Well, that was quick. In two weeks, Bret Bielema went from toast of the town to overrated coach who can't keep his mouth shut (at least according to some).
The Hogs have a lot of problems, which we'll get to in a second. But first, it's time for a deeeeeeeep breath.
Sell your stock in 2015 Arkansas, but not in Bielema's future in Fayetteville
While I feel that many of the Hogs' current issues will be fixed as the season progresses (read below), Arkansas is, obviously, not going to be a threat in the SEC West like we all thought. At this point, bowl eligibility is 50-50, and that may be optimistic. So sell your stock in this year's team if you bought it when the Hogs were a preseason dark horse contender.
But the future is still bright. 2015's injuries are 2016's experience. Based on the current depth chart, Arkansas will return 9 of 11 starters on defense and - get this - every single reserve, bringing the total returnees to 20 of 22 on this year's defensive depth chart. With Robb Smith coaching 'em up, the Hogs should have a pretty nasty defense in 2016.
On offense, the picture is murkier. Brandon Allen will be gone. I'm torn on this. Ideally, you hate to lose a veteran quarterback because he's the experienced leader that can be counted on to go win the game for you. Of course, that's everything Allen hasn't been in Fayetteville. He's been the antithesis of clutch. In the fourth quarters of the 8 games Arkansas has lost since the start of 2014, Allen has completed well under half his passes with only one touchdown (Georgia 2014, and that game was long over). The entire value of his experience thus lost, the Hogs need only replace his physical talent, and by all accounts, Ty Storey and Ricky Town have equal if not superior physical talent.
As for the receivers, 2016 should yield the best crop yet, and this year's receivers have been excellent so far. Keon Hatcher is the only loss (assuming he doesn't take a redshirt), and Saturday will mark Game 2 of a six-week stretch without him anyway, so the unit is getting plenty of experience. At tight end, Hunter Henry's struggles in run blocking may keep him from turning pro, while Jeremy Sprinkle will be back. The line remains a mystery. Running backs will hurt with Collins and Williams gone, but Rawleigh Williams is getting great experience.
The point is that those claiming Bielema should be on the hot seat because he's failing to win big in a "peak" year are misguided because 2015 isn't a peak year. It probably never was, but with early injuries to Williams and Hatcher it certainly isn't now.
If Arkansas was overrated, why is TCU in the top five?
Interesting take from USA Today's Dan Wolken: Arkansas was always overrated (even before the losses) because much of the hype centered around the 2014 blowouts of Texas and Ole Miss, but those teams collapsed late in the year. Interesting take. My question for Dan is this: Is TCU overrated as well? They were ranked preseason #2, not because of returning starters (they return far fewer than rival Baylor), but because they finished 2014 with routs of two teams........ Texas and Ole Miss.
Previewing Texas A&M
I kinda feel bad for Kevin Sumlin, to be honest. The rabid Aggie fanbase combined with early-season scheduling set him up to fail last year, and it's done so again this year. After a 11-2 opening season with Johnny Manziel, the Aggies disappointed in 2013, falling to 9-4. After a season-opening blowout win over South Carolina launched the hype train again, it crashed weeks later and then we found out South Carolina wasn't any good anyway.
Now here we are again. A season-opening blowout over much-hyped Arizona State has launched it again. Myles Garrett is the new Kenny Trill. The Aggies may be perfectly capable of backing it up this time around, but if they aren't, some folks in Aggieland might not be too happy with Sumlin.
A loss to Arkansas would be devastating.
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas defense
|ARK def||A&M off|
Robb Smith's defense is built on the idea that if you stop the run, limit big plays, and create some havoc (sacks and TFLs) with your front seven, opponents will be unable to drive the length of the field against you without stepping on their own feet (turnovers, penalties, drops, etc). It worked great last year. Problem, folks: it ain't working this year. Opponents aren't getting big plays, but they are driving the length of the field with ease.
So, what has gone wrong? The loss of the Triangle (WLB Martrell Spaight, DT Darius Philon, and DE Trey Flowers) is the obvious answer, but many Hog fans are wondering exactly what stats are being affected. Here's the big one: Havoc rate. Arkansas was 9th in the NCAA in havoc rate, or the percentage of opponent plays that go for a loss, a turnover, or a pass deflection. This year? 89th. Arkansas still doesn't have a sack this year, and although the stuff rate (percentage of opponent run plays in which the RB is hit in the backfield) is a robust 31%, the pass deflection numbers are down. This is probably a function of playing an Air Raid team and of not having a pass rush.
The only good news here for Arkansas is that Texas A&M's two-headed monster at QB of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray is not very efficient. They'll hit a few big plays, but down-to-down the passing game is not very good. That gives the Hogs a chance to slow the Aggie attack down.
Arkansas offense vs. Texas A&M defense
|ARK off||A&M def|
Well, this is interesting. These teams are literally mirrors of each other in this matchup. Arkansas' offense has been ultra-efficient (outside the red zone) and Texas A&M's primary strength is stopping success. Texas A&M's defense is exactly the opposite of Arkansas': John Chavis wants to disrupt efficiency, and he'll sacrifice big plays to do it. It complements the Aggie offense just like Smith's D complements the Hog O.
Here's a fun matchup to keep an eye on: Texas A&M leads the NCAA in sacks with 15 through three games. Arkansas leads the NCAA in sacks against, with zero allowed this season. Someone's gonna win, and whoever does has a great chance of winning the game.
Keys to the game
- Protect the quarterback. Texas A&M's defense thrives on sacks... if their blitzes don't hit home, the Aggie defense is prone to giving up big plays.
- Don't get short-passed to death. A&M's offense is built on an efficient run game combined with an explosive passing game. I'm confident that Arkansas can at least slow the Aggie run game and will generally limit big pass plays, but letting A&M build drives by stringing together short completions - something that isn't an Aggie strength - will allow A&M to win anyway. The Hogs don't have to dominate here, but they have to put up a fight.
- Establish the ground game, explode with the pass game. If the situation presents itself, run the ball 60 times and win the dang game. Texas A&M's talented defensive ends are great against the pass, but if they can't stop the run it might not matter. Run until A&M has to stack the box, then throw it over the top of their porous secondary.