LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Pleading with Razorback fans to not give up after a 1-3 start to a season that some had expected to yield a national championship, Arkansas coach John L. Smith said Monday that he still believes his team could reach a bowl game.
Speaking to reporters ahead of an appearance at the Little Rock Touchdown Club, the interim coach said his team needs to demonstrate confidence and consistency to win in a season that he thinks could still result in a bowl appearance.
"We need to get a win to get that confidence back," said Smith, whose team had been expected to challenge for the SEC title and possibly the national championship.
Smith's attempts to boost the spirits of the fan base during his luncheon speech faltered, however, when he mistakenly referred to Arkansas as Alabama — home of the No. 1 team that shut out the Razorbacks 52-0.
"Don't give up on us. It's our program, it's a state of Alabama program," Smith said, prompting groans throughout the packed room. "It's not one individual's program."
When the gaffe was pointed out moments later, Smith responded: "I did? Where would that come from? I've never even heard of Alabama."
Arkansas' next five games are against unranked teams, but the Razorbacks close the season with No. 6 South Carolina, No. 21 Mississippi State and No. 3 LSU. The Razorbacks must win five of its remaining eight games to become bowl-eligible.
The team opened with a victory over Jacksonville State, but after quarterback Tyler Wilson suffered a head injury against Louisiana-Monroe, the Razorbacks lost in overtime to the Warhawks. Then came the walloping by Alabama.
Wilson returned for this weekend's game against Rutgers — a week after complaining that perhaps some of his teammates weren't giving their all — but the Razorbacks lost 35-26.
"Now Tyler's back, hopefully we can start building that consistency and with consistency will come confidence. With a win, it will definitely help confidence," Smith said.
Smith, who formerly coached Michigan State and Louisville, was brought on for an interim basis in April after Bobby Petrino was fired for hiring his mistress and lying about her presence at a motorcycle accident.
Smith said he doesn't think his interim status has impeded his coaching abilities nor the team's recruiting efforts.
"You're not committing to me. You're not committing to an individual. You're not committing to these coaches," Smith said, referring to the way recruits are courted. "You're committing to this university and this program. Take a look at what we have here, take a look at what is coming and if you can't buy into that, then don't commit."
Arkansas plays at SEC newcomer Texas A&M on Saturday.
The Razorbacks finished last season ranked No. 5, losing only to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU.
Smith said their current record is painful for a team and a fanbase that had lofty hopes.
"As fans, you deserve better. You're invested more," Smith said during his speech to the club. "Our players deserve better. We all are working our tail off to make sure that it is better. Understand that. We're in as much pain as everybody is out there."
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo