Saying Thursday is a huge day for the Arkansas Razorbacks in an understatement.
Not only do the football Hogs close what has been a frustrating football season with an appearance in the Belk Bowl, but the basketball Razorbacks open what could be a promising SEC-portion of the basketball season.
From the standpoint of a fan that loves both sports, it’s hard to say which is more pivotal. I’m of the opinion all bowl games are important to the programs that are playing in them. The Razorbacks’ 4:30 p.m. contest against No. 22 Virginia Tech (9-4) has absolutely no bearing on the national college football scene, but it means a ton to both squads.
The winner of the game might be in the final Top 25 poll, but then again they might not. Since the Hokies are in the latest poll, they will likely remain in if they win. If the Razorbacks win, it might give them enough juice to slip in, but then again it might not. It all depends on who else wins or loses, and how compelling the game ends up being on the field.
Being ranked 25th in the final AP poll certainly isn’t where the Razorbacks, or for that matter Hokies, fans aspire for their teams to be, but then again, it’s a lot better to be in it than out of it.
The Arkansas Media Relations Department can spin some good out of being in the final poll. Media members will take note of it in the spring and summer when they begin to picks and prognostications about the 2017 season. There is perception value in being ranked both in the post- and preseason.
While it’s doubtful being ranked would be the deciding factor for a recruit, it is another brick in the overall recruiting foundation Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is attempting to build.
More important than that, though, a victory in the Belk Bowl would not only leave a good taste in the mouths of fans but also the football team’s after a season that was a bit more bitter than expected.
The Hogs’ 7-5 record isn’t too far out of line from the expectations of most fans. Sure some of us were overoptimistic in expecting nine wins, and some of us were a bit more pessimistic, thinking that five or six victories would be all the team could muster.
So seven is right in the neighborhood of reasonable. However, the Razorbacks regular-season finale meltdown at Missouri was ugly, and their midseason blowout loss to Auburn was even worse.
Fans aren’t going to forget either of them. Bielema’s honeymoon as the Hogs’ head coach is over with a lot of fans. He is still well liked by most, but from here on out, the results will be the results. Few will be willing to play apologist for him and his staff. That happens to every coach at some point in his coaching tenure. Most coaches’ honeymoons don’t reach four seasons like Bielema’s did.
But, a bowl victory would ease some of the pain. A good final memory will make the long wait for next September more bearable, and it would give fans a foundation for hope of a better season next year.
A bowl victory would give the current Razorbacks momentum going into their offseason program. The disappointments of the regular season itself should provide enough impetus to push the Hogs to bust their tales to improve, but a bowl victory and the hope of reaching an even better postseason destination next year could add just the right carrot to chase.
Hoops Hogs on a roll
Arkansas junior guard Jaylen Barford and Coach Mike Anderson / Photo : Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
A Belk Bowl victory would be huge for the football program in terms of intangibles, but a win over Florida in the Razorbacks basketball team’s SEC opener might be even bigger tangibly.
Mike Anderson has his Razorbacks off to a solid 11-1 start. It’s the best of his five seasons in Fayetteville, and it might just have the Hogs on the cusp of being ranked for the first time this season when the AP poll comes out this week.
After their 90-56 win over Sam Houston State, the Razorbacks, winners of eight in a row, jumped up to No. 20 in ESPN’s RPI that is thought to closely mimic the one the NCAA Selection Committee uses to bracket teams for March Madness.
Anderson’s Hogs are on a roll, but they need to keep that momentum going in SEC play for them to garner any lasting respect.
Arkansas’ run has been against solid mid-major programs, but that doesn’t carry a ton of clout with fans. Until the Razorbacks beat some SEC opponents, their 11-1 record is going to be perceived as suspect.
If the Razorbacks aren’t able to beat a solid Florida squad (9-3) in Walton Arena at 8 p.m. Thursday night, the likely response of fans will be “here we go again.”
That might not be exactly fair to Anderson and his team, but it is likely to happen.
The computer that spit out the Razorbacks’ schedule this season wasn’t exactly kind to the Hogs out of the gate.
Florida has been in and out of the Top 25 this year, and has an even better shot of being ranked this week than the Razorbacks do as the first team out of last week’s poll.
Gators coach Mike White, who many Hog fans should remember as the gritty Ole Miss point guard who gave the Hogs fits in the mid to late 1990s, has his Gators playing tight defense that will tax the Razorbacks, who have yet to fully stake out their own offensive identity this season.
With the infusion of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford from the JUCO ranks, the Razorbacks are excellent at attacking the basket, but they still have a tendency to get a bit stagnant on the half court in their motion offense.
But, the Hogs have gotten better game-by-game, and the exciting thing is that they haven’t come close to hitting their ceiling. This is a Hog team that could be much better in March than it is now if it continues to progress. But early league games are just as important as the ones later in the season.
One of the reasons this Florida game is so important is that it is a winnable game against a quality opponent. It becomes even more important when you consider the Razorbacks next two games are at Tennessee and Kentucky. Historically, even the Hogs best teams have had a hard time winning at Thompson-Boling and Rupp arenas.
A loss to the Gators on Thursday could leave Arkansas staring at a 0-3 mark after the first 10 days of SEC play. That would create a huge hole for the Razorbacks to dig themselves out of.
Arkansas’ team chemistry looks very good at the moment with Anderson deploying nine to 11 players in the rotation; however, add the pressure of mounting losses to the mix and that chemistry changes. Even a 1-3 record after a two-game road swing would look better than 0-3.
But if the Razorbacks can upend the Gators, then that momentum could bolster them on that road trip. Few teams in the country are capable of walking away from a road swing that includes a stop at Rupp Arena with better than a split.
So, which of Thursday’s games is more important for the health of the Razorback program?
It’s a hard call; one that I can’t make. Let’s just understate and agree they are both greatly important.
If the Hogs manage to win both games, it will be a banner day for both Bielema’s and Anderson’s Razorbacks and their fans.
If the Hogs manage to win neither game, it’s going to be a bleak day for all Hogs involved.