We've reached that dreaded stage of the college football season where Arkansas fans can actually, officially and conclusively write off postseason aspirations with 120 minutes of tangible game action left to play. And thanks to another defeat where just enough glimmers of hope were evident to engender frustration when the team faltered, Arkansas now stands right on the brink of its first-ever winless SEC campaign.
Damning as it all is, the Hogs weren't completely vanquished by Ole Miss on a sunny Saturday in Oxford until Zach Hocker whiffed wide on a 58-yard field goal in the final minute. A conversion would have given Arkansas merely a pulse and a prayer that an onside kick would also occur, that its shackled passing game would somehow flourish in a fit of desperation, and that the miracle of all miracles would transpire: the Hogs taking an opportunity by the proverbial horns and not frittering it away with self-inflicted damage.
Alas, none of it even materialized, and the Hogs ended up on the short end of a 34-24 game that was once again too quirky to be categorized. This wasn't like the Auburn loss a week before: the Hogs weren't on the wrong end of the turnover disparity for a change, Brandon Allen actually had some sharp tosses and the running game was less about flash and more about force. On balance, it may have been the team's best offensive showing since the season opener against Lafayette.
But then, there was the defense. Or more precisely, a gross paucity of it.
Bo Wallace ate Arkansas alive last year with quick receiver screens and not much else. This time, he employed the same tactic, a staple of Hugh Freeze's engine, and when Arkansas started biting at the Rebel heels in the third quarter Wallace just dispensed with the safe stuff and went over the top.
The Hogs only trailed 20-17 when Wallace fired the true kill shot, a 75-yard strike to Ja-Mes Logan late in the third period that woke up a lethargic crowd and left the defense wobbly for the next possession. Wallace capitalized on that with a short curl to Donte Moncrief, who shook a feeble tackle attempt and raced off for another score.
Look, mincing words has never been the path chosen by Pearls, so we'll say it point-blank: Arkansas is so depleted on that side of the ball that it's almost befuddling how Wallace managed to complete only 80 percent of his dinks and dunks for a modest 407 yards. The defensive backfield is just as poorly positioned from play to play as it has been for, well, at least a decade or so. The loss of Will Hines to injury weeks ago was just cruel: it deprived the unit of its most promising talent, and meant that even average quarterbacks could salivate at the traditional, puzzling cushion that the Razorback DBs routinely afford their opposition.
No-good, terrible, awful, very bad tackling has also resurfaced. Teams like Ole Miss, which are most robust at the skill positions, take full advantage. The Rebs have stockpiled angular and shifty receivers — you know, the kind that the Razorbacks simply do not have — and those guys are ideal for the Freeze system and pure hell on the squad that Chris Ash is forced to deploy this fall. It's not fair, but it's the inherited misfortune that we've addressed ad nauseam here.
The Hogs' last realistic shot at avoiding the win column goose egg is against rather woeful Mississippi State at War Memorial on Nov. 23*, and Brandon Allen at least has something to build on, a two-TD performance where he shook off some of his longstanding accuracy woes and reinvested some confidence in Julian Horton, who was impressive in the summer and up until the trip to Oxford, a vacuum since September. The Bulldogs' defense falls far short of imposing, and the Dak Prescott-Tyler Russell QB tandem is error-prone. This team's sole SEC win came at Kentucky's expense, and they've been roughed up by LSU and Texas A&M for a combined 110 points.
It's not where anyone wanted to be, but if the Hogs can muster one bid for pride in the old concrete wasteland this weekend, it's something worth treasuring. Expect nothing, and perhaps be rewarded for your pessimism for once.
A previous version of this column incorrectly said the Mississippi State game was Nov. 16.