Pick Six with Arkansas beat writer Robbie Neiswanger

Our final Pix Six of the regular season is with Arkansas beat writer Robbie Neiswanger of the Arkansas News Bureau and ArkansasNews.com. He began covering Arkansas football in 2002.

We’ve seen the kind of season Arkansas is suffering through at LSU before, where a team starts in the top 10 and completely falls apart. Was this obvious to see coming or did it seem before the season that this could at least be a highly ranked if not championship team?

We knew Arkansas had some big question marks from a personnel standpoint at positions like the offensive line, linebacker and defensive back. We also knew Bobby Petrino’s thumb print on this program was significant and his loss would be felt in some ways. But with so many veterans and the rest of the coaching staff back, you also felt the “Petrino way” would still help this team win games. So the results are surprising. I was skeptical about Arkansas being a championship team in the preseason, but never imaged a 4-8 or 5-7 finish was possible.

One figures Arkansas will move the ball through the air with Tyler Wilson and Cobi Hamilton, but the Razorbacks are 12th in the SEC scoring (24.5 ppg). Are turnovers the main culprit? Given that LSU leads the SEC in takeaways (29) and Arkansas leads in turnovers (29) is this the Hogs’ biggest concern?

Turnovers have been the big issue. It’s really baffling how many times this team has put the ball on the ground or thrown interceptions. But it’s not the only problem. Arkansas has moved the ball well so many times this season, but has struggled in the red zone because of problems up front and in the run game. There have been careless penalties, too, that have wiped out big drives. An illegal formation penalty probably cost them the Ole Miss game. Another one wiped out a 40-yard gain on the first series against South Carolina. So, yes, turnovers are the big problem. But there have been so many others all year long.

Knile Davis is averging just 38.4 yards per game. Why has his return season been such a disappointment, as is the Arkansas ground game (last in the SEC) overall? One assumes the Razorbacks have been behind so much they are forced to throw.

For whatever reason, Davis has not been the same as the running back who tore up the conference the back half of the 2010 season. He has looked tentative. He’s missing the burst that led to big runs. He also has been slowed by a hamstring injury the past three or four weeks. Dennis Johnson has done a solid job as the No. 1 guy throughout the second half of the season, but Arkansas just hasn’t been able to break off the big play or enjoy sustained success on the ground throughout a game.

How many Arkansas fans would take Bobby Petrino back right now, skid marks and all? And how is athletic director Jeff Long surviving after being the man to hire and fire Bobby?

A: There’s definitely a small minority that think all should be forgiven. That’s what happens when you go 21-5 with a Sugar Bowl berth and Cotton Bowl victory over a two-year span. But most understand the Bobby Petrino era is over and won’t be revisited. As for Long, he’s doing quite well at the moment. He just received a contract extension and raise. All of it coming before his new coach in even in place.

With nothing but pride left to play for, how much energy and emotion do you think the Razorbacks will play with Friday? If LSU, a slow starting team, can get up two scores early, will that have an impact?

I think you’ll see an inspired Arkansas team in the first quarter. They’ll probably play well early on. That has been Arkansas’ identity all year long. The problem: Everything falls apart after that. Usually one setback turns into two, then three, then four. Next thing you know, the rout is on. Arkansas hasn’t handled adversity well on the field all season, so if LSU starts fast the Razorbacks are probably done.

OK, throw a dart at the board and tell us who you think the next Arkansas coach will be and when.

That’s what it would be at this point. Just throw a dart. Gary Patterson? Mike Gundy? James Franklin? Jon Gruden? Art Briles? Do we have everybody covered? I usually have a gut feeling on where things are going in regard to coaching searches. But I’ve had a hard time getting a read on Long so far with this one. I do think it’s nearing the end, though. I would expect a coach in place shortly after the final Saturday of the season.