Hogs have proven they can compete in the SEC; now they must win at higher level

Hoover, Ala., is the epicenter of college football this week as The SEC holds its annual football media days there. Football writers, columnists, reporters, sportscasters, bloggers, talk-show hosts and analysts — more than 1,200 strong — from across the SEC footprint and the nation have gathered there to get the preseason scoop on the nation’s most competitive and popular conference.

The event began Monday and continues through Thursday, with all of it being televised by the SEC Network. Generally the event plays out like a cross between a pep rally and a dog-and-pony show as all 14 of the SEC’s head coaches and three players from each team field questions of all sorts from all sorts.

Usually there’s not a ton of substantial news that comes out of the event. While all the teams are in the midst of conditioning for preseason camp, for the most part, little has changed since each squad completed spring practice in April. So that information will be reiterated. Once practice begins in August, much of the material gathered becomes outdated as things begin to move swiftly toward the opening weekend of the season.

However, this season is a bit different. Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee have all had players run afoul of the law recently or courted some kind of controversy in the off season, and no doubt that will come when each of their coaches face the media.

The big show, though, is likely to come on Thursday when Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze will be asked to field questions about the NCAA inquiry his program has recently answered by offering up 11 scholarships on the NCAA altar as penance for the program’s transgressions.

Not included in that query are the allegations of his assistant coaches paying players, in particular Laremy Tunsil, who confessed he was paid by the Rebels in April during a press conference following the first round of the NFL Draft. Tunsil slipped from being an early selection in the draft to being a mid first-round pick after his social media account revealed alleged illegal activity.

Freeze attempted to head the media off at the pass by doing a one-on-one interview with an ESPN reporter on Monday. That won’t keep the reporters from asking, though. It will be interesting to see how tough the reporters — some of the national variety who are likely there just for his story — are on him, and more importantly how Freeze handles what will be an uncomfortable if not confrontational media session.

Compared to that, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema’s time on the big stage ought to be a breeze Wednesday morning. The toughest question he will have to field is how he plans to prepare his Razorbacks to get off to a quicker start this season.

In each of the last two seasons, the Razorbacks have rallied in the back half of the season to become bowl eligible after stumbling out of the gate. To his credit, Bielema became the first Razorbacks coach to guide his team to back-to-back bowl victories and the first Head Hog to win his first two bowl games. However, some feel he left too much on the table last season with hard-to-explain losses to nonconference foes.

Bielema sounded confident about his team coming out of spring practice and in a few other media opportunities since then, particularly for a coach that is retooling every position unit on his offense except for receiver. While the Razorbacks return nine starters and other key back-ups on defense, the Hogs weren’t very good on defense last fall.

Certainly, Bielema will offer up his thoughts on how he, his assistants and players will answer those questions as best he can, but the true answers will only begin to come when the players pad up this August to prep for the season.

No matter how well Bielema and his staff have planned and prepared, and no matter how hard the Razorbacks conditioned during the summer and will work in camp, things never work out perfectly. There will be injuries and frustrations as well as successes and surprises before the Razorbacks take the field against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 3, and they will continue right through the end of the season.

But uncertainty and spontaneity is what makes college football so interesting.

Words of Wisdom

My two big takeaways from watching some of the coverage of SEC Media Days on Monday came from Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. While they both were speaking about their teams, their message certainly applies to the Razorbacks as well.

Malzahn could be accused of being a master of the obvious when he said the difference between having a good season and a disappointing one is how a team handles close games. The Razorbacks could have won two or three more games that they lost last season, but conversely, they could have easily lost several games that they won. The key, it seems, is to be good enough play as few close games as possible, but of course, that’s easier said than done.

Interestingly enough, Mason said this season isn’t about competing for his Vanderbilt squad, but winning.

Many would characterize the Razorbacks as being in a similar position despite Arkansas winning twice as many games last year as Vandy did.

The Hogs competed against Alabama last year, leading the Crimson Tide until late in the third quarter. The Hogs have beaten the SEC West’s other two talent brokers LSU and Ole Miss two years in a row. But, the Razorbacks have also lost to more evenly matched Texas A&M and Mississippi State the past two years by the close margins.

For the Razorbacks to continue to improve, Bielema and his staff must find a way for the Hogs to play better football earlier in the season and capitalize when the opportunity presents itself. As Mason said, Bielema needs his Hogs to play well enough to win rather than just good enough to be competitive.

My preseason guess/hope for how the SEC will shake out:

West — 1. Alabama, 1. Arkansas, 3. LSU, 4. Ole Miss, 5 Auburn, 6. Texas A&M, 7. Mississippi State.

East — 1. Georgia, 2. Florida, 3. Tennessee, 4. Vanderbilt, 5. Kentucky, 6. Missouri, 7. South Carolina.

SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs. Arkansas (by virtue of a tiebreaker over Alabama). Hogs win 31-10 for Arkansas’ first SEC title.

The preseason is the time for dreams. Reality will set in quickly enough.