Eight weeks ago, as I became the latest utterly helpless victim of the hype train that Bret Bielema engineered all offseason, projecting the Razorbacks to plow through the opening six games with a 5-1 record and the only blemish being a loss to Tennessee, I was pretty leery of this little midseason bye week. Seemed like it could really stunt a flourishing team’s growth.
Fast forward to Oct. 21, 2015, with the same renegade spirit that vaulted Marty McFly to this fated day in history, and note how stupid I look and feel. The Hogs are 2-4, and their one conference win was against … Tennessee. They’ve been a confounding mess so far, but now I take a less jaded view of the off weekend that just passed. After all manner of insanity reigned in Ann Arbor and Memphis on Saturday, I was practically relieved that Arkansas wasn’t right there in the middle of it, taking a fifth loss in some inane and inconceivable fashion.
At this midway point, we’re leery of looking ahead and unwilling to glance in the rear view. Two bad out-of-conference losses in September and two blown second-half leads against high-level league foes have the program teetering on the brink. Salvation, if it is to come, will have to arrive with immediacy, because Auburn is slowly getting its bearings (even if the Tigers are anything but the title threat they believed themselves to be). Gus Malzahn brings his flotsam-and-jetsam to Fayetteville for an 11 a.m. game, and if you extrapolate any kind of relevance from kickoff times, know this: Arkansas and Auburn have done the morning thing before, many times, and the Hogs demolished the Tigers in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2012 when the first boot came before noon.
This is a sketchy Tiger team on unsteady ground. They’ve won one conference game against a middling East team, just like Arkansas did, and lost two less impressively: Mississippi State handcuffed the Tigers completely, and LSU flat-out bombed them. But Auburn did take care of business in its three non-conference tilts, or at least just enough, beating Louisville, San Jose State, and FCS member Jacksonville State by less than 10 points on average. The Tigers’ 4-2 mark is smoke, mirrors and scheduling witchcraft.
Beating Auburn will simply and perhaps singularly require Arkansas to get its red-zone offense fixed. The Hogs move the ball well until the plane of the end zone becomes sharp in the field of vision, and then it generally ends up creaky. That is literally the entire prescription this time, because the Tigers aren’t churning at anywhere near the octane level they reached two years ago, and not even last fall when the team suffered through a five-loss campaign.
We mentioned the undesirable prospect of reviewing the first six weeks of play, but it’s not a fruitless or totally joyless exercise. Rather, it may well be essential to determine how this last half of the slate plays out, so we stay with an optimistic angle on the way through the latter half of the schedule.
Brandon Allen has been as imperfect and frustrating as ever, and he’s simply not the vocal guy that the position seems to demand. But had I told you in mid-August that Allen’s first six games would yield a 62.4 percent completion rate, 256 passing yards per outing, 10 touchdown throws, only four interceptions, and even 108 rushing yards with only five sacks, you would have rejoiced and sworn that I hit the mark with that regrettable 5-1 projection. Instead, Allen’s numbers have even been sabotaged somewhat by injuries to his best skill players, subpar routes by his tight ends and inconsistent performance by his offensive line. He’s played well, but Hog fans are deluded into believing that his younger brother or some other alternative should be plugged into the offense right now. It’s folly. Allen’s done his job.
The defensive line is starting to develop swagger, albeit belatedly, thanks to two very competent efforts in the losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. There is a semblance of a pass rush, but it hasn’t borne fruit in the way of sacks or hurries yet. Tevin Beanum, DeMarcus Hodge and Jeremiah Ledbetter are all playing well, but someone has to become an outright force against the Tigers, a game-changer who can disrupt the timing-oriented Auburn offense. Beanum is arguably the defensive MVP of the first half of the year, but averaging a quarter of a sack per game isn’t going to cause any quarterback to tremble. If the Hogs are to surge back into bowl contention, the offense must produce points, but the defense can no longer simply deny them. Last fall’s second-half rebound was triggered by a unit that created and exploited mistakes, and it will take that sort of effort again if this bunch can scramble back toward respectability in the final analysis.