Jim Harris: Razorbacks Have Finally Moved Past the Petrino Hangover


Arkansas’ performance against a good mid-major Northern Illinois program last week was reminiscent of the day when everyone could tell the Razorbacks turned a corner in Bobby Petrino’s second season at Arkansas, or when Arkansas played fast and furious from the outset in Houston Nutt’s first season with the Hogs.

After difficult times leading up to Petrino’s second year or Nutt’s first, suddenly Arkansas looked like a football program that knew what it was doing. The players now got it between the ears and could just play, not have to think, and they could execute the way the head coach expected.

Frankly, under second-year coach Bret Bielema, it’s happened faster than many college football observers anticipated. But, happening faster than expected is what is typically the case when a good football coach is in charge at Arkansas.

I doubt many football followers, even in Arkansas, expected the Razorbacks to turn the corner so fast in 1959, after Frank Broyles’ first season, which featured an 0-6 start before a 4-0 finish and a perfect November. But in Broyles’ second season, Arkansas got its breakthrough Southwest Conference win early on the foot of kicker Fred Akers to upset a then-perennial power in TCU, 3-0, and the Hogs went on to tie for the league title and win in the Gator Bowl over another then-perennial power, Georgia Tech.

Lou Holtz, like Houston Nutt some 21 years later, started fast in his first year after a troubled finish to Broyles’ coaching career, as he eased himself into full-time directing of the athletics while moonlighting as a TV analyst. Ken Hatfield’s first team surprised after Holtz’s flameout of 1983, but it was Hatfield’s second team, the 10-2 Hogs that won over a talented Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, that may have been his best, most balanced outfit on both sides of the ball.

All that is to put into some perspective where coaches in their second year have fared at Arkansas. Most saw Bielema headed for, at best, six wins this year, but more than likely five or less, though the guess too was that Arkansas would be improved in what is the country’s toughest division inside the toughest football conference. But nobody saw this much improvement after week four.

A 5-win or less season is still a real possibility, as well as Arkansas is playing now, simply because the Razorbacks for maybe the ONLY time ever will be likely underdogs in EVERY conference game. Vegas oddsmakers figured A&M to be 15 points better than the Hogs for Saturday’s matchup in Arlington, Texas, though that line has tumbled since it was established last weekend. There are some Hog believers, to be sure.

The Hogs may have less talent man-for-man than the remaining seven SEC teams on the schedule. If the more talented team wins typically 90 percent of the time, that doesn’t bode well for Arkansas’ chances to reach the magic six wins for bowl eligibility, though we’re also certain that, right now, Arkansas is as deserving of a Top 25 spot as a third of the teams teams ranked.

But Arkansas looks a lot more talented now than it did last year, and certainly more confident and simply playing rather than thinking. Though we’re comparing this among different opponents, the Hogs look vastly improved even over where it was a month ago at Auburn.

Maybe we could see Arkansas running over Texas Tech — though not many others did, and Texas Tech was favored, in case that’s been forgotten over the past two weeks — but nobody rolls Northern Illinois 52-14 these days. Mediocre teams do not run through a Southland Conference bottom-feeder like Nicholls State the way the Razorbacks blitzed the Colonels the second week of the stadium.

Arkansas may have been uncertain of itself at Auburn, especially when it hit the locker room at halftime and realized it was tied with the highly favored Tigers, but the Razorbacks have played fast ever since for every quarter. An offensive line that was still expected to be a year away from cohesiveness has been dominant. Suddenly, last week, the defensive line showed it might have something to say about this season, too.

Granted, Saturday might be a rude awakening for everyone who thinks Arkansas has already arrived. Texas A&M has great speed throughout its offense and a confident young quarterback in Kenny Hill. South Carolina defensively was no match for Hill and the Aggies on Aug. 28 in Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks were embarrassed.

A&M also has two young defensive ends and, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, who have “NFL” written all over them. They will be the next incarnation of the Aggies’ “Wrecking Crew” style of blitzing ends that haven’t been seen on the College Station campus in several years. The A&M defensive backfield has been much maligned the past couple of seasons, but it’s more a result of the front seven not being able to protect the pass coverage, to pressure the quarterback. That’s changing. Deshazor Everett is a solid corner after playing some safety last year (Arkansas fans should remember him from his game-breaking pick-six last year in Fayetteville).

A&M’s weakness defensively is up the gut, where Arkansas is sure to attack behind its rotating centers and guards Denver Kirkland, Luke Charpentier and Sebastian Tretola in its effort to control the clock and keep its own maligned defense off the field. A&M will have to counter that with more secondary help for its front seven against the run; will quarterback Brandon Allen and his UA receivers be able to counter that by passing over the top, the way it was unable to do against Auburn?

Will the Aggies be Aggies again versus Arkansas? The Hogs have always been able to count on very talented A&M teams coughing up the ball at inopportune times, turning the game Arkansas’ way — including that first renewal of the teams’ series at JerryWorld, when the Razorbacks turned a 10-0 deficit into a 47-19 rout. Ask any college football follower around the country, particularly in the SEC, what he or she thinks is the series record between the programs and expect a look of incredulity when you tell them Arkansas has beaten A&M 41 out of 67 games. Out of A&M’s 26 wins, less than a handful have come when Arkansas was actually good. Typically, A&M was up and caught Arkansas down, like the past two seasons. From 1958 on, though, when Broyles beat A&M for his first SWC win and won the next eight over the Aggies, Arkansas usually outplayed and outcoached its foe, even when the talent supposedly swung A&M’s way.

All appearances tell us Arkansas suddenly has embraced the Bielema way after a horrible year under John L. Smith and last year’s bottoming out. It takes time to wipe away all the bad that ensued after the April 1, 2012, motorcycle wreck that ushered Bobby Petrino out and led to a complete collapse of the program.

Petrino’s leftover players on the roster are now completely in Bielema’s court, buying in to everything this staff is selling. It’s now fully Bielema’s team and playing like it. The schedule ahead doesn’t welcome great success — this isn’t the old SWC at all — but a team playing fast and together and completely to its strengths will also be a difficult out to all those favored opponents coming up, too.

Razorbacks and Aggies

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