Jim Harris: Which Arkansas, Virginia Tech Teams Show Up?



Arkansas in the past eight years has gradually improved on a bowl win-loss record that at one point rated just above West Virginia’s as the worst in major college football for programs with more than 10 games. Having won four of its last five bowl appearances, starting with an overtime win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl in Bobby Petrino’s second season, Arkansas has improved to 15-23-3 all time in the extra game tacked on to the end of the season.

I once believed the Razorbacks’ lack of bowl success could partly be explained by the Hogs traditionally going into games as an overachiever, a quick and smallish program that won more games than it probably should have on paper, and then ran into a behemoth, like the great Alabama teams of Bear Bryant in 1961 and 1979, or Ole Miss’ great 1962 team. Arkansas since the arrival of John Barnhill and his quest to build a program like Tennessee, where he had coached alongside Gen. Bob Neyland and through Ken Hatfield, had excelled with lighter, quicker, faster teams, especially on defense, to compete in the old Southwest Conference. But then the Hogs would end up against Georgia Tech in its bowl prime in the early 1950s, or a healthy and underdog LSU in the 1965 Cotton Bowl, and battle closely but ultimately lose. Hatfield, in fact, took overachieving squads to bowls in every one of his six years, but only had 1-5 record to show for it during the holidays – typically being overwhelmed by much more talent at Oklahoma or UCLA.

But Arkansas also had those glorious bowl wins where the Hogs went in as 18-points-or-more underdogs against Georgia in the 1969 Sugar Bowl and No. 2 ranked Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl, and thrashed both with an overwhelming show of defensive speed and mostly mistake-free offense. Those wins so shook the college football foundation nationally, the Razorbacks went into the following seasons heralded among the top 2-3 teams in the country.

Arkansas’s bowl record took a beating, too, from those holiday losses where the Razorbacks just didn’t seem to want to be there – or so the explanation went after losses. Yes, the team tried to play, but that mental focus simply wasn’t in place for a full 60 minutes: Ole Miss following the loss in the infamous Big Shootout with Texas, or the three bowl losses that followed defeats in the SEC Championship Game.

Nothing was as demoralizing as traveling to Nashville, Tenn., in 2002 to watch the Hogs start out with a touchdown drive and then mostly mail in the rest of the game against Minnesota, while then Gophers coach Glen Mason outschemed the Hogs’ sideline.

On the other hand, the Razorbacks have a history of experienced squads bouncing back in bowl games after a lackluster season or a poor finish to it: for example, whipping Missouri in Shreveport in 2003 after a 7-4 regular season, or the whipping Petrino’s Hogs put on Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl after the 2011 campaign and the disheartening season-ending flop in Baton Rouge.

Maybe there is a trend or two there we can latch on to, to make some pregame sense of today’s matchup in Charlotte, N.C., with Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl (4:30 p.m., ESPN).

Arkansas, especially on the defensive side, didn’t display a significant amount of senior leadership this season. Take way a couple of senior receivers in Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher and left tackle Dan Skipper and the injured running back Kody Walker, it’s hard to see much veteran leadership at all, explaining first and foremost why the Hogs had such an up-and-down campaign and were susceptible to blowouts in four of the five defeats. When a winnable game was getting away in Columbia, Mo., in the second half in the finale, nobody on either side of the ball seemed to step up until a 24-7 lead had turned into a 28-24 deficit in the fourth quarter, and Arkansas still couldn’t punch in a deciding score late. Skipper, in fact, was flagged for a huge and obvious hold in the final-minute rush that reached the Missouri 9.

So, today marks an opportunity to make amends for a group of seniors, many of whom may be finished playing football after today. It’s also another day for the younger Hogs to showcase their improvement since the 2016 season kicked off, and to set themselves up for a strong and positive offseason.

Virginia Tech, as talented as it may be in some positions such as dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans, is in Arkansas’s position of 1995, 2002 and ’06 of coming off a conference championship game loss. The Hokies put on a furious rally against Playoff bound Clemson before falling 42-35. VaTech also had an up-and-down season, especially away from home, though still managing to win all but three other games until the Clemson defeat in the ACC Championship. Losing conference championship game teams find it pure drudgery to have to get back up mentally to prepare for a bowl trip – at least that’s been the case in Fayetteville, and probably several other good examples.

Lastly, bowl games seem to favor the underdog in terms of betting purposes. It doesn’t mean the underdog always wins, but in Arkansas’s case, it doesn’t seem that much of a reach to feel good at least taking the 6.5 points that Vegas was offering.

Based only in past history, it would seem that Arkansas would more likely be the team that wants to be there, while Virginia Tech is still thinking about giving Clemson a tussle earlier this month.

So, maybe the Razorbacks pull this one out and keep Coach Bret Bielema on at least the same course he had them last year after an 8-5 season. An 8-5 record for this team with all the questions in preseason would be a big success, frankly.

Alas, we’ll figure out around 8 p.m. today just which Arkansas and Virginia Tech teams showed up for the Belk Bowl and add it to the history lesson.

arkansas virginia tech belk bow


Tags: ,