Troubled times lay ahead for Arkansas football if you've already begun digesting the preseason pablum that everyone from Athlon Sports to Cat Fancy churns out in the dog days of summer.
Here's a team, the pundits will tell you, that racked up a 7-17 overall mark the last two years while ensnared in post-Petrino reclamation. A team that lost all the offensive wonderment it had generated en route to BCS games and Cotton Bowl wins, and somehow managed to slip even further on the opposite side of the ball, where it had been pretty average at best. The personnel shuffling has been uncommon: defensive coordinators have included Willy Robinson, Paul Haynes, Chris Ash and now Robb Smith. From the playcalling perspective, Garrick McGee handed the reins over to Paul Petrino, who flubbed it, and then Jim Chaney didn't exactly distinguish himself a season ago.
It's not to casually excuse someone like Brandon Allen for gross inefficiency as a passer in his first year as starter, but he was a redshirt sophomore last year who'd basically been poked and prodded by about 19 different caretakers and mentors in such short time. You heard a lot of griping about his showing last year, particularly when he would end up throwing terribly late on a timing route and end up jogging after the defensive back who was carrying that tardy toss the other direction. But Allen's mechanical and mental errors were at least partially chargeable to his overseers, or rather, the instability thereof.
He also wasn't genuinely pressured from beneath, and that is something that presumably changes this summer with younger brother Austin and prep phenom Rafe Peavey in the fold. When Allen got dinged up early last year against hapless Southern Miss, Hog fans watched in horror as A.J. Derby trotted off the sidelines and showed himself to be utterly ill-equipped as a backup. That carried over to the Rutgers loss the following week. Thus created the vacuum: Allen could be bad going forward without any tangible repercussions, and go figure, he often lived down to the task.
It's been an atypically quiet preseason in Fayetteville, though, and even an automatic hot button like the starting quarterback job has failed to generate much buzz. And that all goes back to depressed expectations for Bret Bielema's second iteration of this dramatic rebuild. When a team gets whitewashed in league play for the first time and has, in terms of win percentage, the worst football season of a generation, who's going to talk about that? Arkansas is more or less getting the same dose of callous indifference that Vanderbilt used to get before Bobby Johnson and then James Franklin came around, or that Kentucky started getting as soon as Rich Brooks walked off.
Is there solace to be had in irrelevancy? Maybe. You can look at this as the best time to be a Hog fan because it's the least tumultuous, and the weight of expectations simply isn't there. Bielema sees it all through an undoubtedly different prism, as he realizes that only dramatic improvement in both winning percentage and quality of play will resonate here. The fan base wasn't overly sold on him to begin with, and then he presided over his inaugural campaign in a way that was on par with Joe Hazelwood's captaincy of the Exxon Valdez. So, yeah, these last few months haven't been fun, and all the uninspiring projections for 2014 don't likely change his or anyone's tune.
But remember, Arkansas has probably summoned a lot of its notable SEC-era achievements from similarly unsteady footing. Houston Nutt charmed a back-to-back four-win bunch into a 9-3 first season that, sadly, also rallied the area troops perhaps a little too quickly. He coaxed his only 10-win season out of the Hogs in 2006 a year after lording over a 4-7 wreck that lost to Vanderbilt at home and then took a 70-point pounding from Southern Cal. There's precedent even beforehand, as Danny Ford's only noteworthy winning campaign was an eight-victory march in 1995 that followed an ugly first two years.
The tie binding all those upstart teams? Careful management of possession time kept a mostly unheralded defense fresh. Stars were born anew, like Steven Conley or David Barrett or Jamaal Anderson. The Hogs were never going to outclass most foes from what they had standing on the sidelines, and they won't this fall, either. It's the posture those few impact players take and the leadership role they have to embrace that will determine how the season goes, and in the coming weeks, Pearls will assess just how much growth we can expect from a downtrodden program.