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Nutt displays Midas touch in Arkansas' title run

You're a college football coach earning more than $1.5 million per year, and the boosters and alumni are calling for your head after your teams finished the last two seasons with losing records. Your team has lost 19 of its last 37 games, including 16 of 25 against conference opponents, which are the only results that really matter at your football-crazy school.

Other suitors have stopped calling after you reportedly turned down LSU and Nebraska, and your program has done essentially nothing since it played in its conference championship game in 2002 -- a contest which it lost very badly, by the way.

So with your multiyear contract on the line, and the legendary athletics director and everyone else in the state wanting better results right this minute, what do you do?

Well, if you're Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, you turn your offense over to a high school coach. Then you hand the starting quarterback job to an untested true freshman after your team gets hammered in its opener by USC for the second season in a row.

And then, even more unpredictably, you bench that homegrown hero after he has thrown only one pass in an SEC road game -- and won each of the previous seven games no less -- and replace him with a lesser-regarded quarterback who has barely played a lick since hurting his back in the preseason.

In Arkansas, where they're calling the Hogs louder than ever before, they might start calling their football coach King Midas. Because every decision Nutt has made this season has turned into gold, regardless of how wacky many seemed at the time.

Arkansas is 9-1 and No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series standings and can win the SEC West with a victory at Mississippi State on Saturday. If the Razorbacks beat the Bulldogs, then defeat LSU in Little Rock, Ark., on Nov. 24 and Florida in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Dec. 2, they could even end up in the Jan. 8 BCS title game, if a few teams ahead of them in the BCS standings (most notably No. 3 USC), lose before the final standings are released Dec. 3.

"I think it's just one of those years," Nutt said. "I think after that first game, a lot of people jumped off the bandwagon. But every move we've made, we made for the betterment of the team."

Nutt faced difficult choices after the Hogs finished 5-6 in 2004 and 4-7 in 2005. He had always served as his own offensive coordinator, after he was groomed on that side of the football while working under Lou Holtz at Arkansas and Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State. Nutt quickly turned around Division I-AA Murray State in Kentucky with a high-scoring offense in his first head coaching job, then helped lay the groundwork for Boise State's resurgence with a 5-6 record in 1997.

Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles hired Nutt as the Hogs' new coach in 1998 after Danny Ford was fired after consecutive 4-7 seasons. Nutt, who played quarterback at Arkansas for two seasons before transferring to Oklahoma State because he wasn't a good fit for Holtz's option offense, quickly turned the Razorbacks into winners.

The Razorbacks were the SEC West co-champions in his first season in 1998 and played Michigan in the Capital One Bowl, then went 8-4 and beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl the following season. The high point came in 2002, when Arkansas won the SEC West and played Georgia in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs beat the Hogs 30-3, and Arkansas lost to Minnesota 29-14 in the Music City Bowl.

Arkansas recovered to finish 9-4 in 2003, including a 38-28 upset of No. 5 Texas in Austin, but the Hogs were only 4-4 in the SEC and played in the lesser Independence Bowl.

Then the bottom fell out.

Arkansas went 5-6 in 2004, losing five of its last seven games. The Hogs were 4-7 last season, including an embarrassing 70-17 loss at USC.

Worse, the program was placed on three years' probation by the NCAA in 2003 for rules violations, which mostly included athletes receiving improper wages from a trucking company owned by a booster in Dallas. The Hogs lost 10 scholarships and this season were allowed to award the maximum 85 scholarships for the first time since 2000-01.

"We knew it was coming," Nutt said. "I was standing on the sideline at the Cotton Bowl [in 1999] and told Coach Broyles, 'Everybody's feeling good right now.' But since 2000, everybody was spreading rumors about the death penalty and all that. I don't think we'd ever gone through this if we hadn't been on NCAA probation. It took the NCAA so long to come up with a conclusion.

"We had to pay for some sins from the past. We had two recruiting classes that were awful. In this league, you can't have one bad recruiting year. I knew those two years were coming, but when you're going to the Capital One Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, people don't see it."

Nutt saw signs of improvement last season. Tailback Darren McFadden ran for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman and looked like the kind of player the Hogs could build their offense around. But without quarterback Matt Jones, who left after the 2004 season, the Razorbacks ranked 108th in the country in passing. Arkansas started both Robert Johnson and Casey Dick last season, but neither was very effective.

Nutt knew his team needed a better quarterback, and there was one less than a 20-minute drive from the Arkansas campus. Mitch Mustain, who was widely regarded as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country, had thrown for more than 3,800 yards and 47 touchdowns as a senior at nearby Springdale High School. He was being recruited by Alabama, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame, Tennessee and dozens of other top Division I-A programs. Mustain committed to the Hogs before his senior season, but then backed off when Arkansas struggled.

So when Nutt hired Springdale High coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator and receivers coach in December 2005, other coaches viewed it as a move of desperation, so the Hogs could get the quarterback they needed.

Malzahn, who turned 41 last month, said he interviewed for Arkansas' quarterback job four years ago and wasn't hired. Nutt also hired former NFL assistant Alex Wood, who tutored pro quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George, as his quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator about a month after Malzahn was hired.

"There were a lot of questions [when Malzahn was hired]," Nutt said. "The thing you have to have is a good supporting cast. We weren't going to put Gus out on an island. We work Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and game plan together. We study film together and put it on the board and go from there. We've got a passing game coordinator and a running game coordinator [offensive line coach Mike Markuson]. We're not going to take a guy from high school and put him on his own. He's got great help and he's got a great mind."

Malzahn said he kept much of Arkansas' running plays and added new passing plays and formations. McFadden, from North Little Rock, Ark., played quarterback a bit in high school, so they added packages to put him in the shotgun. McFadden has run out of the formation and thrown two touchdowns on two pass attempts.

"He's so versatile," Malzahn said. "We were just trying to find different ways in the spring to get him the ball. He played quarterback in high school and it looked good in the spring. We move him out to wide receiver a little bit, too."

McFadden, who is 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, dislocated a toe during a fight outside a nightclub in late July, so he played sparingly in the Hogs' 50-14 loss to USC in the opener. Since then, McFadden has run for 100 yards or more in six of nine games, including 219 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-20 win at South Carolina on Nov. 4.

"The only other back I've coached that is ahead of him is Barry Sanders," Nutt said. "And Barry Sanders, to me, was the best in the world. But I'll put McFadden right under him. He's got unbelievable speed. He'll run over a guy and then he'll outrun one."

It was during the South Carolina game that Nutt made perhaps his biggest gamble of the season. After replacing Robert Johnson following the USC game, Mustain led the Hogs to seven consecutive victories. He threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-19 win at Vanderbilt, in which the Commodores missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt with 55 seconds left that might have won the game. Mustain threw three interceptions in a 24-23 win over Alabama on Sept. 23, a game the Hogs won only after the Tide missed an extra-point kick in overtime and three field goals in regulation.

So with Mustain hitting a wall, and Dick fully recovered from a back injury that sidelined him during the preseason, Nutt and Malzahn decided to make the switch after Mustain threw an interception on his first attempt at South Carolina. Dick came off the bench and threw for 228 yards and one touchdown against the Gamecocks.

"I was pretty surprised, to be honest with you," Dick said. "I didn't think coach would put me in that early in the game. He told me to be ready to go during practice that week. But I didn't think I'd be going in that soon."

Nutt decided to stick with Dick again last week, and the sophomore threw for 154 yards and one touchdown on 10-for-15 passing in a 31-14 win over Tennessee.

"Casey was probably ready by the second or third game, but we were on a roll and Mitch was playing so well," Nutt said. "It's kind of hard to make the switch. But we got into the meat of the SEC schedule, and defenses are getting a little faster and you're going on the road. It's a lot tougher. Whether it was the heat of the game or pressure or whatever, Mitch wasn't playing as well. So we decided to make the change."

And given Nutt's track record this season, no one in Arkansas is questioning him anymore.

On (and Off) the Mark
On the Mark

Big upsets. Georgia over Auburn. Arizona over California. Kansas State over Texas. Rutgers over Louisville. We don't have playoffs in Division I-A college football, but the last four weeks of the regular season could be pretty darn close. Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-USC, West Virginia-Rutgers and the SEC championship game could go a long way in deciding which teams play for the national championship in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8.

Off the Mark
Of all the upsets over the weekend, Wake Forest's 30-0 shutout of Florida State was perhaps the most stunning. It was the first time in 31 seasons that Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden was shut out at home and the first time the 'Noles had been held scoreless in 232 games. It was FSU's worst loss since a 58-14 defeat to Southern Mississippi in 1981, the last time the Seminoles didn't play in a bowl game.

Worse, it might have been the first time the Seminoles quit on Bowden. It sure looked like FSU stopped playing when quarterback Xavier Lee was pulled after throwing two interceptions early in the second quarter.

With a 5-5 record, FSU must win one of its last two games -- both at home against Western Michigan and No. 3 Florida -- to qualify for a postseason bowl game. Even beating the Broncos no longer seems like a sure thing. Western Michigan (7-3) has beaten Virginia and Northern Illinois, which are both better teams than FSU at this point.

On the Mark
For as much grief as the ACC has taken for its poor product this season, at least the conference got its scheduling right. The last two weeks of the regular season should be exciting. Georgia Tech has already clinched the Coastal Division title, and plays Duke Saturday before trying to win its state title at rival Georgia on Nov. 25.

The Atlantic Division is up for grabs. Maryland and Wake Forest are tied for the lead, with Boston College one game behind. The Terrapins have won five games in a row by a total of 13 points and play at Boston College Saturday and host the Demon Deacons on Nov. 25. Wake Forest hosts Virginia Tech Saturday, and the Eagles play at Miami after hosting the Terps this weekend.

Off the Mark

Rutgers was very impressive in coming from behind to beat Louisville on Thursday night, but are the Scarlet Knights the No. 2 team in the country? That is Rutgers' computer average in the BCS standings, ahead of Ohio State, which has been ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press since the preseason. Yeah, I've given the Big East a lot of credit this season, but beating the Cardinals at home isn't nearly as impressive as winning at Texas.

On the Mark
BYU. Georgia freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford. South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe, another freshman. Georgia free safety Tra Battle. Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. Florida defensive lineman Jarvis Moss (two blocked kicks vs. South Carolina). LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Wisconsin quarterback Tyler Donovan. Chopping away at Rutgers. Michigan receiver Steve Breaston. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. USC tailback Chauncey Washington. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn's Heisman Trophy chances. Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan. Oklahoma's resiliency. Rice's big win. Kentucky's bowl eligibility, finally. Michigan-Ohio State.

Off the Mark
Tears in Coral Gables, Fla. Louisville in the second half. Instant replay at USC. Virginia Tech's offense. Baylor's defense. Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox. Wasting Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson's talent. North Carolina State. Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl chances. Alabama in the red zone. Not so Big Ten -- after the top three teams. 0-10 Duke. Penn State without Joe Pa. Pittsburgh fading. Iowa. Washington's awful loss. Only three more weeks of the regular season.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.