BEN HICKS: Played well in relief. UA Athletics

It’s a rite of fall now, I guess.

Arkansas could be in the Top 25 and playing well — in 2016, for instance, the Hogs were 3-0 and had some forward momentum — and it would still sustain a crushing defeat to Texas A&M. On most occasions over nearly a decade, however, the Razorbacks have been the unfortunate dregs of the West Division but they step up nicely against Aggy, only to lose in some sort of gut-wrenching manner. The joking title of “Southwest Classic” has the whole “Holy Roman Empire” vibe, doesn’t it? Voltaire would surely enjoy pointing out the folly of that designation, as this game’s locale in Arlington pushes the notion of what “Southwest” really is, and it damn sure isn’t a “Classic” when one team has lost eight consecutive in the series.

Sure, the Hogs have played hard in this game over the years. Bret Bielema’s undoing, if you ask me, started principally with his gross inability to close this alleged rivalry in the fourth quarter during his final four trips to the Metroplex, and now Chad Morris is testing the water similarly. Arkansas made a litany of mistakes Saturday at AT&T Behemoth, but guess what? The Aggies did, too. And the referees got in on the action by sometimes flagging very questionable stuff and then deciding late in the game that, when you really think about it, you could conceivably throw a flag on every single play but let’s just keep them holstered at the most critical time when A&M has a defensive back dump-trucking one of our wideouts by the sideline.

Arkansas lost 31-27, and acquitted itself very well on the heels of the humiliation it just sustained against San Jose State. Alas, the team yet again could. not. freaking. FINISH. If this program needs a profound “culture change,” then yet another winnable game turned into an actual loss is not the ticket there. Bielema’s last four teams (2014-17) were in position to win this game every single year, and went to overtime in three of those years, only to succumb in an acutely painful fashion.

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Let’s start with a big positive: Give Ben Hicks, potentially the starting QB again, some serious credit for his guts and heart. The SMU transfer got the call after Nick Starkel chucked another ill-advised interception and got hurt on tackling the returnee as an added bonus. Ineffective in his starts against Portland State and Ole Miss, Hicks was on fire early and made some genuinely beautiful throws. He played angry and that was plainly evident. Here’s a kid who got here early to try to adapt for one final season of college football, he scuffles in the opener and is genuinely underperforming while the offense runs at some plodding pace when he gets yanked for the talented but somewhat reckless Starkel, and now he gets asked to save his team’s ass? I’m sure it was a somewhat emotionally charged moment for him, and he played like it. Hicks was pissed off, and I respect that.

And that’s not to throw shade at Starkel. He still is the more naturally gifted option, but Hicks played in a way on Sunday that belied his modest stats (15-27 with no picks and one scoring pass, and fell just shy of putting up 200 yards passing in barely more than one half of work). In fact, Hicks showed that he CARED. Cheyenne O’Grady and Treylon Burks did, too. Rakeem Boyd ran hard. The offensive line was heinous in the early going but I’ll be damned if that maligned unit didn’t string a few solid plays together here and there. Hicks benefited from a clean pocket on many plays and even though the running game sort of stalled in the second half, this is still a team that can run the ball against probably three or four of the teams left on the schedule.

But at the end, Hicks’ bid to become a hero fell short in the same way Tyler Wilson’s spirited relief of Ryan Mallett against eventual national champion Auburn in 2010 wasn’t quite enough. Or in the same way that Steve Atwater’s brilliant Razorback career had that one, stinging dropped pick against Miami in 1988. Or in the same way that Darren McFadden very nearly overwhelmed LSU by his own damn self in 2006, throwing for more yards on two passes that day than Casey Dick did the entire game and nearly willing his team to an 8-0 conference season.

Can you even believe that was a thing? Thirteen years ago, the Hogs botched their last three games after winning 10 consecutive, but yeah, they were a mere few points away from an undefeated SEC campaign. Flash forward five years and Arkansas was the No. 3 team in the country and had top-ranked LSU down 14-0 early before simply collapsing. In 2014-15, the Razorbacks won back-to-back bowl games and while inconsistent, still constituted a week-to-week challenge.

Nobody is scared of this team now. This is Morris’ 10th consecutive SEC defeat. I advocated for his dismissal in my last piece, and I’m not persuaded to change my view despite the far better effort his team generated on Saturday. It’s still a loss, y’all. And at some point, these lengthy stretches of misery — eight straight to A&M is bad, but this will assuredly also be the year that Nick Saban runs his record to a cool 13-0 against the Hogs since taking the helm at Bama — are tiresome. Sure, I don’t expect this team to frankly ever beat Alabama again in my lifetime. I’m not sure that Auburn and LSU will ever lose to Arkansas again on the gridiron, either. So here we are, in a league that is incredibly top-heavy, and in a division where only the Mississippi schools seem within reach. And for that matter, already down 0-1 on that card too, so this legitimately looks like it could be another 2-10, 0-8 season.

The Aggies were unsteady yet again. Kellen Mond again had some nice moments and some baffling ones. Arkansas did get some heat on him, but when it counted most, the junior (yes, he presumably will do this act about eight more years) threw to the right targets and scrambled when he needed to for the third straight time against the Hogs’ exuberant but still-unproven defensive unit. Those guys are getting a little better and didn’t get walloped by a big play out of the gate so that was nice. And while the defensive backs had their struggles, they also played very well at times.

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Officiating was, well, terrible. And consequential, of course. I need to “run the numbers” here but I do think that the league office has had to apologize to Arkansas for more referee gaffes than the Hogs have won conference games the past five or six years. It’s at least a close call.

And that’s so shameful. These young men deserve better. A win on Saturday might have been a big and desperately needed boost for this beleaguered program. Instead, it’s just one more “L” for a team that has to be suffering a lot of psychological damage from all of this. McTelvin Agim has been a part of EIGHT DAMN WINS in his star-crossed career. That’s just mind-boggling.

Of course, it also isn’t in the least.