The slow climb back to squaring up the Arkansas Razorbacks' season record began, in earnest, way back on Sept. 26, as the last Brandon Allen overtime pass against Texas A&M went helplessly awry.
That Hog team played an inspired four quarters of football only to crumble in the fourth and in overtime, yet again, as it had done with sickening regularity over Bret Bielema's first 29 games as head coach. It's as if the team collectively watched all those collapses, those anguishing moments, in some kind of film festival of self-loathing, and then decided to change its fortunes.
Arkansas followed a genuinely horrible September, then, with a genuinely hopeful October. The Hogs blasted Tennessee-Martin on Halloween, 63-28, but true to form, couldn't quite escape a modicum of scrutiny against the FCS Skyhawks. After all, they gave up 500-plus yards! And four touchdowns! And had no sacks!
It was all by design. This was the last rehearsal before the Hogs get a very legitimate last shot on the big stage to stay in contention in an adventurous division. And before you offer a snarky denial of Arkansas's chances of finishing in the upper tier of the West, consider the following:
1. Saturday's bout with Ole Miss (7-2, 4-1) is no small undertaking, of course, but if the Hogs can deal the Rebels a withering blow to their division title hopes, they pull even in the loss column and control the tiebreaker, with Ole Miss still left to face LSU and Mississippi State.
2. And what of the unbeaten Tigers from Baton Rouge? The Hogs draw them on the road this year, but let's not forget that the 2013 meeting there between an 0-7 Razorback squad and a senior-laden, ranked LSU went down to the final minute. Furthermore, Alabama and LSU duke it out this weekend, and regardless of which team emerges from that slugfest, there'll be lasting bruises and perhaps a bit of a hangover for Les Miles' team if it ends up on the right side of the scoreboard Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
3. The Hogs have two imminently winnable games at home, with Mississippi State again being solid, but having a back-loaded schedule that makes its achievements so far a bit hard to quantify, and Missouri playing miserably on offense and having quarterbacking issues arise with the suspension of Maty Mauk and the ineffectiveness of freshman Drew Lock.
Far be it from us to dare engage in the reach required to get the Hogs to 7-5, much less 8-4, since there is literally nothing clairvoyant about this column. But Arkansas is playing competent, respectable football now, and getting healthier, too. Jared Cornelius returned against UT-Martin and Brandon Allen immediately reconnected with him on screen passes (four receptions for 33 yards), and the Louisiana product also had a fine punt return. Drew Morgan's shoulder is ailing, but he reportedly will be ready for the Rebels. Alex Collins' five-touchdown, 173-yard explosion vs. UT-Martin was conducted on a mere 16 carries, so his legs are reasonably fresh for the start of the home stretch.
Defensively, the statistics weren't pretty against the Skyhawks, but some of that was attributable to the Hogs being as base as possible from start to finish. The middle of the field is still too cushiony for the opposition, which means that Ole Miss' dangerous tight end Evan Engram could be getting a ton of looks from quarterback Chad Kelly. Still, the Rebels rely a great deal on attacking the edges, and that's another area where the Hogs suffer because of a general lack of lateral speed in the back end of the defense. When the Rebels were forced to go vertical last year against the Hogs, Bo Wallace was horrible, chucking two lazy deep balls that turned into interceptions, and he was under constant pressure from the likes of Trey Flowers. This time, there's no Flowers penetrating the backfield, and Kelly is already a better decision-maker in his first nine games than Wallace ever showed himself to be in three full seasons at the helm.
The other distinguishing factor this weekend in Oxford will be Laquon Treadwell, whose four consecutive 100-yard receiving games do not come close to fully defining what he means to the team. The junior wideout is the best in the game, both physically and mentally, and he complements his physical skill set with crisp routes and exceptional hands. Cornerbacks Henri Toliver and Jared Collins will get opportunities against him, and if the Hogs slide a safety over to bracket Treadwell as they did with much success last year against Amari Cooper, then it could negate Treadwell's advantages.
It won't be an easy task on either side of the ball for the Razorbacks. The positive spin is that they are far better equipped now to take on this behemoth than they were a mere four weeks ago.