At the halfway point of the 2017 season, the worst-case scenario for the Arkansas Razorbacks has indeed played out.
We took a preseason stab in this space at the possibility of eight regular-season wins in 2017, maybe even a miraculous nine if good fortune was on the Hogs’ side, with much of it hanging on three early games: TCU, Texas A&M and South Carolina. Due to the perceived huge talent differential, Alabama, Auburn and LSU looked like losses, but Arkansas figured to match up well with those first three Power 5 opponents and three of the last four SEC opponents on the slate, and would surely take care of the three low-rent nonconference foes.
But, of course, the Hogs dropped all three telltale games. Then they took their annual hammering at the hands of ‘Bama last week, 41-9, and likely will get beaten Saturday at home by Auburn to fall to 2-6. Whether it’s an embarrassing drubbing like at South Carolina or maybe a competitive contest before a late wilt, like the TCU and A&M losses, will mostly depend on whether Bret Bielema lets the Razorback defense loose the way it played the last three quarters in Tuscaloosa. And, of course, it will depend on whether Bielema decides to play his best five best offensive linemen again a second week in a row.
Otherwise, if we see Arkansas revert to its O-line and passive defense we saw in the first five games, Auburn can lay yet another embarrassing loss on the Hogs like last year’s ridiculous 56-3 drubbing in Alabama.
LSU was headed for something similar on its home turf last week, falling behind 20-0, unable to cover Auburn’s receivers, especially including walk-on Will Hastings out of Pulaski Academy (who knew a placekicker also possessed SEC wide receiver speed? Apparently no one, because Hastings went unoffered by major colleges). Auburn transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham, improving by the week since being finding little success against Clemson, was reenacting some of those impressive passing exhibitions in his three 2015 starts at Baylor.
But LSU awoke, found that it indeed still had some physicality in its line play, and began to pressure Stidham, hurrying him into bad throws and mistakes. Auburn, which led 23-14 at the half, didn’t score a point in the final two quarters. Bobby Petrino, the former Hog head man now back at Louisville, once explained his game-planning with “You pass to score and you run to win,” meaning his first halves would exploit secondaries and the second halves would be ground-and-pound. Auburn, most thought, had the ability to grind out a second half with the lead behind star running back Kerryon Johnson, but that’s not how the Tigers’ second half unfolded. Instead, after a scoreless third stanza, LSU’s D.J. Chark broke the ice with a big punt return for a touchdown, cutting it to 23-21, and the last 15 minutes were all LSU.
Auburn couldn’t even get its ace kicker Daniel Carlson, who booted three first-half field goals, in range for one in the final minute that would have put the visitors on top. Instead, LSU hit two field goals in the final three minutes, one for the lead and one for the icer after Stidham stalled on his end, and LSU had beaten Auburn yet again in Death Valley, 27-23.
Auburn is 5-2 to Arkansas’s ugly 2-4, and yet Tigers Coach Gus Malzahn may be on a hotter seat than Bielema feels right now. Georgia and Alabama loom at the end of the regular season, and an 8-4 mark – one that would top Bielema’s ceiling so far in Fayetteville – might turn into a fireable offense with the crazed Tiger faithful.
It seems totally absurd, doesn’t it?
What’s more astounding is that while Malzahn, the hero as offensive coordinator for Cam Newton and the Tigers in 2010, still hasn’t been able to match his Tigers head coaching debut season of 2013 with an offense his fans demand and that is required to beat Clemson, LSU and certainly Bama. Yet his rival on the Arkansas sideline has trotted out an offense this year that seemed designed to lose against Power 5 teams. Who can explain the willy-nilly offensive line switches that have bogged down the program since spring practice of 2016?
Then unbelievably, he explained in Monday’s post-mortem of the Alabama loss that the staff had decided the most physical linemen were required against the immovable Tide and to protect the first-time starter at quarterback, 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Cole Kelley.
Brian Wallace, the massive fourth-year junior and 4-star prep recruit out of St. Louis who hadn’t seen much more than special team snaps to that point in 2017, was now the starting left tackle, one of at least three line positions that have been questionably manned for five games. Zach Rogers, who may be shorter than a prototypical NFL lineman but would be a quality starting center for any big-time college team, had played second field to senior Frank Ragnow, the Hogs’ best player up front. So Saturday, taking one for the team, Ragnow moved over to right guard, which had been manned by a freshman walk-on. And big Johnny Gibson, better suited for guard but mostly playing right tackle so far in 2017, supplanted the struggling Colton Jackson at left tackle. Left unchanged was left guard, where Bielema’s two-year pet project, Hjalte Froholdt, still toils and, according to pro football scouting sites, has improved significantly from a rough first year there.
Given all those changes, Arkansas still could run for only 27 yards on 29 carries, though much of the negative yardage came on sacks of Kelley. Early on, the Hogs and Kelley regularly faced second- and third-and-long calls because first-down runs went 2 yards or less.
It was easy for some fans to say that they saw little change in the line play, but consider that this was Alabama, which is on a national level now all its own defensively. What might the Hogs have accomplished with this lineup in place, as it should have been, in August and against TCU, A&M and then, with some momentum, at South Carolina?
All that’s over. Six games remain, and Bielema still has a chance to keep his best players on the field, let the defense run wild like Arkansas defenses used to play instead of 60 minutes of prevent victory, and salvage something. Gosh, they might even play Auburn close.
Jim Harris has covered Arkansas Razorback sports since 1976. He is a frequent contributor to KTHV, Channel 11 sports and the weekly “THV HogZone” following Razorback football games.