And that’s where we are with the Razorbacks. Because allowing 104 unanswered points is ridiculous. Even knowing the question marks at certain positions and the difficult schedule going into the season, that’s absurd. Put another way, dating back to Bobby Petrino’s fourth and final failed effort against Alabama in 2011, Arkansas has allowed 111 straight points to the Crimson Tide. Can the Razorbacks at least get some pity penalties to get into field goal range?
Even Houston Nutt’s Hogs scored 31 points in those USC games.
Bret Bielema may have declared in the offseason that he didn’t think the Arkansas job was a rebuilding job, but that’s been proven to be wrong. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a bona fide rebuilding job. This is a giant block of uncut stone that Bielema is tasked with carving into the Statue of Liberty.
In the wake of all this, it seems comparisons to Petrino’s first season in 2008 are the dangled carrots du jour to make us all think of the possibilities to come in future seasons. And that makes sense on basic levels. Both seasons feature a new head coach taking over the program immediately following the departures of Razorbacks who rewrote the record books during their careers.
So just how similar is the current state of the Razorbacks to the situation in 2008?
Both teams faced a brutal gauntlet of a schedule. After squeaking by a couple of cupcakes in ’08, the Hogs faced Alabama, Texas, and Florida. The first two games were never competitive, but Arkansas began to show a little fight against the Gators (who eventually won the national championship) in Fayetteville before falling late, and the Hogs ended up beating a ranked Auburn team on the road the week after Florida. That Auburn team proved to be overrated to the point that their 5-7 season eventually cost Tommy Tuberville his job, but it was a huge win at the time for a young, struggling team.
That team went on to completely blow a game at Kentucky and lose close games to Ole Miss and Mississippi State before pulling off the second Miracle on Markham to end the season on a very promising note.
What’s troubling about the 2013 Razorbacks is that they seem to be going in the opposite direction. As noted last week, the two best games they’ve played this year are the season opener and the SEC opener against Texas A&M. Instead of opening their gauntlet by getting squashed and getting better by the end of it, these Hogs put up a fight early but ended it by giving up 104 straight points. There is no team overrated quite like the 2008 Tigers in this lineup, but it’s fair to point out that Florida is no longer ranked after losing to Missouri, and they beat Arkansas easily, and the South Carolina team that put up the first 52 of the 104 straight points proceeded to lose to a similarly rebuilding Tennessee team the next week.
Everybody thought the gauntlet would be over after the Alabama game, but suddenly, Auburn is another top 20 team for the Hogs to face now that the Tigers have knocked off Texas A&M and Ole Miss. This 2013 stretch seems like it’s tougher and lasting longer than 2008. At the very least, the November games back then don’t seem nearly as troubling as the 2013 games, in which only Mississippi State feels winnable at the moment.
In fact, what was arguably worse than going through another 52-0 stomping this week was watching fellow underdogs Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Auburn, and Ole Miss – the SEC teams Arkansas was expected be in competition with at the bottom of the SEC – pull off upsets over ranked teams this week just because it felt like they were all taking a step forward while Arkansas slow walking on a treadmill. Arkansas at least had company in 2008, as Tennessee and Auburn were so bad they fired their long-time coaches, and Hog fans weren’t too worried about Ole Miss’s success because, well, Houston Nutt.
The Previous Season
This may not seem relevant, but I’d argue it definitely has a significant impact on the psyche of the players (as well as, which I did not anticipate but should have, the fans).
Both the 2007 and 2012 Razorbacks underachieved, but at least in 2007 Arkansas was respectable. They won eight games, defeated the eventual national champions on the road, and watched Darren McFadden rack up hardware on the postseason awards circuit following the season.
Their 8-4 record should have been the minimum result in 2012, but because what happened last year happened, patience may be wearing more thin than it otherwise would be. Arkansas has been a joke for far too long by this point. Perhaps if things went as well in 2012 as they went in 2007, the Razorbacks who went through it wouldn’t be as accustomed to losing as they are, and would be working harder to lead the team out of this situation. Instead, we’ve got players and fans dealing with two seasons of embarrassments. The extended time leads to a stronger sense of helplessness and desperation.
And that’s not good for anybody.
The Team Roster
Bielema made a point in the offseason that this Razorbacks team features “twenty seniors that are ready to leave a legacy of greatness.” But much like 2008, it feels like the most exciting players, and the one’s trying the hardest, are the younger players.
Other than Arkansas’ two great defensive ends, fullback and kicker, the players Hog fans want to see are the freshmen and sophomores, particularly at running back (Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams), defensive line (Darius Philon, Deatrich Wise), and the mysteries at quarterback – two of which are committed but not on campus yet (Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey). The team’s best offensive linemen, other than senior All-SEC center Travis Swanson, are freshmen (Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper), and Reeve Koehler is another highly touted newcomer expected to contribute next season after redshirting this year with an injury, and junior college star Jermaine Eluemanor is expected to be an instant impact player next season.
Question marks at linebacker and the secondary still exist, but that’s similar to 2008 as well.
The Razorbacks played a whopping 16 true freshmen Petrino’s first season, highlighted by the Jarius Wright/Greg Childs/Joe Adams trio at receiver and Dennis Johnson at running back (and I’ll always maintain that the fumble against Kentucky ruined De’Anthony Curtis. He was never the same afterward and was rated higher out of high school than almost every other freshman on that team). Some of the redshirt freshmen included Jake Bequette and Jerry Franklin on defense.
But there are differences. Casey Dick was an experienced senior at quarterback in 2008, working with a coach known for developing his quarterbacks. Dick still faced plenty of public scrutiny despite throwing for a career best 2,586 yards with a career best 57.4% completion percentage. Two numbers Arkansas fans would die for this season.
Further, Petrino showed absolutely no hesitation to run Micheal Smith right into the ground. Smith carried the ball 207 times and caught 32 passes in just 10 games. He carried the ball 70 times in just the Auburn and Kentucky games, which were in back-to-back weeks. Alex Collins, by comparison, hasn’t carried the ball more than 20 times since Southern Miss, and Jonathan Williams hasn’t had more than 18 attempts in a game all year. That should help Collins and Williams stay healthier in the long run. Smith had to sit out the 2008 finale against LSU and much of the 2009 season due to injuries.
But one very substantial and underrated difference: Dick was sacked an astounding 38 times in 2008 out of 395 total passing plays. That’s nearly 10% – absolutely horrendous. So Dick was able to throw for those yards, complete that many passes, throw 13 touchdowns (and, granted, 14 interceptions) while constantly getting hit or pressured. Brandon Allen has only been sacked six times this year. These Hogs rank 10th in the nation in sacks allowed at 0.75 per game. He’s not been under a lot of pressure in the pocket and the Arkansas passing game is still as dismal as it is.
Maybe the wide receivers and/or Allen just aren’t that good. Maybe Allen’s shoulder was and is a much bigger issue than the coaches let on. Maybe he’s scared of getting hit. Maybe he’s not getting enough reps in practice to help slow the game down for him so he can make better decisions. Maybe it’s a combination of all of that. Regardless, at this point, there’s really no evidence to suggest the Arkansas passing game will get better any time soon. You just can’t rely on true freshmen to come in a year from now or two years from now. It’s imperative for Arkansas to try to re-establish its passing game in November against weaker competition. That’s how they can build confidence in the future. Speaking of…
Excitement for the future
While Arkansas was struggling through 2008, it was easy to be excited for the future because of, other than improvement through the season, fans knew Ryan Mallett was on the sidelines waiting to take over, and Petrino’s staff was putting together a recruiting class that finished 16th in the country according to Rivals.com – easily Arkansas’ best finish in the recruiting rankings since Rivals started publishing them.
While the current recruiting class features some players fans are excited about, it doesn’t quite feature the star power of the new group of players in 2009. Of course, it’s not nearly complete yet, so it’s best to withhold full judgment on that front. Although it is fair to point out that Arkansas hasn’t signed a highly rated receiver recently (at least one that was able to stay on the team, Marquel Wade) and there’s not one currently committed in the class. That doesn’t mean a freshman like Drew Morgan won’t develop into one, but it’s not there now.
Most notably, there’s not a Ryan Mallett waiting to become eligible. It’s important to remember that Mallett was in his third year of college when he started in 2009. He wasn’t a true freshman the way Arkansas’ upcoming quarterbacks are/will be.
Of course, it will be interesting to see how these Hogs finish out the season and the current recruiting class. There’s still time to give fans a sense of optimism heading out of the regular season. But when the best game is arguably the season opener, it’s hard to build a lot of excitement.
What does it all mean?
Good question! It all means that while, yes, there are similarities to 2008, there are also pretty important differences. Most coaches have subpar first years because when you take over for a coach who was fired, that typically means the program’s in pretty bad shape.
It is frustrating to see first-year coaches at rival schools pulling off a big upset the same week Arkansas loses 52-0, but you have to understand:
- 2010 recruiting class ranking: Auburn – #4, Tennessee – #9, Arkansas – #49
- 2011 recruiting class ranking: Auburn – #7, Tennessee – #13, Arkansas – #24
Those two classes make up the majority of this year’s seniors and juniors. That’s why Arkansas is having to rely on a lot of freshman. That’s why those programs are having some success with new coaches (especially, in Auburn’s case, the new coach is the guy who recruited many of those players to begin with); they have more talent on their rosters. An interesting perspective to the entire Petrino saga is that he’ll never have to live with the recruiting failures of his 2010 and 2011 classes.
Does that alone excuse giving up 104 straight points? Absolutely not. But it is a part of it.
Bret Bielema is a former walk-on who earned his way into becoming a team captain in the Big 10. He doesn’t care about recruiting rankings, but he does seem to understand he’s got to recruit better players than he inherited. He did a great job in closing out the 2013 class, and until proven otherwise, there’s no reason to think he can’t continue in that direction.
If Razorback fans really want to look to history to make themselves feel better. I suggest looking toward a different 2008 team. Bielema’s own Badgers suffered their worst season under his tenure in Madison that year. The great players he inherited on the 12-1 2006 team were gone, and Wisconsin went 7-6 in 2008. They went through a stretch where they lost five out of six games, including a 48-7 blowout loss to Penn State in the third game of that run. That team was filled with great young players like freshman J.J. Watt, who would go on to become the foundation of the Rose Bowl teams a couple of years later.
Bielema’s best Wisconsin teams were designed to have not just a good running game, but an overpowering one. He’s got a few of the pieces in place to have success doing that at Arkansas, but he needs more. A lot more. The good news is that his comments indicate he knows that, and his history suggests he can do it.
But in the meantime, seriously, 104 straight? Can we get a touchdown over here? A field goal? A holding penalty to get a safety? Anything. I’ll also settle for a 50% completion rate. Throw Tusk a bone, man.