrino had obviously done a masterful job in making the Hogs relevant again nationally, so losing his leadership is one thing.
But what about his offensive genius?
Few coaches in football have a better feel for the game when it comes to breaking down defenses and calling plays.
Petrino called all of the Hogs’ plays on offense, so losing that dynamic is a huge blow.
What this team has going for it is talent, not to mention experience in key spots.
Talent has a way of covering up even the nastiest of wounds.
Having one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC helps, too, and Tyler Wilson now has a full season as a starter under his belt.
Wilson’s leadership in 2012 will be crucial. The same goes for running back Knile Davis, who knows a little something about dealing with hardship.
Davis, who missed all of last season after injuring his ankle, was already an inspiration to his teammates with the way he has continued to fight back from injuries.
The Hogs are going to need him more than ever, both on and off the field, in 2012.
Petrino had overhauled his defensive staff in the offseason, and it just so happens that two of the guys he brought in -- defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and linebackers/interim head coach Taver Johnson -- were at Ohio State last season.
If anybody has a clue what Arkansas is about to face, it’s Haynes and Johnson. They lived it last season with the Buckeyes following Tressel’s ouster.
Ultimately, the coaches will only be able to do so much.
If the Hogs are going to keep 2012 from being a lost season and fulfill the promise everybody had for this team prior to Petrino’s dismissal, it’s going to be on the players.
They have the talent to weather the storm. We’ll find out in the fall if they have the fortitude.