Bret Bielema took over Arkansas when it was in a deep hole.
The Bobby Petrino era ended in ignominy in the middle of the offseason, and the interim year under John L. Smith exploded in the hangar with a Week 2 loss to Louisiana-Monroe. It was such a mess that Bielema, coming off three consecutive Rose Bowls at Wisconsin, lost his first 13 SEC games on the job in Fayetteville.
Things have gone well since then. Bielema is 7-5 in the SEC since that 0-13 streak. He’s won two in a row over LSU, and he beat New Year’s Six-bound Ole Miss in 2014. He also beat Arkansas’ old SWC rivals Texas and Texas Tech in 2014 and TCU in 2016. If you believe in advanced statistical measures, you’d be interested to know that Arkansas finished No. 9 in 2014 and No. 11 in 2015 in the F/+ metric.
Individual success has followed team success. Alex Collins was a 1,000-yard rusher all three of his years in Fayetteville. Jonathan Williams joined him at that level in 2014, and this year Rawleigh Williams III is on pace to top 1,300 yards before bowl season. Brandon Allen led the SEC in passing efficiency last year, and Austin Allen leads the league in the same so far this year. Drew Morgan tied for second in the conference with 10 touchdown receptions in 2015.
If there is anything Bielema’s Arkansas is missing, it’s a signature win. This weekend offers another shot at the biggest win the SEC has to offer: a victory over Nick Saban’s Alabama.
The Razorbacks came excruciatingly close to getting that win in the only game between Bielema and Saban so far in the Natural State. A blocked extra point in the second quarter proved to be the deciding play as the Crimson Tide edged the Hogs, 14-13. Arkansas led 13-7 heading into the fourth quarter, but T.J. Yeldon, Blake Sims, and Derrick Henry engineered a touchdown drive early in the final frame to secure the winning score.
It was a close contest between the teams through three quarters last year as well, with Arkansas leading 7-3 with two minutes to go in the third. The Tide broke the game open with Jake Coker’s 81-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley at the 1:39 mark, sparking a 24-0 run on the way to a 27-14 win.
The best thing Arkansas can do in this year’s game is jump out to an early lead. If Austin Allen can hit his bigger targets — Keon Hatcher and Jeremy Sprinkle — similar to how Chad Kelly did against Bama’s defense, the Razorbacks just might do it, too.
The worst thing for the Hogs would be if the Crimson Tide got out to a lead of any substance in the second half. The Razorbacks are dead last in the SEC in run defense, allowing 5.24 yards per carry. Though Lane Kiffin has been known to forget to run the ball on occasion, he likely won’t in an SEC road game against a team this susceptible to the rush.
In particular, Arkansas better have an answer to the quarterback run. Against Texas A&M, the Hogs’ defense completely lost track of Trevor Knight at times, allowing him to break off runs of 62, 48, and 42 yards two weeks ago. Jalen Hurts easily could make those same runs against those same looks.
The weakest performance we’ve seen from Hurts came from his one true road game, Bama’s shootout win over Ole Miss. He completed more than 60 percent of his passes, but for a pedestrian 158 yards (5.1 yards per attempt) with a 104.1 passing efficiency. His other game away from home was the neutral-site game against USC, a contest in which he lost a fumble and threw his only pick of the season.
The Hogs might have a puncher’s chance against the Tide if Hurts continues to have any kind of road jitters. If they get that aforementioned early lead while also remembering to defend the quarterback draw, they might be able to keep Hurts throwing from the pocket rather than handing off to Joshua Jacobs and Damien Harris two of every three plays.
If not, there is little to suggest that the Crimson Tide won’t run away with this one late, just as it did last year or Texas A&M did against Arkansas this year. The 2016 Razorback defense is, to put it politely, not the best of the Bielema era. If Allen, Williams, and the offense can’t provide support — both in terms of keeping the defense rested and forcing Alabama to throw the ball as a consequence of trailing on the scoreboard — it’ll likely fall apart once it begins to get tired in the fourth quarter.
If Bielema can pull off this win, it easily vaults to the top of his list as a Razorback. In an SEC West in which Les Miles has already been fired and Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin have endured whispers about their job statuses, a win over Alabama would cement Bielema as a mainstay in the division.
Without a victory on Saturday, Bielema will continue to lack the win that defines his first four years in Fayetteville.