Tusk to Tail: Dealing with the ‘acceptance’ phase of tailgate grief

“I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”

– “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

The year 2020 was already FUBAR, but these past few weeks of crappy football may have been the hardest to swallow. Some of the “mid-major” conferences and teams have made the most of their 15 minutes of fame, at least when they’re not too sick to play.

Arkansas State and the University of Central Arkansas had each played and won in front of a national tv audience, but their matchup scheduled this past weekend had to be postponed due to player availability issues resulting from COVID-19.

Most of the games have been total snoozefests, “football-like substance,” as Gregg Easterbrook says. It’s the same old Saturday wall-to-wall coverage, but of lower-level leagues and lopsided losses. Notre Dame annihilated South Florida 52-0 on the USA Network Saturday. My friend Dax joked that he hadn’t watched Notre Dame or the USA Network since the 90s. I reminded him that should have been the Hogs getting punished by the Irish.

Of course, there won’t be a trip to South Bend this year. There won’t be any road trips to any opponents’ stadium this year. The Notre Dame game was canceled once the SEC reduced the schedule to just 10 conference games. The drastic reduction in ticket allotments across the SEC has removed the concept of visiting fans.

For a group that had only missed one Razorback game, home or away, for the past 20 years, that was hard to take. There was certainly some lament among our group text thread when what would have been the Notre Dame weekend came and went. Dale missed the cross-country haul of tailgating gear, scoping a spot to pitch our tent beneath the golden dome. Nearly everyone missed getting overserved at some overpriced Indiana steakhouse and inevitably calling the Hogs. We were missing just about everything but the hungover journey home on Sunday.

The pandemic plus the Razorbacks’ recent performance helped push us toward the “Acceptance” phase of tailgating grief. College campuses are a virtual petri dish for the coronavirus, even worse than prisons right now. The Hogs are on a historic 19-game SEC losing streak, and have already been projected to be underdogs in all ten games this season. Would you travel to a potential COVID hot spot to see yet another whooping?

Tusk to Tail probably would if fans and tailgating were allowed. We had big plans for the Missouri game when it was scheduled at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, and it is killing us to miss the Texas A&M game now that it’s been moved to College Station.There was too much rain and too much Johnny Manziel to really enjoy ourselves properly during our only previous visit back in 2012.

That 2012 Arkansas football season was the first without coach Bobby Petrino. Nobody could have predicted the pending freefall. Coached by John L. Smith, the Razorbacks’ season was dubbed “The Season from L” by TTT as we began writing about our weekly exploits that year. We had thought the Hogs, ranked #10 in the preseason, could still be pretty good, like Petrino was just tossing his colleague the keys to a Ferrari. Within three weeks, Smith had already veered into the ditch known as Louisiana-Monroe.

Arkansas football continues to undergo more rebuilding than Interstate 40. Every time I think we’ve hit rock bottom., we find a more rocky bottom. Smith was somehow able to cajole two SEC wins from that 2012 squad. Each of the coaches since have had long streaks across multiple seasons without a single conference win. It no longer takes a Heisman winner like A&M’s Manziel to kick the Hogs’ collective ass. Western Kentucky cast-off Ty Storey dismantled Arkansas so thoroughly that head coach Chad Morris was immediately fired at the game’s end, before the season was over.

This year begins the Sam Pittman era on The Hill. TTT hopes he’s the right man for the job, because it seemed like he might have been the only man willing to take the job during this past offseason’s coaching carousel. Arkansas was rumored to have interest in the likes of Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach, Eli Drinkwitz, and Mike Norvell. Each took jobs elsewhere, the first three at other SEC schools on the Razorbacks’ schedule.

It’s hard to envision a rapid turnaround for Arkansas football. History indicates that the Hogs would have struggled against Nevada had they remained the first opponent as originally scheduled. Instead, the Hogs draw the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday. Georgia has won the last three SEC Eastern Division titles.The Bulldogs have.ended the past four seasons by playing in two Sugar Bowls, a Rose Bowl, and a National Championship game under head coach Kirby Smart. The Razorbacks have fired and hired three and a half coaches in that period, including interim coach Barry Lunney, Jr.

Pittman and the Hogs got screwed by this year’s schedule maker in ways that you can typically only see on the internet. Nevada was replaced by Georgia. Instead of Charleston Southern, Arkansas will now play the resurgent Florida Gators. The Hogs will play what are widely considered the three best teams in the East: Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in addition to the brutal SEC West gauntlet. Perennial division contenders Alabama, LSU, and Auburn picked up the likes of Missouri, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina.

Regardless, you’ve got to play the hand you are dealt.

By this point, TTT should be charging optimistically into the new season the way Charlie Brown keeps running at the football that Lucy is holding. But our group experienced a devastating loss during the off-season. Tailgating has been prohibited due to the pandemic. We ask that you respect our privacy and allow us to grieve during this very difficult time.

If TTT has learned one thing from following the Hogs the past few years, it is that we are not equipped to watch them sober. The tailgate became bigger than the game years ago. We were ready to dig in. We even considered moving our party to an alternate site off campus. If tailgating is outlawed, then only outlaws will tailgate. You can have my tailgate cup when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. And so forth. But logic prevailed, and we eventually conceded that it’s just not feasible to host even a scaled-down gathering before and during a game.

These are certainly strange times, and TTT has no idea what to expect from the season. Some remain skeptical that the entire season will be played in light of the pandemic. All I know is that Tusk to Tail will continue covering the action from our unique fan perspective along the way. As Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Go Hogs, Beat Georgia!

Editor’s note: Now in its ninth year, Tusk to Tail is 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. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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