On a weekend when James Franklin and Gus Malzahn shed large amounts of pressure at Penn State and Auburn, solidifying each of their jobs for the foreseeable future, other coaches’ careers moved in different directions.
Actually, that’s an imprecise statement.
Other coaches didn’t necessarily MOVE in another direction; they are remaining inert and paralyzed, unable to get off the dime and improve.
Stagnation Nation is the land occupied by Bret Bielema of Arkansas and Jim Mora of UCLA after their teams both allowed over 50 points to opponents with less-than-dazzling quarterbacks. Troy Williams is a solid quarterback, but hardly someone who belongs in the top tier of the nation’s signal-callers. Auburn quarterback Sean White didn’t even throw for 80 yards this past Saturday against Bielema and Arkansas (77).
How, then, could Utah and Auburn run Hog-wild? They obliterated the defensive fronts they faced. Utah’s Joe Williams (no relation to Troy) ran for 332 yards. Auburn, as a team, ran for 543 YARDS (!) against the Razorbacks.
It’s true that UCLA is really banged up, and it’s also true that Arkansas hadn’t yet encountered a bye week while dealing with the teeth of its SEC West schedule. Nevertheless, the total capitulations on defense show that in Bielema’s fourth season and Mora’s fifth, these programs are lost at sea. They haven’t sunk to the bottom of the ocean the way Texas has and Oregon could be in the process of doing, but they’re not moving closer to safe harbor, either.
The parallels between these programs — which exist in substantially different geographical and cultural contexts — are not boundless, but two clearly stand out.
First, Bielema and Mora are two of the stronger personalities in college football coaching. Bielema might joke more than Mora does, but both men are combative and entirely unafraid to dress down opponents or other individuals. Mora has thrown UCLA staffers under the bus. Bielema has become immersed in a turf battle with Gus Malzahn and other up-tempo coaches… which made Arkansas’ 56-3 loss to Auburn on Saturday that much more humiliating.
The other noticeable parallel between BERT and Mora is that their programs have suffered and are suffering because of deficient line play. The problem has been more prolonged, pronounced and entrenched at UCLA under Mora, but Bielema’s attempt to make Arkansas great on a Bobby Petrino scale (only with a different style of play) depended on strong line play, and the Hogs are clearly farther away from that ideal in 2016, instead of moving closer to it.
The irony cannot be missed: Bielema and Mora project strength. Explicitly (a little more in Bielema’s case) or implicitly (in Mora’s case, given his assertions of authority and control), they view themselves as the toughest guys in the room, men committed to making their teams physical and resolute and ruthless.
Those are the last adjectives one could apply to either team right now.
Arkansas plays in a tougher division, while UCLA — in the recruiting hotbed of Los Angeles — hasn’t cultivated enough of the depth needed to become a next-level program. Nevertheless, Arkansas and UCLA own rich football histories. They were both at or near the top of the sport in the mid-to-late 1960s. On January 1, 1976, both schools won the bowl games they cherished above all others at the time: UCLA won the Rose Bowl over Ohio State, and Arkansas — then in the Southwest Conference — thumped Georgia in the Cotton Bowl. Both teams remained relevant through the 1980s and met in the 1989 Cotton Bowl. UCLA’s quarterback that day in Dallas: future Cowboy and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.
Neither program has done very much since that afternoon.
Petrino revived the Hogs, but then he got on a motorcycle. Bielema had a great thing going at Wisconsin — three Rose Bowls in a row is pretty great — but felt he could do better at Arkansas.
Bielema and Mora know they arrived at their jobs with high expectations. Four to five years into their jobs, what do they have to show for their work?
This final question is the most urgent one, also the most impossible to ignore: How many more years will Arkansas and UCLA fans accept 8-4 seasons without conference championships or (at the very least) New Year’s Six bowl appearances?
Stagnation Nation is an uneasy place to be.