In Bielema’s fifth season, expectations for UA vary
Opening on a home field against a carefully selected opponent, Arkansas should make its 3-2 record in August football games a little sexier tonight.
A friend in the media who watches the Razorbacks in practice every day says, in fact, that Arkansas fans should be chewing their nails if it’s not 35-0 by halftime.
Florida A&M, after all, is one of six or seven “Ws” that even the most pessimistic Hog caller projects for this team, Bret Bielema’s fifth at Arkansas. You can get some bets that it will be 9-3, although some of those folks have been watched carefully since forecasting 12-0 for John L. Smith’s Razorbacks of 2012.
Let’s just say that the 2017 Razorbacks will be subject to intense public criticism if they don’t stifle Florida A&M early, much less lose to the Rattlers, tonight in Little Rock. A Southeastern Conference football team that can’t name the score against a Middle Eastern Athletic Conference opponent can expect no less.
What I’m hearing (or not hearing) is that a good many Razorback fans don’t know what to expect from this team. Arkansas ended the 2016 season on such a downer — scoreless second halves against Missouri and Virginia Tech, changing what could have been 9-4 to 7-6 — that the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is popular again in Razorback Nation.
In this, Arkansas’ 25th anniversary of Southeastern Conference membership, the Razorbacks did not receive a single point in the Associated Press preseason poll. That is, not a single writer or broadcaster participating considered Arkansas one of the top 25 teams in college football. (The Razorbacks garnered 22 points in the coaches’ preseason poll, same as Memphis, a football team in a basketball town.)
To that, you might ask,
“Should Arkansas be in the top 25?” To which I would answer, “no.”
As to whether Arkansas, with no conference championships in the sport since 1989 and only one Bowl Championship Series appearance in the new order of college football, should be considered a top-25 program, the answer again is “no.”
Arkansas’ 10 straight losses to Alabama are unsightly, yes, but with a 43-5 conference record since 2011, the Crimson Tide are wielding footin-the-face domination in the SEC. What really smacks are five straight losses to Texas A&M, where after three straight 8-5 seasons Kevin Sumlin’s seat is hotter than Bret Bielema’s. And sorting out the contradictions of three straight wins over Ole Miss, an ancient rival, and two losses in three years to Missouri, Arkansas’ permanent SEC Eastern Division opponent.
Are Razorback fans overly patient with their coaches or past the point of caring?
Bret Bielema’s 10-22 SEC record would be an issue, and then some, at certain SEC schools. Les Miles was 62-28 in the SEC, 114-34 overall, when LSU considered him expendable last fall. Houston Nutt was under pressure in the last two years of a 42-38 SEC run (75-48 overall) at Arkansas. Auburn, it cannot be forgotten, ran off a coach (Tommy Tuberville) whose teams won six straight from Alabama and another (Gene Chizik) two years after winning the national title.
Would, say, a sixth-straight loss (fifth under his watch) to Texas A&M put Bielema’s job in jeopardy? Probably not, although another chilly offseason like the one just past might impair his position with Athletic Director Jeff Long, who doesn’t enjoy the same cozy relationship with boosters that late predecessor Frank Broyles enjoyed.
On the bright side, Arkansas has a senior quarterback (Austin Allen) who had some big games last year before his protection broke down. With an All-America center (Frank Ragnow) and a head coach whose teams routinely turn out 1,000-yard running backs, the offense could be potent, though some young receivers must come around quickly.
Of greater concern is the defense, now in a 3-4 front but still with unproven linebackers. The quarterback draw vexed the 2016 Razorback defense as much as the long pass (cue up the Texas A&M film for examples).
The defense now is in Paul Rhoads’ hands. Five years ago, while at Iowa State, Rhoads was considered a candidate for the Arkansas job, then held on an interim basis by Smith and later filled by Bielema.
Entering his 12th year of coaching, Bielema is seven wins from 100. That milestone should be attained, it says here, against Missouri in Fayetteville, capping a 7-5 regular season. In the meantime, Bielema can get his Arkansas record to .500 with a win tonight in Little Rock. Make it 55-14 Razorbacks and 26-26 for their coach.