Walt Beazley / University of Arkansas
The Razorbacks football fan base reminds me of a bag of popcorn rotating in the microwave at that second or two while it’s still flat but sizzling.
As the days count down to the Sept. 5 season opener with UTEP, Hog fans are collectively making that slight whistling sound that serves as a precursor to the contained eruption that transforms those hard kernels into a bag full of savory morsels that we just can’t put down.
Yes, Arkansas fans are about to explode with anticipation. Kickoff can’t get here fast enough.
The excitement has been roiling since the Razorbacks’ Dec. 29 demolition of the Texas Longhorns, 31-7, in the Texas Bowl. Nothing stirs up Hog fans like working over the Steers in such a commanding fashion.
Razorback fans took that victory as a sign that head coach Bret Bielema had turned the corner with the program and have the Hogs on the straightaway to success. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith and his assistants breathed new life into Arkansas’ defense last year, and the hire of new offensive coordinator Dan Enos had fans optimistic that offensive balance is on its way.
Things may have simmered down a bit last winter, but as a wet spring rolled into a fairly mild summer, Razorbacks fans became more and more riled up as preseason polls and prognostications proved to be even more positive than even the most ardent Hog fan expected.
Bielema’s personality and positivity took the national and regional media by storm at SEC Media Days. Overnight the Razorbacks became as popular as pulled pork sandwiches, making most if not all Top 25 polls and becoming a trendy dark horse pick in the SEC West. Even ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit put one foot on the bandwagon, teasing Hog fans on Twitter that he was tempted to make Arkansas his pick to win the SEC West before ultimately playing it safe with Alabama.
Talk on the radio call-in shows hadn’t been this positive since before Bobby Petrino drove his motorcycle, girlfriend and the program into the ditch. Predictions of eight, nine and up to 10 wins were routine by not just the callers but even the hosts and guests, despite the fact the Razorbacks face among the toughest schedules on the collegiate landscape.
However, reality began to set in last Saturday. Not only did the Hogs lose their leading rusher from a season ago when Jonathan Williams went down with a season-ending ankle injury, but also a 10-for-23 passing performance by Brandon Allen in a scrimmage brought a bad taste into the mouth of the Arkansas fan base.
While saddened for Williams, fans got over the injury pretty quickly. “Alex Collins is more talented, anyway,” many reasoned, “and Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams will just pick up the slack.”
But Allen’s poor performance in the scrimmage lingers like the bitter taste of a charred piece of popcorn. It brought back all the old complaints that have dogged Allen since an injury to Tyler Wilson threw him into the fire before he was prepared to play as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
It would be sugarcoating the situation to say Allen’s performance wasn’t a bit of a concern no matter what the mitigating circumstances may be.
I won’t make excuses for Allen other than to point out that a scrimmage, open or not, isn’t held to impress or entertain fans. Like any practice, it’s meant to improve the players individually and collectively. It’s better for the Arkansas’ coaches to learn of issues with the pass protection and with Allen’s confidence in the pocket early rather than for it to surprise them once the season has started.
But for the fans, which were enjoying such a fun and optimistic preseason, it does put a damper on things. That worry, concern and doubt isn’t going to go away until Allen’s actual play on the field either puts them to rest or confirms them.
That, of course, won’t happen until the season gets underway, and that can’t happen soon enough.
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
— Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1985