An inexperienced offensive line and quarterback lead the Razorbacks into season four of the Bret Bielema era
This longtime Arkansas Razorback observer has been attempting to summon long-packed-away memories for the last time the Hogs had this much uncertainty in their offensive line so close to an opening game. The guys we asked who played over the years in Fayetteville can’t recall it, which jibes with our recollections. There were years of wholesale replacement of at least four starters from the year before, successfully even, but all that had been settled pretty much by the time August camp began.
Not this year. Bret Bielema, entering his fourth season as Head Hog, has been shuffling the first- and second-team lines like they were musical chairs – even relegating some of those 10 to third team – and seemingly enjoying it. At least, that’s the face he’s put on for the fans.
Toss that in with trying to rebuild a running game around a sixth-year perennially injured plodder, a second-year player coming off a scary upper-neck injury requiring surgery, and a freshman from Texas to achieve a ground attack that has carried Bielema’s teams throughout his coaching career. And wait, there is also all that attention spent on naming a backup quarterback.
With all that unsettledness reaching a boil, one begins to notice there has been nary a mention, hardly even a worry, Arkansas will start a quarterback who threw all of three passes last season while distantly backing up his brother.
Austin Allen, handed the reins after spring practice in April as the “clear” winner of the starting quarterback sweepstakes, saw more meaningful action as a shaky second-year freshman in 2014 when his brother, Brandon, missed the second half of a 30-0 win over Ole Miss. All anyone knows is that Austin did nothing to give away the 17-0 lead he was handed, but the visiting Rebels also didn’t appear like they cared to make it up anyway. A week later at Missouri, when hurting brother needed to be pulled in the second half, Bielema didn’t even bother looking Austin’s way and stuck with a hobbling signal caller in giving away the game to the Tigers in the fourth quarter.
But Bielema has completely entrusted the Razorback offense to Austin now, though one also wonders how unsettling it must have seemed to the new quarterback to see a shifting array of linemen in front of him from practice to practice in August.
We haven’t even gotten to the defense, which quickly went from a fearsome and physical unit under a first-year coordinator, Robb Smith, in 2014 to – with three key players moving on to the NFL – being ravaged at times in 2015. Arkansas finished last season ranked 116th in pass defense among NCAA Division 1 teams. For perspective, only 123 were ranked.
Then there is that bugaboo of the past two years, the kicking game – mostly placekicking – that has reared its ugly head too many times, providing more crushing moments than heroics. Ever since dependable Zach Hocker departed after Bielema’s first year, field goals and even extra points have been of the hold-your-breath variety. Placement botches cost at least two games in the 7-6 campaign of 2014 (including what would have been a monumental upset of perennial title contender Alabama) and two more in 2015. Was there anything more defining of a gut punch to Arkansas football fans last November, in the midst of a win streak, when a last-second chip-shot field goal to beat Mississippi State caromed off a Bulldog who rushed untouched through the line?
So with that scenario laid out in front of Hog fans, they’ll all take a sip of pre-season Kool-Aid, as is their wont, and forecast nine wins; heck, 10 with that inevitable break they’re due to finally get. Hey, why not go for 11 wins, a spot in Atlanta opposite Tennessee for the SEC Championship, and a parade down Dickson Street after a Sugar Bowl triumph?
Wait: why stop there?
TCU, the Razorbacks’ opponent on September 10 in Fort Worth, faces nearly the same scenario on offense with key personnel losses from a year ago, returns a defense that was ransacked by teams that could both run and pass, and somehow has become enough of a media darling of late to rank in the top 15 of preseason polls and have some prognosticators envisioning a Big 12 title and spot in the College Football Playoff for the Horned Frogs.
Rest assured, while the opener in Fayetteville on Saturday with Louisiana Tech may not reveal enough, we’ll all know after the Hogs play TCU whether they’ll be able to move the football against an SEC slate with five teams ranked in the Top 25 and tons more talent than TCU will dress against the Razorbacks.
Because of its spotty kicking and shocking fourth-quarter defensive collapses the past two seasons, Arkansas can’t seem to finish off Texas A&M anymore (remember when the Aggies were a regular whipping boy for the Razorbacks?), and Alabama follows two weeks later – nobody needs reminding that Nick Saban hasn’t lost to Arkansas since he’s been at Tuscaloosa (nine straight wins, shades of Texas over Arkansas back in the glory days of the Southwest Conference as Frank Broyles’ coaching career was winding down).
Arkansas hits the halfway point of the season 6-0, and they’ll be putting the finishing touches on a Bielema statue to sit where they’re planning all that new gazillion-dollar north-end stadium work in Fayetteville. In reality, it seems, based solely on what’s transpired to keep Bielema hanging around the .500 mark as Hog coach, that 3-3 would be the worst-case, 4-2 would be OK, and somehow being 5-1 would have fans convinced the Razorbacks are firmly in the right hands for program rebuild.
Read Part 2 of Jim Harris’ Razorback preview here.
This will be the 41st year that Jim Harris has covered the Razorbacks. He is a member of the HogZone Team on KTHV Channel 11. He was in college when he started his sports-writing career at the Pine Bluff Commercial; in 1988, he went to the Arkansas Gazette, where he worked until the end. His day job is managing editor for the Communications Division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.