In Bielema’s fifth season, ex­pec­ta­tions for UA vary

The Sentinel-Record - - SPORTS -

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.

Bob Wisener Sports Edi­tor On Sec­ond Thought

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