So the Hogs dropped a game.
It happens. I was over it by Sunday morning. Arkansas is a young, imperfect team, riddled by injuries, and battling in the hellacious SEC West.
The latest heartbreak didn't hurt as bad because it didn't feel like a trend. There is no narrative about how Brandon Allen can't win close games or how Arkansas will never break through or how Bielema's "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense will never work in the SEC. Those narratives are broken, gone forever. Saturday felt like a return to the mean. The win over Ole Miss was a gift, and Arkansas was paid back by missing a gimme field goal in the final seconds. There isn't a Hog fan I now that would trade that 4th-and-25 lateral for a win against MSU.
There's another reason it doesn't sting as badly. Does anyone seriously think that this loss broke the players' hearts and drained their emotional reserve, to the point where they'll lay an egg on Friday? Didn't think so.
These Razorbacks, especially their quarterback, have endured too many heartbreaks for this to drag them down. The ability this squad has to bounce off the mat after every single punch thrown for three years is unbelievable to me. My bold prediction: the Hogs won't be sad, they'll be angry, and Mizzou won't like them when they're angry.
I feel bad for Gary Pinkel. By all accounts, Pinkel is a good man and is certainly a good coach. But his Mizzou career may very well end in Fayetteville, with a beatdown administered by an angry Razorbacks team. You have to wonder if Mizzou drained its emotional reserve in recent weeks. The Tigers won an emotional 20-16 game against BYU the Saturday after protests of the university's handling of racial incidents rocked the campus, causing players to briefly boycott team activities. I imagine Mizzou left it all on the field last Saturday in a 19-8 loss to Tennessee, Pinkel's final home game at Faurot Field.
Last year, Arkansas stumbled into Columbia, an exhausted team coming off two emotional victories (Bielema's first two in the SEC) and sporting an injured quarterback. Mizzou was playing for an SEC East title. Allen's injuries became too much to bear and the defense ended a historic run of scoreless play by finally collapsing in the second half of a 21-14 loss.
The tables have now turned. Mizzou has to win to reach a bowl game, but the Tigers may have drained their emotional bank account and are short on talent this season. But then again, maybe not. Pinkel is nothing if not an excellent coach.
The winner of this game may be the team that has more "want-to."
Arkansas vs. Missouri Preview
Out of Arkansas' 11 games against FBS teams, Mizzou ranks 10th. The Tigers are quite a bit higher than UTEP, but quite a bit lower than the other 9 FBS teams on Arkansas' schedule, ranking nearly 20 spots lower than Auburn, the 9th-ranked opponent.
Things have not gone well for Mizzou this year. Pinkel is a spread offense guru, and his teams have historically been built on the same, reliable principles. The Tigers feature an efficient spread-passing game complemented with speedy backs. From an X's and O's standpoint, Mizzou is a "read-based" offense: most of their decision-making is based on how the quarterback "reads" the defense. They use motion and alignment to carve out little advantages. This is opposed to the more-traditional "series-based" offense, like Texas Tech's Air Raid, or the Power-Counter run game that (allegedly) forms the basis of Arkansas' running game. In a series-based system, the offense runs a play of a group of plays until the defense stops it, and then the offense picks a new play out of the group that will counter the defensive adjustment.
A read-based offense is a little more unconventional in that it adjusts to its own personnel and the defensive alignment, so the offense may look totally different from one year to the next or even one week to the next.
The main "pro" of a read-based offense is that it is difficult to prepare for and can challenge some elite defenses. It can also showcase elite talents more effectively. The main "con" is that if the pieces aren't there, there's no reliable scheme to fall back on. And that's what has happened this year. Missouri's offense is putrid, ranking 126th out of 128 teams in scoring offense. The average score of a Missouri football game this season is Opponent 15, Missouri 14. It's ugly football.
This is a shame, because it has largely wasted a tremendous effort from first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom and his unit. Missouri's defense has in recent years been predicated on an elite defensive line made up mostly of speed-rushers. This year, the Tigers also have a tackling machine at linebacker (Kendall Beckwith, who leads the SEC in tackles). The secondary is also talented.
Arkansas Offense vs. Mizzou Defense
This is the strength-versus-strength matchup. Missouri stays in games based on its elite defense.
How Arkansas will respond to this unit is a big key. Over the past couple years, I've noticed that the Hog offense doesn't really seem to care about how good an opponent's defense is. To prove it, I charted each opponents' Defensive S&P+ rankings against the points Arkansas scored against them. Here's what I found:
You may notice that the individual points don't really align with that trendline. The key is the number on the right side. That's called the "R-squared" value. In statistics, the R-squared value refers to how well the trendline (which is derived based on the data) actually describes the data. It's a value between 0 and 1 (basically a percent). In this case, it's 0.13, or 13%. That's not good. Generally, you want a value of 0.6 (60%) or higher or else your trendline doesn't accurately describe the data.
To conclude: The quality of an opponent's defense cannot help you accurately predict how many points Arkansas will score on that team. Arkansas' offense creates matchup problems, and the ability of a defense - good or bad - to adjust to those matchups determines how well that defense will perform.
Mizzou's defense is nothing if not feisty. Run-heavy teams like Georgia (9 points) and Vanderbilt (10 points) have fared poorly against their defense. Typical of a Mizzou defense, they have talent on the defensive front.
The Hogs should be able to protect Brandon Allen, but don't expect a career day from Alex Collins. Mizzou's defense is fast enough to disrupt Arkansas' draws and delays, so Kody Walker might steal some power-run carries.
The Hogs can carve out a small advantage in passing success rate. Arkansas' tight ends, already elite, have been playing at another level in the last few games. Since the bye week, Allen is 105 of 154 (68 percent) for 1,487 yards with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. That's 9.7 yards per attempt and 297 yards per game. Incredible. Allen may be called on to throw at least 30 more passes on Friday, given Mizzou's ability to slow the run game. But after they've committed the personnel necessary to stop the run, can they still stop the pass? No one has since the bye.
Mizzou Offense vs. Arkansas Defense (WARNING: Horrifying statistics ahead. Continue reading at your own risk.)
It's the ultimate case of a completely resistible force facing a quite movable object. In just a few months, defensive coordinator Robb Smith has gone from a guy that plenty of Arkansans wanted to write in the November 2014 governor's election from a guy whose unit needs to show progress in 2016 or face questions about his long-term job security. There's no excuse for an Arkansas defense to ever be this bad. None of Houston Nutt's defenses ever finished this bad: Reggie Herring's WORST defense finished 37th in Defense S&P+, a full 50 spots higher than this unit. Even worse, none of Bobby Petrino's defenses were this bad: his first one in 2008 was 74th. John L. Smith's 2012 defense was higher (63rd) under Paul Haynes, as was Bret Bielema's first, under Chris Ash (82nd).
In short, there's no excuse for this level of ineptitude. Losing key playmakers from the 2014 team was expected to set this unit back, but the defense has not improved at all this season: holding Toledo to 16, Tennessee to 20, and Texas A&M to 21 in regulation seem miraculous at this point. It's almost as if the bye week was completely focused on offense, and defense was ignored, because as much as the offense has improved, the defense has regressed nearly as much since then.
Of course, there may not be an excuse for Mizzou's level of ineptitude either, and this could be the perfect opportunity for Arkansas' defense to right the ship (at least a little bit).
That 128th in Rushing Success Rate is dead last in FBS, for those curious. 0-11 UCF and 0-11 Kansas run the ball better than Mizzou. The Tigers rotate two equally-inept backs: Ish Witter (485 yards, 4.0 yards per carry) and Russell Hansbrough (422 yards, 4.0 yards per carry). The Tigers tend to pass first (77th nationally in standard downs run rate) but are balanced in terms of playcalling. The entire team has combined for five rushing touchdowns this season. For comparison, Alex Collins rushed for five touchdowns against UT-Martin.
Mizzou's major offensive problem has been an inability to block. The holes haven't been there for the backs, which is curious, since it's a veteran line that was supposed to be talented. A Hog line that's been pushed around far too often finally has the upper hand in a matchup.
Goodness gracious. There's really no reason for two SEC teams to have numbers like these. I don't know how this is going to pan out, but I do have an idea.
Mizzou started the year with veteran quarterback Maty Mauk, who was wildly inconsistent in 2014. The Tigers' best receivers all graduated, and 2015 Mauk was off to an awful start when he was benched and then suspended in favor of freshman Drew Lock. Lock had a decent game in a win over 3-8 South Carolina, but has been abysmal since. Over his last six games (Mizzou is 1-5 in these games), Lock is 84 of 183 (46 percent) for 888 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions. That's 4.9 yards per attempt and 148 yards per game, or about half of Brandon Allen's output over the same time period.
Knowing how awful Arkansas' defense is, I attempted to graph the relationship between opponent Passing S&P+ rankings and how many points they scored against Arkansas. The results were promising.
The R-squared value of 0.6 shows some apparent correlation, and more of the data points are near the trendline. So that's good. In this example, Mizzou can be expected to score about 8 points.
Still, there are some points away from the trendline, like Mississippi State's 51 (much higher) and LSU's 14 (much lower). I graphed a number of other statistics and tried to find the highest R-squared value (correlation), and finally stumbled on an obvious one: passing success rate.
This one encapsulates expectations for Arkansas' defense almost perfectly. The correlation of 80 percent is impressive, and none of the data points are far from the trendline. The good news for the Hogs is that this is an overwhelming weakness for Mizzou. If this trendline proves accurate, Mizzou will score about 3 points, even against Arkansas' awful defense. I don't really expect that to happen, but the numbers are there.
Keys to the Game
- Have the defensive backs stay in the general vicinity of Mizzou's receivers. We can't ask too much of this secondary. Really, as long as they don't pick daisies like disinterested four-year-olds on a city league soccer field, Arkansas should be okay. Mizzou's quarterback is inaccurate and makes bad reads, and his receivers are not very good, either at getting open or catching the ball.
- Don't get frustrated and turn it over. The fact of the matter is that Mizzou's defense is very good, and Arkansas cannot reasonably be expected to score every possession (like in the Mississippi State game). If the offense gets frustrated and tries to do something foolish that leads to a turnover, Mizzou could be in business. The Tigers seem incapable of generating more than two to three sustained scoring drives (50+ yards) and even that many is iffy. Giving them points without making them do that is their only chance to win. The Hogs need to be perfectly content playing field position.
- Don't attempt any field goals. Just don't do it. Go for it or punt.