"Well how many games did you expect this team to win?"
"You knew everybody picked Arkansas to finish last in the West."
"The SEC West is the toughest division of all time in any universe and even though Arkansas would be undefeated anywhere else they're still rebuilding."
We've all heard those phrases or some variation of them on a loop over the last three months or even said them ourselves.
It's all true. People around the country and even within the Arkansas fan base had extremely limited expectations for this team. Even by winning four games, the Hogs have exceeded the expectations from some. Texas Tech was favored to beat the Razorbacks and many had that game pegged as a loss before the season, leading some to think Arkansas would repeat the 3-9 record from last year or even worse since Northern Illinois was also a respected program after earning double digit victories the last two years.
But a strange thing happened over the course of the first nine games. Turns out, Arkansas was much, much better than they were last season. After nine months of development and practicing and trying to improve, they actually improved. The Razorbacks blew out both Texas Tech and Northern Illinois.
As we're all too well aware, the Hogs then proceeded to blow opportunities against Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State - all games in which the Hogs led in the fourth quarter.
The Razorbacks didn't close those games out, but they did close out those preseason expectations. The team's record may still end up being about what most expected it to be, but anyone expecting it to happen how it's happened is lying.
That "how" is very important. It's a big part of the reason Arkansas is favored to beat LSU this week despite all the losing. It's also going to be a huge part of how we end up looking at this team and program.
It's within reason to think Arkansas could finish with anywhere from 4-7 wins at this point. At the bad end of the spectrum, those earlier losses will be an indictment added on to whatever woes happen over the next three games. But win, and they are nothing more than unfortunate but necessary stepping stones that led to Arkansas finally turning the corner and becoming a hot team leading into next season.
It's amazing to think the Hogs still have a chance to win 7 games and exceed virtually all preseason expectations, but between being favored vs LSU, hosting an Ole Miss team that will be facing significant questions marks following the injuries of Laquon Treadwell and Denzel Nkemdiche, and traveling to Missouri (another game for which Arkansas could be favored) seven wins isn't out of the question even if it is best-case scenario.
Not that it should be the expectation. Until Arkansas proves capable of holding on to one of these 4th quarter leads and beats an SEC opponent, no one should think anything more than it can happen. If Arkansas beats LSU, then we can talk about what will happen in that case.
Even if Arkansas wins only one game, that SEC losing streak is not some tiny nuisance monkey on the Bret Bielema's back. Right now it's King Kong. Lose all three games and the program faces 10 solid months of "0-20". Although Arkansas has built a nice recruiting class this year - mostly due to one of the best in-state classes in recent memory - it would seem likely that the 2016 class would suffer if Bielema has to work around 0-20 the whole time. We can rattle off all the stats we want to show how much better Arkansas was this season, but 0-20 is the bright lights.
Thankfully, the odds are against that happening. One little victory will take care of it. Even if Arkansas beats LSU then loses the last two, ending the season on a down note, that's one big ugly albatross they don't have to worry about.
Of course if the Hogs win two or three, it's a bowl season and most people will be happy. Two wins probably gets the Hogs in Shreveport or Birmingham. Three may get them Memphis or Nashville or Houston. Arkansas will be seen as a team on the rise and might be a popular dark horse candidate to compete for the division next year. Hogville will have daily threads about "we shoulda been 10-2!"
It's really all come down to this. A three game season over the course of 14 days. What do LSU and Ole Miss still have in the tank? Will Missouri be playing for a division title? Arkansas of course hopes the East is settled by the time the Hogs roll into Columbia. However, if the Razorbacks could keep the Tigers from a second straight trip to Atlanta, that might be a great way to kick start the
Battle Line Rivaly Ozarkalypse.
Bret Bielema was able to pride himself last year on the fact that Arkansas overcame a miserable October stretch and played its best football in November. Will that happen again?