Can Arkansas take advantage of chaos in West and challenge the Big 3?
Bret Bielema inherited a mess when he accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas. Bobby Petrino had just been fired less than a year before and after Petrino, interim head coach John L. Smith turned the program into a laughingstock.
It is Year 5, folks, forever ago in college football.
Arkansas was picked to finish fourth in the SEC in 2017. With most of the SEC West facing serious questions or distractions, could this be the year Arkansas finally breaks away from the “other four” and finishes second or higher under Bielema?
The answer is a resounding no for a number of reasons.
Alabama is a great starting point.
With the exception of Bielema’s first year, Arkansas has had a chance to beat the Crimson Tide but couldn’t capitalize. Dropped interceptions and a missed extra point helped Alabama escape Fayetteville with a win in 2014. In 2015, the Razorback offense could not get going, and in 2016, the defense could not keep the Tide out of the end zone.
Arkansas is hardly alone, of course. Only two active coaches have beaten Nick Saban twice: Mark Richt and Urban Meyer, and neither remains in the SEC.
Saban’s excellence has made it nearly impossible to win SEC titles, but Arkansas hasn’t even cracked the SEC West’s Big Three of Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
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And three of the lesser four have had better moments.
Ole Miss is a mess now, but Hugh Freeze beat Saban in back-to-back years and pushed the Tide to the brink in 2016.
Dan Mullen guided Mississippi State to No. 1 in the country at one point, before falling to Alabama. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel threw all over the Crimson Tide in two seasons, but only won one of the battles.
All three have questions this year, though, giving Arkansas an opportunity to separate from the pack and gain ground on Auburn and LSU, if not Alabama.
Rawleigh Williams retiring this spring did not do the Arkansas offense any favors. There is talent at tight end, but it is unproven. Calling the offensive line shaky last season would be an understatement. Questions still remain about the front five.
The defense has the potential to struggle. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads must find a way to resurrect some magic from the 2014 season. Changing to a 3-4 defense could help, but there are a lot of young players who will be tested.
Austin Allen and Frank Ragnow are considered by some as the best at their position in the SEC. Jared Cornelius is a stud at wide receiver and Devwah Whaley should transition fine into his new starting role at running back.
Dre Greenlaw coming back from injury should help the defense, but only to a certain extent. Even if these players shine, they have too many holes to fill at other positions to compete for second place. They also have had an issue of closing out games.
Late collapses have been an issue under Bielema. Because of that, his seat is starting to warm up in Fayetteville. He must find a way to subdue the pressure, despite a brutal schedule that includes traveling to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge.
Fortunately for Arkansas, LSU puts too much stock into its game with Alabama the week before. With the exception of last season, the Tigers have come out flat against the Razorbacks under Bielema.
The Razorbacks losing to the Crimson Tide for the 11th consecutive time looks inevitable. Arkansas should be far ahead of Ole Miss with Rebels heading for dark times with a NCAA punishment looming. The Razorbacks have the edge over Mississippi State, with the game being played in Fayetteville.
The Texas A&M series in AT&T Stadium has been a hindrance. Year after year, the Razorbacks have a chance to step on the Aggies throats, but Arkansas fails to put the game away.
Despite A&M having quarterback problems, stay away from picking the Razorbacks to win this game until they finally do. Kevin Sumlin might not last at Texas A&M, but he could end undefeated against Arkansas while an Aggie.
Even though the Auburn game is in Fayetteville, expect Arkansas to go to the locker room disappointed. The Tigers have too much talent. They might be the only team that can compete with Alabama.
When Bielema was introduced as the “Head Hog,” he was confident in saying, “We didn’t come here to play in the SEC, we came here to win the SEC.”
If Arkansas was in the SEC East this year (remember, the Hogs dominated SEC East champion Florida last season), that could come to fruition, but do not expect Arkansas to compete for the SEC West with more cons than pros listed above.