Jim & Kane’s Water-Cooler Analysis – Hog Futures: Up


By Jim Harris and Kane Webb

Jim Harris! Good to see you here at the water cooler again. Too bad we don’t have something a little stronger than H2O in this thing, huh? But let’s talk Hogs anyway, shall we? For starters, wow. What a weird year. Have you ever seen a Razorback season quite like this one? I don’t think there’s historical precedent. The Hogs, now sitting at 4-5, are as well respected by the national media as any team in the bottom half of the top 25. They’ve played Alabama and Mississippi State to a standstill. Yet they may not make a bowl game. Again. Or win a Southeastern Conference game. Again. Bill Parcells, the former head coach of most of the teams in the NFL, has a saying that you are what your record says you are, but do you think this applies to the hard-luck 2014 Razorbacks? I guess there’s a question in there somewhere. Take it away, Jim.

JIM: No, I haven’t seen a season like this for the Razorbacks and no one else has either. Never in its history has Arkansas faced a run of conference opponents either ranked at the time in the Top 10 or, in the case of LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri coming up, ranked at some point during the season in the Top 10. All eight league games! Plus, while Arkansas went 4-0 in its nonconference schedule, remember that Texas Tech was favored to win that game, and in preseason there were questions as to whether Arkansas could win more than two nonconference games. Fact is, Bill Parcells is correct: If Arkansas goes 0-8 in the SEC again, that is what the Hogs will be, and that is at the bottom of the seven teams in the SEC West and alongside the lower teams in the much-weaker SEC East. Will Arkansas be on par with a likely 0-8 Vandy? Of course not. But Arkansas also will not have been able to build its program up to a winning level against most of its SEC schedule, and that is simply because the SEC West has six other dynamic, well-stocked programs, with the Mississippi schools both being at a modern-day peak at the same time. We saw this in preseason, as you recall, that Arkansas would likely be much improved and still not show much improvement in the win-loss record. Arkansas can look back on seasons (including a couple with Bobby Petrino at the helm, folks) when the rest of the SEC with the exception of Alabama and LSU was not near at the level of today, and Arkansas benefited. Arkansas in 1998 had a peak year when Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and LSU were down, too, comparative to the Hogs. That’s just the way things fall in a conference where every program is expecting to win. Arkansas won’t stay here at the bottom, not with the way Bret Bielema is recruiting and building and developing the program from within. Yes, Arkansas is within a whisker of being 7-2 instead of 4-5 and much more competitive than in Bielema’s first year or John L. Smith’s one interim season, so we can all take solace in that, that the Hogs are on the upswing. Rest assured other SEC teams will settle back down. And Alabama will be Alabama.

KANE: I’ve been watching Razorback games since 1969, and I’ve never seen anything comparable to this season. I submit that this Hog team could beat some previous Arkansas teams that competed for the Southwest Conference title. Yet I wouldn’t bet on them to win a conference game this year. The Razorbacks play in the toughest division in the toughest conference in the nation, the “little NFL” as one player referred to the SEC. But here’s the thing, Jim: From a fan’s standpoint, isn’t it a helluva lot more interesting to watch the Razorbacks play a murderer’s row of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, etc., and risk going winless than the old days in the SWC when they really only had one or two teams to worry about? (Of course, one of those was always Texas — and a loss to the Longhorns typically took the air out of every season.) It’s entertaining, if nothing else, to see the Razorbacks play the best of the best. Or at least I think so. Which leads me to my second question:

As a whole, do you think Razorback fans would prefer to see the Hogs in a less-competitive, more-winnable conference like the Big 12 than the cage-match that is the SEC?

JIM: I’m sure some of them would, but then if Arkansas wasn’t in the SEC, I suspect the program wouldn’t attract the same quality of athletes it is beginning to attract from out-of-state. Of course, the key for Arkansas competing with any of its foes, be it in the Southwest Conference or now in the SEC, is dependent on the level of athletes the state can produce in one year (such as this year, in fact) complemented by cherry-picking a few good players either out of Texas or other nearby states. Now, don’t go saying Arkansas should have gone to the Big 12: the Big 12 didn’t exist until 1996, six years after Arkansas made it official it would be jumping to the Southeastern Conference and four years after it began competing in the SEC in football. Arkansas didn’t have a choice of SEC or Big 12. The choice was to remain in the SWC or go to the SEC. And if you recall Frank Broyles’ words about moving to the athletically much-tougher SEC, he believed Arkansas fans would embrace the challenge the SEC represented. I think as a whole they have. Arkansas has really only faced anything close to this schedule in 1996-97, coincidentally Danny Ford’s last two seasons, when it played at least five Top 20 teams in both seasons and Florida won the 1996 national championship and Tennessee was a Top 5 contender with Peyton Manning and on Arkansas’ schedule every year. But again, think about that: five Top 20 teams, not EIGHT Top 10 teams who were Top 10 at one point or more in the season. Again, all this will change. History tells us so. I’m a big fan of what history has told us.

I also would add, if Arkansas’ decision-makers were to decide today that they are better suited for the Big 12 (and that isn’t going to happen, folks, the money is too important to leave the SEC), there are probably some fans who believe that re-situating themselves in the Big 12 and playing more Texas schools would restore some pipeline of great talent to Texas. That isn’t going to happen overnight anymore than the efforts now to reestablish itself as a recruiting entity there as an SEC member. Arkansas was already losing some of its luster in the 1980s with Texas recruits (maybe because Arkansas wasn’t paying what SMU and others were doling out) and then moved to the SEC. However, a good Texas haul in 1996 by Danny Ford (and his work in northern Louisiana and in Mississippi) is what helped provide the key players for Houston Nutt’s initial success in 1998-99. The problem with Texas recruiting now is that Nutt didn’t work near as hard in the last half of his tenure, Oklahoma State beat the pants off Arkansas in head-to-head recruiting, and Bobby Petrino really poisoned the well in his four years. By the time Bielema arrived, Arkansas was a bad word around Texas. He’s barely made a dent, though he is now devoting six coaches there to try to turn that back around. While Texas A&M is really kicking now that it moved into the SEC, the appeal of playing in the SEC is enough to bring Arkansas more players like Jonathan Williams from north Texas, I believe.

KANE: I should kick myself for even bringing up the Big 12-SEC debate. I promise not to ask anything about moving games from War Memorial Stadium. I think fans would benefit from taking a longer view. I know it’s tough. This is a win-now era, and who can blame the beleaguered Hog fan for wanting at least one SEC victory, especially when he sees what’s happening at Mississippi State and Ole Miss? But we tend to forget that, five years from now, the dynamics of the SEC could be entirely different. Nick Saban may be gone from Alabama. There’s no replacing a Nick Saban — at least not for a while. Chances are, Dan Mullen will have left Mississippi State, which, by the way, loses a ton of veteran talent after this year. Will Les Miles still be at LSU? Will he still be wanted at LSU? (Be careful what you ask for, Tiger fans.) I think Gus will remain at Auburn and sitting on an annual powerhouse — the new Alabama, so to speak. Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze? Seems like a good fit but, should Freeze keep winning, bigger schools with bigger money will come a-callin’. All the while, 44-year-old Bret Bielema, 19 years younger than Saban, will have been building, building, building at Arkansas. I think the Hogs are as well positioned as any team in the SEC West. In. The. Long. Run. That’s provided, of course, there’s not another Motorcycle Incident or similar, self-administered head-coaching implosion on the hill.

Next question: I have to bring it up, Jim. Are you still on the Brandon Allen bandwagon? And when is that kid gonna have a break go his way, huh?

JIM: I didn’t know I was on the Brandon Allen bandwagon, but I also am not one to kick a Hog who is trying the best he can. He just simply isn’t a big-time quarterback who can pass consistently or make SEC-winning throws when afforded the opportunity. He’s playing today like one might expect a really decent redshirt freshman to perform in the SEC. If he were in a lesser conference, he would likely be more successful. If he had the talents of Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright at receiver, he also might be more successful as Hog quarterback, but I’m not saying he’d be outperforming Ryan Mallett these days. That said, let’s not forget that given the chance to beat ‘Bama and Ohio State in his last season, Mallett fell short with his arm, too. It’s a demanding league that demands some special qualities from a quarterback. As for your question about when is a break going to go his way? Maybe this is just the coach-speak instilled in me since peewee football or junior high, but I always thought you make your own breaks. I’m not convinced that on this level, the SEC, he can make them. But he’s going to have a lot more chances in which to do it. There’s nobody close to him on the roster to take his place. Why that is, is at the feet of Bielema and the staff. I’d sure be trying to find somebody else who can be an option at quarterback for this program sooner than 2016, which is probably when Austin Allen or Rafe Peavey would be ready. Meanwhile, at Texas A&M, a true freshman out of Arizona just quarterbacked the Aggies to a win at Auburn.

Kane, my question for you is, it looks like everybody else is now joining the club I’ve been in the past few weeks and now thinks Arkansas will beat LSU. That scares me. For me, Arkansas’ games have only gone the way I saw them going vs. Texas Tech and, after I saw the Georgia-Missouri film and changed my pick to a Georgia runaway, the Georgia game in Little Rock. I’d bet for just about everyone else, no Arkansas game has gone the way any fan saw it going. And now we have a good many fans almost guaranteeing Arkansas winning Saturday night. I went out on a limb on the “Hogzone” and said Arkansas would win out, but I’m afraid that the Hogs will play to form and NOT play as expected, or that LSU will play better than expected. What say you?

KANE: Two things: (1) I tend to trust the Vegas sharps. Those guys know how to make a betting line for a reason. They take emotion out of it and put money into it. But I’m stunned that Vegas has Arkansas as a slight favorite (1 1/2 points as of this writing). So there’s that. Either the sharps know something I don’t, or this is the exceptional, screwy betting line that proves the rule. (2) I’m a big believer that, all things being equal — that is, if one team doesn’t turn it over six times or lose its best player on the first series — talent wins out. LSU is loaded with talent, especially on defense, where the Tigers are getting better by the game. You see the athletes on their defensive front and it’s just like watching a game on Sundays. They’re big, fast, quick, lean … just like every other defense LSU under Les Miles has seemed to trot out there. On offense, yes, the Tigers have QB issues, but they’re solid at running back. The ridiculously hyped freshman, Leonard Fournette, after stumbling out of the gate, is having a quietly excellent season (736 yards, almost 5 yards per carry, in rotation with two senior backs). So, for me, Nos. 1 and 2 are in conflict. When in doubt, I’ll take talent, which seems the much safer play here given that Arkansas hasn’t yet figured out how to win a big game. Also, I think LSU’s relative youth will benefit them here; they may be too green to be down in the mouth about losing to Alabama. After all, it’s still all new to them.

My last question for you: From what you’ve seen of Bielema so far — and I think it’s fair to say we’re both impressed by him and think he’ll win eventually — what does he and his staff need to do a better job of?

JIM: Yes, he’s going to eventually win. The mountain has been hard to climb with where the SEC West has been the past two years. They just need to recruit better and better. I don’t think it’s a matter of doing other specific things better that they do every day, it’s just the building of comparable SEC players through all the classes. Remember, next year’s senior class will be very low in numbers of players who compete for starting jobs, but the other three classes will begin to be filled with his recruits, and they’ll be able to do things they haven’t been able to do at Arkansas since 2010-2011. Plus, some teams on the schedule will go up and some will go down, as we’ve seen this year. OK, the one thing to do better is to prepare enough quarterbacks to play and compete for the top spot. I would imagine they’ll hand the job to Brandon Allen, no question, but I don’t want to see a gap between 1 and 2 next year. I want Allen to know he could lose the job if he doesn’t perform. That motivates. Of course, all the coaching in the world doesn’t matter if the talent is not there. We can talk about closing the gap with all the quarterbacks, but they have to show the ability to do it. I’m encouraged with the possibilities next year’s true freshman, Ty Storey, brings; but I don’t see him breaking into the starting lineup quickly. I would love to see continued improvement throughout the defense with better talent emerging, and I’d like to see the offense match that. I expect it will with a more talented, experienced line.

Thanks, Jim. I’m sure we’ll meet again at the water cooler after the regular season is over — maybe even before a bowl game? Or did that just jinx it? In the meantime, readers can catch up with Jim Harris on radio, television and right here at Sporting Life Arkansas. He’s a multi-media machine!


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