It was the night of October 22, just a little over two weeks ago. The Arkansas Razorbacks had just been embarrassed by a surprising Auburn team, 56 -3, and it could have been worse. After a win over Ole Miss the previous game, the loss was somewhat surprising, the final outcome even more so. How could a team that put up 30 points on the daunting Alabama defense just two weeks before have looked so inept against the Tigers?
As most of you that read my blog regularly are aware, I tend to stay away from posts about the University of Arkansas. However, after watching the incredible turnaround that the team made over the bye week, I was compelled to comment. My time in Northwest Arkansas began in the fall of 2005 on the day Houston Nutt's Hogs lost to Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks 14 - 10, their third loss in a row on their way to a disappointing 4 - 7 season. The following year, the Hogs ratcheted up the program expectations by winning the SEC West, but ended the season with consecutive losses to LSU, Florida and Wisconsin. Sporting three future NFL running backs in Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, the future looked bright for Arkansas. But despite the success in 2006, the program was mired in drama and despite a 2007 regular season ending overtime win over top-ranked and eventual national champion LSU, head coach Houston Nutt departed for Ole Miss and was replaced by Bobby Petrino, who created his own controversy by leaving the Atlanta Falcons prior to the end of the season. After getting the Hogs to a ranking as high as third nationally,
expectations had once again been higher than at any point since that
2007 season as the team prepared for 2012.
However, Petrino had personal and hiring issues and eventually left the program before the 2012 season, making the way for Bret Bielema to be hired from Wisconsin to replace interim coach John L. Lewis, who had coached a disastrous 2012 campaign. Bielema had success at Wisconsin, primarily with a physical style of play, especially in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But he didn't inherit a team built to play that way and as he retooled, the Hogs fell to 3 - 9, raising some doubt among the fan base as to whether progress was being made in the program. Armed with a commitment from Athletic Director Jeff Long to give Bielema time to rebuild, the coach has gradually made progress in both personnel and results. So as they made the trip to Auburn on October 21, the team stood at 5 - 2 overall with their only losses to top ten teams Alabama and Texas A&M. The Razobacks, on the heels of the Ole Miss victory, were sporting number 17 rankings in the polls and were poised to continue to make some noise in the SEC. But after giving up 56 points and a school record 540 yards of rushing, everything that Bret Bielema had been building for the past four seasons appeared to be in jeopardy.
That's why the game against 11th ranked Florida, a team that boasted the second best defense, at least statistically, and an SEC East leading 6 - 1 record, suddenly became a critical game in the advancement of the Razorbacks. Regardless of the reasons for the Auburn loss, whether it was fatigue after eight straight games, the last two against physical SEC West foes, poor execution or lack of preparation based on the unexpected resurgence of the Auburn defense, it was important for the Hogs not to fall to 5 - 4, and more importantly to 1 - 4 in the conference. The big question was how would Arkansas respond, not just the players,
but the coaching staff? During the bye week, Bielema made some changes,
both to the defense and the offensive line. Would they work? Would he be
able to sustain his year to year improvement in the record and keep the
fans from questioning his success and fitness to lead the program? Coming into the game, most prognosticators, including me, were predicting a close, low scoring game with Florida's vaunted defense a key factor. Could an injured Ausin Allen lead his team to victory against that squad?
It didn't take long to get the answer, as a pick six by Arkansas set the tone for the game, and the Hogs never looked. back. By showing up, taking care of business and totally overwhelming the Gators, it was evident that there had been major adjustments made following the Auburn loss. Both the players and the coaching staff clearly had a renewed sense of urgency and energy, and it resulted in a lopsided 31 - 10 victory, making the Razorbacks bowl eligible and setting the stage for another big November in Fayetteville. Can they sustain the effort well enough to defeat LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri, finishing the season with a Bielema-best 9 - 3 record? Only the next three weeks will reveal that, but I give them a good chance, starting with an offensively challenged LSU Tiger team, fresh off a tough 10 - 0 loss to Alabama. Bret Bielema is still making progress, and the Florida win once again made that clear.
Don't forget to check out my new book, "Offsetting Penalties - A PK Frazier Novel" at Amazon.com and listen to me Friday's at 8:40 am EDT/ 7:40 am CDT on Lou in the Morning, streaming live on www.WPFLradio.com, 105.1 FM. I can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.