It’s a sign how far Arkansas’ football program has come in four years that there’s plenty of hand wringing in the wake of Arkansas’ 29-24 defeat of Ole Miss. The 6-1 Hogs, after all, are sitting just about as pretty as they ever have at this point in an SEC season. Their SEC-leading offense is a finely-oiled machine, a plug-in-play marvel that won’t stop humming as long as Bobby Petrino is at the helm. Sure, quarterback Tyler Wilson doesn’t have Ryan Mallett’s arm – to end the first half, he under-threw a couple of receivers on deep passes that likely would have resulted in touchdowns. But he made up for that in the third quarter, showing speed Mallett never possessed by scampering around the edge for a touchdown, and later deftly avoiding the rush to throw it away. Casey Dick, Ryan Mallett, Tyler Wilson, it doesn’t really matter – Petrino, like San Francisco 49ers architect Bill Walsh, has a system supercharging any smart, marginally talented quarterback’s stats. [For a good synopsis of Walsh’s vastly influential philosophy, start reading around the 10th paragraph of this post]
But at the same time, there are a couple serious problems. By now, both could be labeled trends. The first: Arkansas comes out flatter than an ancient Egyptian’s conception of earth when given extra time to gameplan. The Hogs had six weeks to prepare for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and fell behind 28-10 in the first half. Arkansas essentially had the entire off-season and three tune-up games to prep for Alabama, only to see the Crimson Tide build a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter. Finally, Petrino and his defensive coordinator Willy Robinson had a bye week leading into Saturday’s game in Oxford, only to see the Rebels – ranked 10th or worse in every conference offensive and defensive statistical category entering the game – bolt to a 17-0 lead.
“I didn’t game-plan well enough in the first half and I’ll put that on me,” Robinson said. “I wish I had a different way of looking at them, but we had a much better grasp in the second half.” This let-down is only the latest sign this team has developed Schizoback’s Syndrome since the third game of the season.
Let’s pull out the charts, shall we?
Against Troy, the Razorbacks built a 24-0 lead before sputtering to a 38-28 win. Two weeks later, against Texas A&M, the Hogs roared back from an 18-point halftime deficit to eke out a 42-38 win. The 38-14 Auburn win has been Arkansas’ best so far, but even then the Tigers started the second quarter ahead 14-7.
What to do?
For starters, Willy Robinson will be around till at least the end of the season, so there’s no reason to evoke the title of any schmaltzy Disney flick starring an orca whale at this point. If anything, there should be cries to free up reserve cornerbacks Greg Gatson and Tevin Mitchell for more playing time.
The wheels are far from falling off. Yes, these disturbing trends have developed, but a more comforting one is around the corner – Petrino’s Arkansas teams play their best ball in November. I think the defense’s biggest problem is also its easiest to solve: lack of consistent intensity from senior leaders such as Isaac Madison and Jake Bequette (who only recently has gotten healthy). A few closed door sessions with Petrino and Robinson, who will emphasize this is the homestretch of their careers, and that problem should be largely remedied.
If it happens this week, and Arkansas beats Vanderbilt convincingly, then talk will shift to which dominoes would need to fall just right to spring Arkansas to the SEC championship game (a victory there would probably put Arkansas in the national championship game).
It’s likely LSU would have to beat Alabama next week, and Arkansas would have to win out for the Hogs to have a shot at the SEC championship game. If it comes down to a three-way tie between one-loss teams Arkansas, Alabama and LSU, don’t discount the importance of strength of the end of each team’s final three games. Arkansas’ homestretch is tougher than those of Alabama (@MSU, Georgia Southern, @Auburn) and LSU (home games vs. Western Kentucky, Ole Miss and Arkansas).
Not only should Arkansas fans be rooting for LSU to destroy Alabama, but they should also hope Clemson (currently #5th in BCS rankings) stays undefeated until Nov. 26, when the Tigers play South Carolina. Assuming Arkansas wins out, its win over South Carolina (now ranked #14th in the BCS) may prove to the victory that helps the Razorbacks squeak past LSU and Alabama in the rankings. Those teams, by the way, don’t play South Carolina this season.
So, let’s say all the pieces fall in order. Just how crazy is talk of Arkansas coming out of the brutal SEC West and winning the league title this season?
To figure this out, I examined how many teams with a similar record to Arkansas’ have won the SEC Championship game since its 1992 start. I was interested in champions which had lost one of their first three SEC games and/or had an especially embarrassing loss in their first seven games.
Here’s a look at SEC Champs with seven-game starts most similar to this year’s Razorbacks:
|Year||Team||Overall/SEC Record||Bad Losses||Postseason destination|
|1997||Tennessee||6-1, 2-1||Lost first SEC game 33-20 @ Florida||Orange Bowl|
|1999||Alabama||5-2, 3-0||Lost third game 29-28 vs. La. Tech in Birmingham||Orange Bowl|
|2000||Florida||6-1, 2-1||Lost 3rd SEC game 47-35 @ Miss. State; late in the season, lost 30-7 to Florida State||Sugar Bowl|
|2001||LSU||4-3, 1-2||In first SEC game, lost on the road at Tenn., in next game lost 44-15 vs. Florida at home||Sugar Bowl|
|2003||LSU||6-1, 2-1||Lost 3rd SEC game 19-7 vs. Florida at home||Won BCS Championship|
|2008||Florida||6-1, 2-1||Lost 2nd SEC game 31-30 vs. Ole Miss at home||Won BCS Championship|