On the surface, Brandon Allen's story as a Razorback is quite simple: after struggling early in his career, Allen kept on throwing, kept on improving, and is closing his career winning some big games and playing incredible football.
It's your basic coming of age narrative. A story of growth, of overcoming, of vindication and validation.
However, the full story is much more complex. Plenty of athletes have had to grow and learn before eventually playing at their highest level, but has any Razorback been through what Allen has been through? It seems doubtful. And no matter what happens in these last two games, he'll probably never be fully appreciated since his teams haven't reached the heights of other great Hog teams, regardless of how good his quarterback play has been.
A Quarterback Battle Even Before Redshirting
Allen's abilities as a quarterback have seemingly always been somewhat in question, even going back to before he signed with Arkansas. The son of Bobby Allen, a former Razorback assistant coach and current staff member, his recruitment was quick and drama-free. He basically just hopped across the street from Fayetteville High School and became a Razorback. However, Bobby Petrino also went after a second quarterback in that same recruiting class who was also from Northwest Arkansas in Kiehl Frazier.
This proved to be simply the first time fans would debate whether or not Allen should be Arkansas' featured quarterback. Allen was a 4-star player player and in the Rivals 250, but Frazier was rated even higher. Allen was more of a pro-style quarterback while Frazier was the flashier dual-threat.
Auburn's then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn led the Tigers' effort to pull the star quarterback out of state, and it worked. It led to plenty of hostility and frustration toward Malzahn from Arkansas fans, as one might expect. It ended up working out best for Arkansas, as Frazier was thrust into action as a true freshman and struggled until he switched positions and ultimately transferred.
Allen was able to redshirt in 2011 with the plan of following Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson in what was believed to be Petrino's quarterback factory, but announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. Things did not quite go according to plan.
While the Petrino incident left the program in disarray in 2012, Allen won the backup quarterback job behind Wilson for his redshirt freshman season. Wilson was firmly entrenched as a team star, so no one was expecting Allen to do much, but an injury to Wilson early in the Louisiana-Monroe game thrust Allen into action quickly.
Nobody blamed Allen for what happened in Little Rock that night. In fact, the story was going to be how his first touchdown pass, a 13-yard lob to Mekale McKay in the third quarter, foreshadowed what was to come in the next era of Razorback football.
But Allen didn't have anymore success after that play, and the coaches continued to call pass plays. Wilson's injury also kept him out of the next week's Alabama game, forcing Allen to start against the Tide. That game was also a disaster.
Allen has never blamed that experience on anything, but I've often wondered how those games, two of the worst losses in Arkansas history, might have affected his confidence afterward. Bret Bielema even brought up that exact topic recently when discussing how far Allen's come.
In 2013, under his third head coach and third offensive coordinator, Allen took over the starting role that he'd keep for three seasons. The season started going off the rails in the third game, when Allen injured his shoulder diving into the end zone for a touchdown. The injury forced Allen to miss the next week's game against Rutgers, and because he wasn't hit on the play, caused some fans to question his durability for a long time afterward.
Allen continued to play that season even though the injury nagged him throughout the year. Bielema revealed after the season that he was hardly able to practice at all, but Arkansas' depth chart at quarterback was virtually non-existent. There's no way around it, Allen struggled badly afterward. He failed to complete even half of his passes and threw 10 interceptions, including game-killing pick sixes against Texas A&M and Florida, and what was essentially a pick six against South Carolina. Those three games came in consecutive weeks, and the Hogs followed them with a second consecutive 52-0 loss to Alabama.
It was, without a doubt, rock bottom.
Learning a new system, injuries, inexperience and lack of depth led to losses, bad losses, and humiliating losses, including an SEC losing streak that caused me to abandon my "support the conference" philosophy and wish doom on everybody.
At best, fans were skeptical, and at worst, weren't shy about voicing their opinion that Allen should be benched (among other much more terrible things as bad fans are wont to do) and had no faith he would be able to improve in the future. Why Allen even kept public social media accounts during that time is beyond me.
Allen came into 2014 healthy, and his numbers improved. Unfortunately, the wins still weren't coming. The Hogs played Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State very closely, but mistakes cost the Hogs in each game. Late interceptions ended the Hogs' chances against Alabama and Mississippi State, and a pair of fumbled snaps were among the many miscues against the Aggies.
When Arkansas finally broke through in November, the defense received most of the credit because both LSU and Ole Miss were shut out. The offense didn't have to do too much. Allen threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Keon Hatcher early in that Ole Miss game, but had to leave in the first half after suffering a back injury.
Allen returned the next week to face Missouri, and he was clearly playing through a substantial amount of pain. Missouri took over the lead late in the game, and Allen was beaten up. Visibly nowhere close to 100%, Allen and the coaches agreed to let him stay in the game. He led Arkansas on a drive that could have tied the game, but an Alex Collins fumble ended the drive.
As a result, the LSU and Ole Miss wins did nothing to stop the conversation regarding whether or not he was clutch. Allen was named MVP in the Texas Bowl, but it was another blowout win. He played well, no doubt, and getting the opportunity to embarrass Texas is always a prized accomplishment for any Razorback, particularly for native Arkansans.
Even this year, his senior season, fans continued to question whether he should even be the starter. Now that Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey were available and had already redshirted, there was no reason to keep them on the bench, it seemed.
It didn't matter that Allen's passing stats were excellent in September or that Arkansas was ranked #1 nationally in passing S&P+ for much of the season. Allen overthrew Hunter Henry against Toledo on a pass that would have won the game. Allen under threw a wide open Jeremy Sprinkle against Texas Tech. He lost a fumble late against Texas A&M and under threw Sprinkle again in overtime. It all kept adding to the narrative. Yes, Allen was really good through three quarters, and some of his statistics were among the nation's elite, but when it came time to win the game late, Allen wasn't making those plays.
Arkansas finally got over the close-game obstacle with a four-point win against Tennessee, but the Hogs didn't score at all in the fourth quarter. In fact, Allen overthrew Henry in the end zone again, a play that likely would have iced the game.
It wasn't until the Auburn game his senior season that Allen fully broke through and became the quarterback everyone had always hoped to see. Arkansas and Allen had been in three overtime games beforehand and never even picked up a first down. This time, Arkansas scored four touchdowns and converted two two-point conversions to win the game, including this throw to Jeremy Sprinkle that looked doomed at first:
Those overtime periods kicked off what I believe has been the greatest stretch of quarterback play in Arkansas history. His games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State both set school records. He currently ranks second nationally in Quarterback Rating, ahead of Trevone Boykin, ahead of Deshaun Watson, ahead of Baker Mayfield, and ahead of Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly.
After dispatching Auburn and UT-Martin, Arkansas hit the road for Ole Miss, and Allen did this:
Several hailed it as the greatest performance by a quarterback in Arkansas history, but those records only stood for two weeks. Allen threw seven touchdowns against Mississippi State, and now, fans and some in the media were actually upset he wasn't given a chance to throw an eighth touchdown in the games closing moments.
Allen's gone from a player whose truck was egged and later torched (the latter was never proven to be in connection with football, but still, it was a bad look), to being the most trusted player on the team. It's truly an incredible arc. The amount of vile thrown his way on social media, message boards and talk radio is probably only rivaled in Arkansas history by Houston Nutt, but he was a grown millionaire.
Allen went through his college years with an unusual amount of attention and criticism. He could have given up at any point, but never did. He never retaliated against the criticism, though he had to have desperately wanted to. He's always seemed to have a resilient nature, and obviously has continued to work and get better, and here at the end of his Razorback career, he's putting up numbers that will leave him among the program's legends.
I don't know if fans will ever look at Allen the way they look at quarterbacks who won division and conference titles, or led the Hogs to premier games like the Sugar and Cotton Bowl, but in many ways, Allen's story is more impressive. He was the quarterback who led the program through, thanks to only the fault of the adults, the most turbulent years in its recent history, and in the face of immense public pressure and scorn, has seen it back to stability.
Give Brandon Allen the credit he deserves. His numbers put him absolutely among Arkansas' best, and that's how he should be remembered.
Rewriting The Record Book
#1 Career touchdown passes (63)
#1 and #2 Single-game touchdown passes (7, Mississippi State and 6, Ole Miss)
#1 and #2 Single-game pass completions (33, Ole Miss and 32, Toledo)
#2 Career completions (552, 41 behind Tyler Wilson)
#2 Single-season completion percentage (65.1%, Kevin Scanlon completed 66.2% in 1979)
#2 Career pass attempts (973, 50 behind Clint Stoerner)
#2 Single-game passing yards (442, Ole Miss)
#3 Career completion percentage (56.7%)
#3 Single-season passing touchdowns (29, three behind #1 Ryan Mallett)
#4 Career passing yards (7,046, 719 behind #1 Tyler Wilson)
#5 Single-season passing yards (3,023, one of only five 3,000 yard passing seasons in Arkansas history)
#5 Single-season completions (213, 64 behind Tyler Wilson, one of six seasons with 200+ completions)
Allen does not appear on Arkansas top 10 list for most interceptions in a game, season, nor career. Despite ranking so highly in career pass attempts, he's only thrown 24 picks as of now, fewer than Stoerner (37), Wilson (26), Quinn Grovey (26), Barry Lunney Jr (28), Matt Jones (30), Joe Ferguson (32), Casey Dick (34), and Arkansas' all-time leader Lamar McHan, who was somehow able to throw 42 picks in the not-very-pass-happy early 1950's.