One play could change the course of Arkansas' season
Close. But not there yet.
That’s the feeling around the Arkansas program through seven weeks of the 2014 season. The Razorbacks have held leads in the fourth quarter in four of their last five SEC games. All four of those games resulted in losses for the Hogs.
There’s reason for optimism. After a miserable 3-9 mark last season, including a winless record in conference play, Arkansas is improved. There’s no doubt; the eye test has told us so this season against some very good opponents. They’re arguably ahead of schedule of where head coach Bret Bielema imagined in his second year in Fayetteville.
But there’s also reason to wonder.
What is Arkansas missing and what does it need to do to close out games?
Wins are elusive. It’s similar to a climbing a mountain in which the peak is a straight vertical ascent. But once you reach it, it’s easy to maneuver at that altitude. Just ask the Auburn Tigers.
Auburn suffered through the same mark in 2012. Three games into the 2013 season, with a new coach and new quarterback, the Tigers used a late touchdown to propel them past Mississippi State. The result? A team that got on a roll, won out and was 13 seconds away from a national championship.
Arkansas just needs that late touchdown. Or that late defensive stop.
The Hogs held a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter over then-No. 6 Texas A&M. A frantic Aggie comeback led by Kenny Hill got A&M to overtime, where a defensive stand on fourth down won the game.
Two weeks later, the Razorbacks found themselves with a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter over No. 7 Alabama. The defense had come up big all game, but allowed a touchdown drive in which Blake Sims found Amari Cooper in the end zone to give the Crimson Tide a one-point lead. The game would be sealed after a Brandon Allen interception with less than three minutes left.
Arkansas has youth on both sides of the football, and with that comes growing pains. Bielema has done a fantastic job developing talent and giving significant minutes to some of his first and second-year players. His team will be better because of it later in the year.
The pieces are there. Sure, the Hogs are one-dimensional on offense. But guys have stepped up — not only Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams — but guys like Keon Hatcher on the outside, A.J. Derby in the slot. On the defensive side, youngsters such as D.J. Dean and Henre Toliver have played nice roles opposite Tevin Mitchel, Alan Turner and other secondary players.
If not talent, then what?
It’s inexperience. It’s young players getting used to the biggest stage in college football. It’s that one game-winning play late that has evaded the Hogs in its first 11 games in the Southeastern Conference under Bielema.
Perhaps the most wild scenario around the Razorback program in 2014 is that the Hogs could again go winless in SEC West play yet still make a bowl game.
Looking ahead past this week’s date with Georgia, Arkansas hosts UAB (win), LSU (possible win) and Missouri (win). A win this weekend against the SEC East favorite would go a long way in solidifying the job Bielema’s doing in northwest Arkansas, and would all but ensure a bowl berth this season. And that would far surpass expectations.
So what is Arkansas missing? Why haven’t they won an SEC game?
They haven’t quite reached the peak. But when they do, the Hogs will be on top of the world for a long time to come.