Not many expected Arkansas to challenge LSU in Baton Rouge over the Veterans Day weekend, but there were enough odd variables in play that might have suggested a dogfight was to ensue. One, Arkansas was going to have the services of quarterback Austin Allen back after a lengthy absence, as he was cleared not only to play, but start over Cole Kelley (we’ll get to him later). Two, LSU was again coming off the traditionally physical contest against Alabama, in which the Tigers acquitted themselves fairly well but succumbed to the unbeaten Tide. Three, this was the first 11 a.m. kickoff in Death Valley in six years, and therein, the common mythology of the dreaded night game in Red Stick would not apply.
The Hogs were sluggish offensively but gamely competed against a rather tepid Tiger offense for a good stretch. Impressively, the Razorback defensive line made its presence felt early, finally getting a crack at a quarterback in Danny Etling who couldn’t dart around them with relative ease. When Allen was finally able to settle in and make a couple of fine passes, the Hogs breached the end zone for the first and only time all day late in the second quarter and went to the locker room with the usual false confidence of being close in a road game against a far superior team.
And let’s not undersell LSU because the Tigers have lost three games in their first year under Ed Orgeron, who is all too casually written off by pundits as this doddering buffoon who lacks the focus and mental acuity to realize sustained success. Yet, here he is, with a 7-3, ranked team that still lacks dynamic quarterback play and struggles to string together drives. I’ll remind you that Dabo Swinney also used to look like an idiot until he had an electric quarterback, and Tahj Boyd and Deshaun Watson clearly changed the perception of Clemson’s head coach.
At any rate, the Tigers showed their potential after halftime, with Etling uncorking the second of two long throws to wide receiver D.J. Chark and the LSU running game led by Derrius Guice just grinding away at the Hogs’ hapless front. LSU’s defense amped up its game, and that 7-7 score after the first 30 minutes predictably turned into a 33-10 rout. Kelley came into the game late, and was hideous, then ended up apparently and fittingly drunk once he got back to Fayetteville, having been picked up for careless driving and DWI early Sunday morning.
Orgeron, it is now worth noting, has handed Bret Bielema two losses by a combined 71-20 over the past year, so if anything is an indictment of the imperiled Arkansas coach who is likely doing his final paces up and down the Razorback sideline, that’s a big one. Losing five straight times to Kevin Sumlin, another coach who may well get fired, is a big one, too. And let’s not forget second-half failures as an overarching theme.
Butch Jones has just been jettisoned by Tennessee one year after he won nine games. Vols’ fans were never truly enamored with the amiable but out-of-place guy from Cincinnati, and he had five years of modest but ultimately unsustainable achievement there despite quality recruiting efforts. It is the East Division mirror image of what’s transpired in Fayetteville over the exact same span, and Bielema’s sub-.500 record and woeful SEC mark both fall well short of Jones’ records.
With Jones and Jim McElwain already out the door, and the possibility that Sumlin, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and Ole Miss’ interim coach Matt Luke will all be relieved of their duties soon enough, there is no logic in keeping the Bielema charade going, and the buyout issue is irrelevant. Arkansas has a $200 million stadium expansion to justify and pay for, and a fan base in full teeth-gnashing mode. A few outstanding coaching options are being bandied about, and one in particular makes so much sense that it probably will not materialize, given the tortured history of this program. Bielema, for being gentlemanly and endlessly optimistic, does deserve to ride out these last two games against Mississippi State and Missouri, to be fair.
But he can coach those games with the knowledge that his employment is soon to end, and with the decision-makers making inroads to the successor. If the Hogs fail to reach bowl eligibility, which now seems a certainty, then there is zero harm in giving Bielema the courtesy.