Jim Harris: Bielema, Hogs Set Sights on new 6-Game Season



In each of Bret Bielema’s first two seasons at Arkansas, the football schedules were broken up by two open dates each. In the miserable 2013 campaign, he was able to prep for eventual national runner-up Auburn and Ole Miss with an open date before the Tigers, then another leading into a scramble to salvage a Southeastern Conference win against Mississippi State and/or LSU. Arkansas showed dramatic improvement in performance but, alas, it didn’t show up on the scoreboard when the Razorbacks ostensibly gave both games away.

Last year’s schedule was split into a first five, an open date before Alabama and three more games (including Georgia and Mississippi State), then a second open date leading up to a final rush of three games, again with Arkansas looking to get off the schnide in the SEC. The Hogs were much improved all of 2014, and the final three games featured shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss at home before, yet again, Bielema’s squad gave away a game, this time at Missouri. A lopsided bowl win over Texas for a 7-6 overall record helped sweeten some of that ending bitterness.

This year’s schedule offered just one break, the one last weekend that gave two weeks to prepare for a 4-2 Auburn that has not come close to living up to the preseason media hype. All-world, Heisman hopeful Jeremy Johnson was turnover prone in the season opener with Louisville and went downhill from there. Redshirt freshman Sean White has taken over and looked good enough to win the last two games, but that’s about it. The arrival of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was supposed to change the fortunes on that side, but it didn’t take Muschamp long to figure out he had a few knuckleheads and not a lot of talent. He sent the bad apples packing. The talent will have to come later.

Arkansas has had two weeks to prepare a plan for Muschamp that ought to include running right over the Tigers, who are horrible in run defense and not much better against the pass. The Razorback defense will have to account for the quarterback running, like it did very well in the 24-20 win at Tennessee; but the Hogs won’t see a difference-maker such as Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk on the Auburn side.

The foreboding weather forecast also hearkens to last year’s LSU game, without the freezing temperatures, and in ways reminds of a couple of games against Tommy Tuberville in 1998 (vs. Ole Miss) and 1999 (against Auburn), which turned into Razorback runaways. Tuberville supposedly uttered the phrase “nothing stinks like a wet pig” in the pregame speech to his team in ’98, before putting up a wet stinker of a performance.

Of course, Tuberville is long gone from Auburn. All Tigers coach Gus Malzahn needs to do is use Bielema’s words of disdain from recent years about Auburn as motivation for his Tigers.

Malzahn and his young quarterback already came up with a big road win on Thursday before last, winning 30-27 at Kentucky. When it comes to close games, contests decided in the final possession, Malzahn would have a huge edge over Bielema over the past three years. Bielema has managed just one win out of 10 games decided by 7 points or less, that survival in Tennessee when the Volunteers were bad enough not to take it away. It’s doubtful many Razorback fans are ready to say anything more than “we’ll either win in a blowout or lose a close one,” about any of the remaining six games.

It’s amazing that Bielema and first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos want to consistently turn ultra-conservative late in games (with the exception of going ultra-manic with fake kicks out of nowhere that fail) and turn it over to a defense that doesn’t have a difference maker or two, anyone who can be counted on to snuff out the opponent’s last hope.

This goes back to Rutgers in ’13 after taking a 24-7 third quarter lead, continued at LSU to end that year by allowing a 97-yard march and a game-winning touchdown pass in the final three minutes, and of course was seen again in back-to-back games with Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.

Somehow, Tennessee and wild-armed Joshua Dobbs missed its chances in the fourth quarter, and Enos actually did play a rare magic card in the final two minutes with a misdirection pitch for Alex Collins to get a clinching first down to run out the clock. But mostly, one just assumes Arkansas is going to play old-fashioned, let-the-defense-save-us in the fourth quarter, and it probably won’t work often if ever in these final six games.

Already 3-16 in his SEC coaching career, Bielema would seem more wont to play to win — a not with dreaded fake punts with a punter having to make up 13 yards just to get the line of scrimmage, not to mention the next 5 required to convert — in the second half. There’s a reason Arkansas’ scoring drops to nearly nothing in the final two quarters after a stellar first half, such as against Alabama. Apparently, Bielema is also the only person left in Arkansas who believes his offense, if required to drive for a winning touchdown in the final moments, will actually accomplish it.

That said, Arkansas has the style of game on both sides of the ball, if the Hogs take a little less conservative approach to seal a game late, to finish no worse than 4-2 down this stretch. Vegas oddsmakers see Arkansas as the favorite Saturday vs. Auburn, and no doubt the Razorbacks should clear the bench next week against Tennessee-Martin.

The schedule that didn’t allow Arkansas to play an SEC game in Fayetteville until Oct. 24 (hey, the Hogs decided with Jerry Jones to play A&M in Texas every year, so don’t blame the SEC schedule-makers) at least has give the Razorbacks a break of sorts, sending them into Baton Rouge in between LSU playing its two biggest rivals: Alabama and Ole Miss. If LSU can survive that three-week stretch, maybe the Tigers are truly the SEC’s best.

The game on Nov. 7 at Ole Miss, catches the Rebels fresh, though, and might take a perfectly clean performance for Arkansas to get out of Oxford with a win.

Then, if the injuries to key players have subsided, the Hogs finish up with back-to-back home games with Mississippi State and Missouri. State has senior quarterback Dak Prescott, but Missouri is looking for consistency at its quarterbacking spot.

A 4-2 finish makes Arkansas bowl eligible, and that means another chance to sweeten what to this point has been a bitter half-season. It can only happen if Arkansas attacks this new season more with a nothing-to-lose approach than by playing it safe, the way it lost to Toledo and the rest in the past six games.

bielema sellout


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