Arkansas' season swung in the balance when quarterback Tyler Wilson, a first-year starter, addressed teammates at halftime of an Oct. 1 contest against Texas A&M.
Linebacker Jerry Franklin doesn't remember exactly what Wilson said, only that his quarterback reinforced his upbeat message by throwing for a school-record 510 yards in helping the Razorbacks rally from an 18-point deficit in Cowboys Stadium to beat the Aggies, 42-38.
"Tyler showed a lot of fight in him. He got the offense going," Franklin said. "He earned a lot of respect from the guys on the team that day."
That respect morphed into All-Southeastern Conference credentials, which Wilson will carry into Cowboys Stadium for Friday's showdown between No. 6 Arkansas (10-2) and No. 8 Kansas State (10-2) in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
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Wilson, a fourth-year junior, is Arkansas' first quarterback to earn first-team All-SEC honors since the Razorbacks joined the league for the 1992 season. He is the first Arkansas quarterback to be selected as his league's top signal caller since Quinn Grovey, an All-Southwest Conference honoree in 1989.
That represents a significant journey from August, when Wilson began fall drills with many outsiders wondering if he had the skills to successfully replace Ryan Mallett, an NFL rookie in 2011.
"I knew that I could be successful," said Wilson, who served as Mallett's backup in 2009 and 2010. "Convincing everyone else of that had to be done during the season."
Although the process began with a 51-7 rout of Missouri State in the season opener, teammates said the Greenwood, Ark., native took his most telling steps along his journey of vindication against the Aggies. Without the Wilson-fueled comeback, which followed a 38-14 loss to Alabama, defensive end Jake Bequette shudders to think where the Razorbacks' season might have gone.
"We had a ton of guys hurt and we're down big at halftime. And we rally around Tyler ...to beat a good A&M team," Bequette said. "Our season could have turned into a season like they had, with six losses. But it ended up that we get 10 wins out of the deal.
"Tyler's leadership skills were overlooked and underrated at first by people on the outside. But we always knew what kind of guy he was and what kind of heart he has. And he showed it to the nation this year."
Wilson's final line: 3,422 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes and a 63.1 completion rate. He set multiple school records, including the single-game passing mark against the Aggies. But the biggest number of all, in Wilson's estimation, remains unreached.
A victory over Kansas State would allow Wilson to become only the third starting quarterback in school history to win 11 games in a season, joining Jon Brittenum (11-0, 1964) and Ron Calcagni (11-1, 1977) on the short list. Arkansas' highest win total in any season is 11, achieved in those years.
"There haven't been very many 11-win teams in the history of our school," Wilson said. "I want to be an 11-win starting quarterback. That opportunity is still out there. I plan to take advantage of it."
In efforts to make it happen, he'll be working against a K-State defense that is stingy against the run but ranks 105th among the nation's 120 FBS teams in pass defense (267.3 yards per game). The Wildcats are 74th in total defense (398.8 average).
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino described Wilson as an "imaginative" player with uncanny toughness in the face of an opposing pass rush.
Many of his best plays, said Petrino, have come when Wilson "does things that aren't drawn up in the play book."
"He's a young man that has tremendous vision and good instincts," Petrino said. "I have tremendous respect for how hard he's played this year and how hard he works on his preparation. It took him three years to get the job and he's really made the most of it."
Among Wilson's season highlights have been a stretch of 184 consecutive passes without an interception, a 32 of 43 passing performance in a 44-17 rout of Mississippi State, a 44-28 victory over No. 9 South Carolina and three rallies from double-digit deficits.
In addition to leading the Razorbacks back from a 35-17 hole against A&M, Wilson helped Arkansas erase a 21-7 deficit to defeat Vanderbilt, 31-28. Arkansas also rebounded from a 17-0 shortfall to beat Ole Miss, 29-24.
"Tyler's been great for us this year. We couldn't ask for anything more of Tyler," said Jarius Wright, the Razorbacks' leading receiver (63 catches, 1,029 yards, 11 TDs). "He's really blossomed."
The process hit high gear in Cowboys Stadium against A&M. With another win Friday at the same venue, Wilson would take it to another level with his 11th win as a first-year starter.
Making his mark
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, a fourth-year junior in his first season as a starter, earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2011 by throwing for 3,422 yards and setting several school records. Among them:
Pass yds (gm)
510 (vs. A&M)
51 (vs. A&M)
32 (vs. Miss. St.)
Consecutive att. without INT
18 (vs. Auburn)
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760