Posted: 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013
By Brandon Larrabee
Season so far: Louisiana-Lafayette, W 34-14; Samford, W 31-21; Southern Miss, W 24-3; at Rutgers, L 28-24; Texas A&M;, L 45-33; at Florida, L 30-10
Still to go: South Carolina, at Alabama, Auburn, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, at LSU
If you had sat down in the preseason to come up with a list of priorities for Bret Bielema at Arkansas this year, there would be a few things that would leap to mind. First, fix the dreadful defense that allowed every SEC team except Auburn, Kentucky and LSU to score at least 30 points; second, begin to show some progress in turning the pass-based offense of 2012 to the rushing-based offense that Bielema will likely prefer; and, finally, don't lose any games to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe.
So far, Bielema has shown some progress on all three of those standards. But keeping up with two of them will be difficult to keep up as the season enters its second half.
On defense, things are at least statistically better. The Razorbacks are allowing 339.5 yards a game, their passing efficiency defense is still below average but almost 15 points lower than it was last year; and while both SEC offenses have scored 30 points or more, one of those games is against Texas A&M;, and Florida hit 30 even.
As for the rushing offense, once again things look good. Arkansas is averaging 216 yards a game, good for 24th in the nation. They average 5.1 yards per carry, up dramatically from 3.9 ypc in 2012. Passing efficiency and passing yardage are both down pretty dramatically, but that's not entirely a surprise given Bielema's Wisconsin offense.
And there will be no embarrassments in the non-conference schedule. Sure, the loss at Rutgers will bring some jokes from fellow SEC fans, but Rutgers' only loss is in overtime at Fresno State, and they have a chance to impress with a trip to American front-runner Louisville this week. Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss were all dispatched by Arkansas, though not as easy as perhaps they should have been.
But look at the games remaining on the schedule. Three or four of those teams have offenses that could change the defensive numbers dramatically. And at least one -- Alabama -- also has the ability to slow down Arkansas' rushing offense.
A bowl bid would still require almost everything to break right for the Razorbacks, and maybe a lucky bounce or two. All three of the swing games -- Auburn, at Ole Miss and Mississippi State -- would have to go Arkansas' way, or the Hogs would have to win two of those and spring an upset, perhaps this week against South Carolina. But even if they come up short of the postseason, the Razorbacks have made enough progress this year to give fans something they didn't have last year: Hope.
Looking forward to year two, that might be Bielema's most important accomplishment yet.