“I’m ready for something new.”
That was the overriding thought process amongst Razorback fans after the Hogs dropped their second game in a row in the Southwest Classic to the Texas A&M Aggies. The subject of Bret Bielema’s job status has been a hot topic lately throughout Fayetteville, and if you take a step back I don’t know if that is warranted.
Last year’s Start:
This time last year Arkansas was 4-1 (Bye week was week 9 last year) heading toward a home game against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. At the time, fans seemed to be pretty happy with the direction of the program. Now, with just one win less, it seems as if the sky is falling on Donald W. Reynolds Stadium.
In week one last year Arkansas needed a pair of fourth-down conversions late to rally back for a 21-20 victory and avoid another disappointing early season loss to a non-Power 5 conference team. Then, in week two, Arkansas beat the 15th ranked TCU Horned Frogs in double overtime 41-38 on a 5-yard touchdown run by Austin Allen on third down. The disappointing 45-24 loss to Texas A&M, where Arkansas was outscored 35-7 in the final 34 minutes of the game, was sandwiched in between the other two wins (games against Texas State and Alcorn State where the Hogs won by a combined score of 94-13). Leading the Hogs to a 4-1 start in 2016.
This year’s start:
Now, let’s look at this year. Sure, Bielema, along with the Razorback-faithful, expected to be better than .500 heading into week six of this year, and thought winning one or both of the TCU/Texas A&M games was not unreasonable.
Many felt like Arkansas should beat TCU when they came into Fayetteville in week two this year simply because they beat them in Fort Worth last year. However, according to Phil Steele’s returning starters chart, Gary Patterson’s group, who were riddled with injuries last year, brought back the third most returning starters in the nation (17 total) with 10 players returning on offense. With that being said if Cole Hedlund doesn’t miss two gimme field goals, Arkansas has a real shot at winning that game. And since TCU’s 28-7 win against Arkansas, all the Horned Frogs have done is beat the then ranked 6th team in the nation Oklahoma State Cowboys comfortably 44-31. Now the Horned Frogs are 4-0 and ranked 8th in the nation.
Anytime Arkansas and A&M play down in Arlington the game is a toss-up. This year, Arkansas had a shot at winning that game in overtime before All-American safety Armani Watts picked Allen off in the endzone.
So it seems at first glance that maybe the 2-2 start this year is not all that bad, and if the ball bounces the Hogs away in a few games they could easily be 3-1 or even 4-0. Let’s compare some of the numbers from Arkansas’ first four game this year to last year.
All stats via cfbstats.com
Passing Offense thru 4 games:
Rushing Offense thru 4 games:
Offensive 3rd down conversions:
Offensive Redzone conversions:
|Attempts||Scores||Scoring %||TD %||FG %|
The skinny here is overall Arkansas has been a better offensive team overall this season thru four games. The only decline has been in the passing game. Austin Allen has not looked like the same player who lead the SEC in passing yards last year to this point in the season, but that is to be expected after losing the top 7 pass catchers from last year. Among those were seniors Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, and Cody Hollister on the outside (all on NFL rosters) and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle who was selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins.
The one veteran who was supposed to lead this group, Jared Cornelius, tore his achilles in his first real action week 3 against A&M. The four leading pass catchers for the Hogs so far this season combined for a whopping 5 catches all of last year. The leading receiver being Jonathan Nance, a JUCO transfer in his first year at Arkansas. Nance seems to be coming on after recording 6 catches and 2 touchdowns last week against New Mexico State (after having 100 yards the week before). The extremely talented former 4-star tight end, and 2nd ranked in the nation at his position, Cheyenne O’Grady is also being worked into the action.
The rushing numbers have actually gone up after losing the top rusher in the SEC regular season last year, Raleigh Williams III, to a career-ending neck injury in the spring. The three-headed backfield lead by Devwah Whaley has been productive early. Along with Whaley, former South Carolina Gamecock, grad-transfer David Williams has played well averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The biggest surprise has been the explosive true freshman Chase Hayden, who is averaging 6 yards per carry, good for the 7th best in the SEC among backs with 40+ carries.
The offense is converting 3rd downs at a higher rate, and while the field goal kicking has been an issue, the offense is scoring touchdowns when in the redzone at an astounding 83.33%, which is tied for 6th best in the nation.
So if the offense isn’t the issue let’s look at the defense.
Passing Defense thru 4 games:
Rushing Defense thru 4 games:
Opponent 3rd down conversions:
Opponent Redzone conversions:
|Attempts||Scores||Scoring %||TD %||FG %|
Statistically, the defense has had a little drop off in the early part of the season, but that is after losing their starting corner, senior Ryan Pulley to a season-ending chest injury in the opening game. That said, in the two major categories that had to be fixed from last year, opponents 3rd down conversions (dead last in the SEC last year) and rushing defense we see small improvements early.
Where do we stand heading into week 6:
All in all, Arkansas fans need to, as Aaron Rodgers once said, R-E-L-A-X. The expectation that Bielema would have the Hogs sitting at 4-0 heading into this game was, at best, extremely optimistic. TCU has been better than expected and Arkansas had a chance to win that if they don’t miss two easy field goals. They could’ve, and should’ve, found a way to pull out the Texas A&M game, but they didn’t. And now they are 2-2, looking at a very winnable game against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks are a team that has struggled to find an identity. They are in the bottom four in the conference in pass defense and rush defense. They have the 12th ranked rushing offense in the SEC, and have the second to the worst scoring offense in the conference. The lone positive is sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, who has the 3rd most passing yards in the SEC. The issue is protecting him. The Gamecocks have allowed 15 sacks, including 7 last week in a loss to Texas A&M, in which they lost three offensive linemen to ankle injuries (all are questionable for the game this Saturday).
Arkansas should win this game, and I think the mindset of this team should and will change going into next week. The offense has been improving the past couple weeks putting up 40+ points in each game, and Coach Bielema said on his Wednesday SEC teleconference that highly touted JUCO transfer Brandon Martin is on the verge of getting on the field after suffering a hamstring injury before the season. Martin, a big 6-foot-4 219-pound receiver was the No. 2 ranked player and No. 1 wide receiver in the ESPN JC50, would be a huge boost for this offense down the stretch.
In a SEC where the only things we know right now are that Alabama is in a league of their own and Georgia is really really good, there is still a lot to be determined. Arkansas will likely lose to Alabama, but the next two toughest games are Auburn and Mississippi State who have been somewhat inconsistent, and they get both in Fayetteville. Then you have LSU, Ole Miss, and Mizzou who are all a mess right now.
Arkansas has a chance at salvaging this season and winning 8 or 9 games. That said, they have to line up and beat the Gamecocks in Columbia this week before they can start thinking about anything down the road. This is still the SEC, and a loss this week, and Bama next week and this season could get away from Bielema in the Hogs in heartbeat. Paul Rhoads and this defense needs (and should be able) to get pressure early and often on Jake Bentley and force some turnovers, while this offense continues to improve.
What is said on paper means little, however. As they say, you don’t play on paper. The football is an oblong shape, and you can’t predict how it will bounce.
We shall see what the feeling is around Fayetteville come Monday morning.