The dismissal of Bret Bielema mere minutes after Arkansas Razorbacks' 2017 season finale was neither surprising nor totally unwelcome across the Razorback landscape. Fans had grown weary of what they perceived to be a coach well out of his so-called element, this godforsaken Yankee lummox who couldn't manage tight games and espoused a football philosophy that was completely incongruous with conventional "norms" of the Southeastern Conference.
The tale of the tape for Bielema's 4-8, 1-7 final, and fittingly tragic, fifth act was as follows: the Hogs were neither dynamic nor miserable offensively, scoring 28.8 points per game and averaging 373 yards per contest. Arkansas had some untimely turnovers that cost the team gravely — an interception in the end zone in the overtime period against Texas A&M stands out, for instance — but on the whole, the Hogs had an aggregate -1 turnover margin on the year. It was a sieve of a defense, the function of an ignominious experiment to transition to a 3-4 scheme under Paul Rhoads, that was the team's undoing: Arkansas yielded 36 points and 438 yards per game to its foes, and when you extract the nonconference games from that calculus, it was worse. Plus, those Hogs were outscored in the second halves of games by 73 points, and again, that disparity was worse in games of consequence.
It is always expected that a coaching change, these days, will invariably result in the new regime imparting a new philosophy — usually on the offensive side, but not always — to rectify what ails the program. Arkansas was historically bad on the defensive side of the ball in 2017, but a few critical offensive pieces were departing as well, namely a seasoned quarterback (Austin Allen) and a transfer tailback who was unexpectedly productive in his sole year on campus (David Williams), as well as one of the best linemen the program has had the good fortune to have in a while (Frank Ragnow).
During a bye week, especially one that hit three-quarters through the Hogs' schedule, it's a fair time to assess whether Chad Morris' staff has had any measurable impact on things in 2018. Yes, the team is a pretty rotten 2-7, but as has been demonstrated in Lincoln, Nebraska and LA — and to some extent in Knoxville, Tenn., for a more regionally apt comparison — a full-scale revamping of a program these days almost never fixes anything with any immediacy. Nebraska Coach Scott Frost, UCLA Coach Chip Kelly and Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt are all struggling to get their programs out of the muck, too, but at least all of those guys have managed to win a conference game. Morris has three more daunting, unlikely chances to get an SEC win, but LSU will be angry as hell after being blanked by Alabama, and Mississippi State and Missouri are both looking at improving their respective bowl game positioning in the final weeks.
Nine games into what has all the appearances of being the Hogs' worst season, winning-percentage-wise, since 1932, the tale of the tape wouldn't appear to be all that much more discouraging. Even with top-ranked Alabama dinging the Hogs for 65 points, the defense has shown some incremental improvements: It's surrendered 33.7 points per game and 413 yards per outing, and while those remain undesirable figures, John Chavis' unit has had some nice moments despite being shorthanded. Maybe the biggest failing is that the team hasn't created many impactful turnovers, but the defense is allowing foes to convert third downs at a respectable 35 percent clip, and already has 23 sacks. Unfortunately, the offense has backslid thanks to the quarterback situation being a holy mess — after only nine total team interceptions thrown last year by two signal-callers, four different Hogs have combined to toss 15 picks this fall — and skill position deficiencies. Onetime contributors like Jared Cornelius, Jordan Jones and TJ Hammonds have vanished. Plus, let's just be direct on this point: Arkansas threw away potential wins at least twice, got greedy against A&M and flat no-showed against North Texas.
Frost, Kelly and Pruitt can relate to what Morris is undergoing. Bielema, for that matter, was left shambles a mere five years ago and the end result (3-9, 0-8) in 2013 bore eerie commonality to what's unfolding now. On paper, this didn't resemble the same refuse-bin conflagration that Morris' predecessor grappled with, but due to stylistic vagaries, incoming coaches just don't whip the car around suddenly before it careens off the cliff anymore. We've also learned that a miserable first season can amplify the pressure a coach faces in year two, and that should be of great concern to Morris. Stepping up from two to five to seven wins at SMU may have appeased the detached fan base in Dallas; it won't satisfy the angry mob in the Ozarks.