In today’s SEC West, no one is ready or able to match Alabama’s level of quality. Texas A&M gets a crack at the Tide this upcoming Saturday, but no one should expect the Aggies to stand up to the colossus of the Southeast. Right now, it’s Alabama’s SEC, and everyone else is merely living within it.
The most reasonable goal for every SEC program at this point in time is to be the best of the rest — not as good as Bama, but superior to all other teams. Once accomplished, that goal enables an SEC program to more finely focus its attention on the Tide. One day, a breakthrough of much greater magnitude can be achieved.
For now, the breakthrough is to be No. 2 in the SEC, which — given the weakness of the East — is equivalent to being second-best in the West.
The Arkansas Razorbacks probably won’t achieve that goal this season — not after A&M spanked them in the final 20 minutes a few weeks ago in JerryWorld — but one thing was clear as they took the field against the Ole Miss Rebels Saturday night: If they failed to foil Hugh Freeze’s forces, any aspirations of being second in the West would have flown out the window.
This throwdown in Fayetteville against the Rebels was — narrowly viewed — a game in which two teams were trying to keep their New Year’s Six bowl hopes alive. For Arkansas, the event represented a time to take a stand and avoid a three-game SEC losing streak, washing away the bitter taste of a home-field blowout at the hands of Alabama the week before. (Side note: Arkansas sure looks a lot better than Tennessee in a head-to-head comparison, given the bloodbath the Tide put on the Vols Saturday afternoon.)
Yet, when viewed in a broader context, this game possessed value beyond 2016. This was a game Arkansas needed for the future, not just the present tense.
If anything about Arkansas football has lagged under Bret Bielema, it is that the Razorbacks have struggled to finish games. This was a chronic problem in 2015, and in 2014, an “almost-but-not-quite” one-point home loss to Bama underscored the small margins which have separated the Hogs from greatness. Though having defeated Ole Miss the previous two seasons, Bielema and his team needed to conquer Mississippi a third straight time in order to climb the ladder in the SEC West and — simultaneously — put their crunch-time questions to rest.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that one of Arkansas’ most exhilarating wins in the Bielema era — a night when the Hogs survived a crunch-time crucible — flowed from stupidly good luck:
“Woo Pig Lateral” — or the Miracle in Mississippi, if you prefer — enabled Arkansas to win a 53-52 donnybrook over the Rebels. It was fitting that these two schools became entangled in such an absurdly entertaining game. They had done something similar in 2001, only longer: In “The Matt Jones Game,” the Hogs outlasted the Rebs in SEVEN overtimes, 58-56. The length of that contest ushered in the overtime tweak which requires teams to go for two beginning in the third overtime inning.
The larger point of Arkansas’ 53-52 win last season is that while it was a triumph of the will — something not always seen in Fayetteville under Bielema — it was also far too close for comfort.
One year later, it’s not as though Arkansas strolled to an easy victory over Ole Miss, but just the same, the Hogs didn’t have to convert a fourth and 25. They didn’t have to go to overtime. They didn’t allow more than 50, or 40, or more than 30 points.
Arkansas — which surrendered 20 first-half points to Chad Kelly and his dazzling Ole Miss receivers — found the kind of backbone which can indeed lift this program to No. 2 in the SEC West in the coming years, enabling Bielema’s program to finally rise to an elusive higher plateau.
If anyone thought that the breakneck-pace 20-20 first half was going to be replicated (or exceeded) in the second half, Arkansas’ defense had other ideas. Slow to react on jump balls in the first half, Arkansas defensive backs and safeties made better responses to Ole Miss passing plays after halftime. Late in the fourth quarter, with Ole Miss trying to gain the upper hand, the Arkansas secondary produced a jarring hit to turn a Rebel first down into an incomplete pass.
When the secondary wasn’t bothering the Rebels’ increasingly flustered receivers in the fourth quarter, the Arkansas front generated a strong push. Instructively, that push maintained gap integrity. Kelly — a lethal scrambler — was trapped inside the pocket. You could call it a Pig Pen in which the Hogs ran wild. Arkansas reduced and narrowed Kelly’s running lanes as the game went on, a big reason why the Razorbacks limited Ole Miss to just 10 second-half points.
The offense was not a picture of perfection; it scored only 14 points after the intermission. However, after Ole Miss took a 30-27 lead midway through the second half, quarterback Austin Allen — given ample protection by his offensive line — converted a fourth and four and a third and nine on a long, ball-control drive. Allen marched Arkansas to a go-ahead score with just over two minutes left. In a supremely difficult situation, Allen and the rest of his offensive unit displayed the serenity and calm of a group that never lost control of its surroundings.
This composure — creating success through patience and endurance — characterized Bielema’s Wisconsin teams, which made three straight Rose Bowls from 2010 through 2012.
That same composure — if able to be replicated in the next six weeks — will give Arkansas not merely the belief that it can rise in the SEC ranks, but the knowledge that such a belief no longer sits on a foundation of quicksand.
These Hogs won’t stand on slop, but on solid ground.
This win over Ole Miss doesn’t mean Arkansas has arrived, or that it has firmly and fully turned the corner. However, it does mean that UA is now the third-best team in the SEC West. It’s not second, but it sure beats fourth or fifth.
Arkansas isn’t quite where it wants or needs to be in the SEC, but now the notion of being better than every other non-Alabama program in 2017 is a lot more realistic than it was before Saturday evening’s game began.
This isn’t perfection, but it’s progress for Woo Pig Sooie.