At midterm, Razorbacks struggling to dig out of hole

Photo: Walt Beazley /

The Arkansas Razorbacks aren’t that different than a lot of college students across the country. They’re struggling at midterm, and need an outstanding second half of the semester just to keep their heads above water.

If you look at the Hogs’ football schedule like a college semester, the Razorbacks have what equates to a be D grade at midterm by my estimation and have some serious work and improvement to make during the next seven weeks or this season will be deemed a failure.

After its 26-14 loss to Alabama last Saturday, Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks sit with a 2-4 record overall and a 1-2 conference mark. For all practical purposes, the Hogs are out of the race for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title, but have accomplished just enough to still be in the hunt for a bowl game going into the second half of their schedule.

The Razorbacks must win at least four of their final six games to earn spot in a bowl game with a 6-6 record. For the purposes of this column, that would equate to a C average going into final exams or bowl season. While most Razorbacks wouldn’t be happy with a C, considering the current circumstances, it would be acceptable.

The Razorbacks dug themselves a hole almost out of the gate this season, and it didn’t help that their coaches, fans and perhaps the players themselves overestimated exactly where the Hogs stood in the third year of Bielema’s reclamation project.

By shutting out LSU and Ole Miss late in the regular season a year ago and then routing Texas in the Texas Bowl, nearly everyone assumed Bielema and his Hogs had turned the corner. The jury is still out, but it certainly looks like more of the same at this juncture of the season.

Coming out of spring practice and through SEC Media Days, Bielema touted his team as a potential contender in the SEC West, which most consider the best division in college football. And had the stars aligned maybe that would have been the case.

However, the stars did not align for the Razorbacks. In fact, the stars started falling for Hogs in their first scrimmage when starting tailback Jonathan Williams went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Before their third game, the Razorbacks also lost three of their top four receivers with injuries to Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, and Cody Hollister. Tailback/fullback Kody Walker also injured his thumb, which has kept him on the sidelines most of the season.

Starting strong-side linebacker Josh Williams broke his leg in the Hogs 24-20 loss to Tennessee and is out for the season further diminishing the Hogs’ depth and experience. His replacement Dwayne Eugene left the Alabama game with an injury on special teams. There’s no word yet on the extent of the injury.

Those injuries not only struck at the Hogs’ depth but also at their leadership. All of those players but Eugene are upper classmen. The injuries alone go a long way in explaining Arkansas’ struggles, but they aren’t the only issues the Razorbacks have faced.

Struggles exist beyond injuries

While Arkansas’ defense has made improvement since the Texas Tech loss, the Razorbacks have had struggles at linebacker and safety that were not fully expected coming out of spring practice. Bielema, defensive coordinator Robb Smith and linebacker coach Vernon Hargreaves pegged Khalia Hackett to fill the middle linebacker spot in the spring, which would allow Brooks Ellis to slide over to the weakside linebacker spot. But despite having the physical tools for the position, Hackett struggled with the assignments. By the Hogs’ third game, Ellis moved back to middle linebacker where he continues to play well, but the vacuum left was filled by precocious freshman Dre Greenlaw. Greenlaw should develop into a very good and possibly great linebacker for the Razorbacks in time, but his inexperience has shown and opponents have taken advantage.

Like Greenlaw at linebacker, Razorbacks safeties Josh Liddell, a sophomore, and Santos Ramirez, a redshirt freshman, have promising upside, but also have shown their inexperience, particularly against spread offenses.

Going into the season, Bielema said he believed the Razorbacks’ depth on the defensive front would help mitigate the loss of standout performers Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, but Arkansas’ program isn’t to a point where NFL talent automatically replaces NFL talent.

Offensively, the injuries have hurt the Hogs, but the Razorbacks also struggled adjusting to new offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Everyone assumed the transition would be silky smooth, but failures in the running game — a Bielema staple — led to the totally unexpected 16-12 loss to Toledo. Granted Toledo is better than anyone expected, sitting 5-0 and ranked No. 22 in the nation today, but Arkansas has no business losing to a program like Toledo.

The Razorbacks struggled early in the season scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and their third-down efficiency remains a problem. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen has played well in most situations, but has suffered critical mistakes — fumbles and misfires — at the most inopportune times.

Also uncharacteristic for Bielema teams, the Hogs hurt themselves with penalties, particularly in losses to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Touchdowns were taken off the scoreboard in both the Toledo and Texas Tech games because of penalties. Arkansas’ kicking game has also had breakdowns that has made winning more difficult than it should have been.

Arkansas has cleaned up its play on both sides of the ball in its last two games, and it allowed them to defeat Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, the first SEC road win of the Bielema era, as wellas hold a tenuous 7-3 lead over Alabama until the final minutes of the third quarter when the Crimson Tide’s talent finally overwhelmed the Razorbacks.

So the questions are can the Razorbacks turn their season around and how do they do it. I think they can. But, will they? Who knows?

Salvaging the season

The remaining schedule isn’t easy. Road trips to No. 6 LSU and No. 13 Ole Miss on back-to-back weekends in November aren’t anyone’s idea of optimal scheduling. Those games are sandwiched between home games with Auburn Oct. 24 and Tennessee-Martin Oct. 31 and then Mississippi State on Nov. 21 and Missouri on Nov. 27.

Tennessee-Martin is the only home game the Hogs should win. The other three have to be considered tossups at best. It’s not out of the question that the Hogs could upset either one of LSU or Ole Miss, but with the games on the road and the memory of how the Hogs handled each of those teams last season, there is no chance the Rebels and Tigers will overlook the Razorbacks.

I actually like what I’ve seen from Arkansas’ defense the last two weeks. Improvement has been made, and if that keeps coming, the defense could be salty the rest of the season.

While there are very good defenses left on the Razorbacks’ schedule, none pack the wallop that Alabama does. Razorbacks’ offense should not be as anemic the rest of the season. If there is any way to put junior receiver Dominique Reed on a fast track to learning and executing plays during this bye week, it needs to happen. He is clearly the most dynamic athlete Arkansas has on offense. He’s slender, but I’d definitely try him on a reverse.

The Auburn game is so critical for the Razorbacks. Before the season started, many were pointing to the game being pivotal for altogether different reasons. At the time, Auburn was considered a national title contender, and the Hogs were thought to be a dark horse contender in the West and if not that, at least a fly in the ointment.

Bielema made his feelings about Auburn known in no uncertain terms on the summer speaking circuit, reportedly saying, “I hate those guys,” in a kidding, but not really way. While Auburn coach Gus Malzahn would never say it, he probably has little use for Bielema either. That game could end up being the most meaningful game of the season for both programs. Spread teams have plagued the Hogs all season. We’ll just have to see if that will continue to be the case.

The Hogs have dug a hole for themselves, but with some good fortune on the injury front, more disciplined play on the field and improvement, the Razorbacks could pull this season out of the ditch and earn a bowl trip. That would require the Razorbacks to post a 4-4 SEC record, which would be a two-game improvement over last season. That’s a goal worth shooting for.

GRADING SCALE: Just for fun, here’s how the Hogs’ current grade of D could change based on the outcome of their final six games.

If the Hogs only win one or fail to win another game, the grade drops to an F. Two wins, the grade remains a D. Three wins would merit at D+. Four wins would mean a bowl trip, a .500 record in SEC play and a .500 record overall. That sounds like a C to me. Five wins would raise the grade to a B-, and if the Hogs run the table, they would earn a solid B for the regular season and fans would be even more excited than they were in the summer.

In the grand scheme of things, no Hog fan would be happy with a C, but considering the current situation, it would do, Pig.