Given all upheaval, foreign and domestic, Arkansas beating New Mexico State by a comfortable, if unremarkable, 42-24 margin on Saturday genuinely meant a hell of a lot.
To the "domestic" issues, these have been chronicled in abundance. Two bad losses to TCU and Texas A&M had cranked up the pressure cooker beneath Bret Bielema, and the coach just needed a damned win against a FBS school for the first time in 10 and a half months. He got it because Austin Allen looked more like the accurate, poised quarterback he was for roughly three-quarters of 2016, which might have been a surprise even against the perennially downtrodden Aggies of Las Cruces, because Jared Cornelius is gone for the year and this receiving corps continues to be a mystifying set.
Here's the upside on that: Redshirt freshman Jordan Jones looks like Cornelius did when he burst onto the scene three years ago. He's not big, but he's fast, instinctive and sure-handed, and he seems like he wants to emerge as a go-to asset on a team bereft of them. Jonathan Nance continued to produce as well, catching two more TD passes from Allen and showing the ability to grab balls underneath the coverage, not merely by sprinting past it. Sophomore Deon Stewart, meanwhile, had his most productive outing as a collegian yet, and it's evident that the addition of muscle to his once-wiry frame isn't going to impede his quickness.
If there's hope yet for the receivers, then the tailback trio also looks like it can be effective enough behind that large but intermittently porous line. The run blocking is better than the pass protection still, as Allen did face pressure from New Mexico State's surprisingly athletic linemen. The most encouraging thing about Saturday's win was Devwah Whaley showing some fire in the belly and looking like he wants to assert his four-star pedigree with Chase Hayden and David Williams nipping at his heels. The sophomore tailback went over the 100-yard mark for the third time in his young career, largely because he broke a couple of runs late to salt away the game against reserves, but he still had less dance and more drive in his heels. (Hayden and Williams, it should be noted, also combined for 95 rushing yards, with Hayden scoring twice.)
All told, it was the kind of production Dan Enos craves as a playcaller: the 494 total yards gained went 264-230 in favor of the efficient passing attack, but called running plays doubled the passing attempts. Play-action was crisp and precise, and Allen, behaving coolly but still demonstratively, commanded it all well, save for one errant throw into the red zone in the first quarter that ended up being his third interception in four games. Interestingly, Allen was a fine 14-for-19 with two more touchdown passes after the pick, showing that he's able to regain his footing after a minor error.
The defense wasn't pretty at times, softening up in the second half so NMSU's appreciably gifted quarterback, Tyler Rogers, could rack up around half of his 344 passing yards in the final two quarters. Rogers is a sturdy, agile kid who has a lot of NFL-ready attributes in spades: He reminds me a little of a Joe Flacco or Carson Wentz, a guy who is trying to overcome the stigma of bottom-feeder competition to be coveted for his pro-style leadership and field authority. I think he can make things happen on Sundays somewhere as a project, and it's really no discredit to Razorback defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads or his secondary that it was an occasional chore trying to rein in the senior quarterback.
What happened elsewhere Saturday, however — this is that "foreign" element I was foreshadowing — is what gives Arkansas continued hope. Texas A&M hosted South Carolina, and the team that just handed Arkansas another agonizing loss a week prior extended its winning streak to four games against the Razorbacks' next foe with a 24-17 come-from-behind win over the Gamecocks at Kyle Field. A weird thing is happening in College Station, too: Freshman Kellen Mond is taking control of the quarterbacking job, on the strength of productive outings against Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas, and that running game can take control of games in an instant.
The rest of the league, yet again, is somewhere between mediocre and serviceable. Georgia has emerged as the undisputed class of the East, and South Carolina is shaping up as one of those teams that will sneak enough wins off the victory tree to get into a middling bowl again. But Arkansas has an interesting score to settle: In Bielema's first year, the Hogs got bombed 52-7 by Carolina at Fayetteville, and the annual rivalry game between the two SEC newcomers from 1992 essentially was squelched thereafter because Missouri and A&M joined the mix. That shifted all the cross-division matchups around, and so this is a four-year ax to grind in waiting.
We called this a Hog loss at the outset. Since the preseason, the Gamecocks lost all-purpose athleteDeebo Samuel for the year, and looked flat in losing to Kentucky and A&M, while nipping Louisiana Tech on a late field goal that wouldn't have even happened without a couple of miraculous grabs. Arkansas has more than a sporting shot at getting a key SEC road win here, and has cured its offensive woes from the TCU debacle enough the past two weeks to make that a reality.