Season on the turf is over, but let's start with two probably perfunctory notes about recent shakeups on the Bret Bielema's football staff at Arkansas.
Losing offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, he of the indisputably sorry win-loss record while at the helm of Tennessee and Arkansas's offenses, is now headed northeasterly to Pitt. He's not a bad guy, he embraced a balanced philosophy and he seemed utterly willing to win the Bielema way.
But the reality is that Chaney's playcalling was, regrettably, a costly thing too often. Even in the arduous first season of 2013, the Hogs were in some games (chief among them, Rutgers, Mississippi State and LSU) where a little ingenuity in the late stages would've gone a long way. Instead, the team clammed up and the die was cast for 2013: If the Hogs wanted to thrive this year, some better fourth-quarter game management would make inroads to the top of the league rankings.
The Hogs were marginally better and savvier offensively, but we all know the four-win improvement would've been a potentially seven- or eight-win leap if the fourth quarter woes hadn't persisted. It seemed to any casual observer that Robb Smith's unit was done a disservice by Chaney's in those late losses. When the Hogs did not register a single fourth-quarter point in the losses to Missouri, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Alabama, all games well within reach, it spelled the end for the gregarious OC. His move to a program like Pitt suggests he wasn't being welcomed back, and it further leaves the impression that other candidates (a Mark Mangino, for instance, or TCU wunderkind Doug Meacham) may have been sought out well in advance.
Linebackers coach Randy Shannon is gone, too, headed back to Florida to join new Gators coach Jim McElwain. He took a mild swipe at Arkansas in the process, wryly stating that he liked the Florida mystique and desire for championships. The implication was that the Hogs are just eternally content with sitting on the cusp instead of climbing right over it. Regardless, Shannon was an obvious asset but a nonetheless replaceable one. Provided that Sam Pittman stays in the fold the pipeline serving the university with both linemen and Florida prospects, the departure of Shannon may not sting as much as it would appear.
The hardwood Hogs sprang back into and up the rankings, shooting in at No. 23. To then nudge up to 19th, they needed to slough off their long history of pitiful road openers. After 15 listless minutes at Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia's modest and perennially uninteresting joint, it looked like another craptastic way to begin the league slate.
Something snapped. Arkansas surged from behind and took command in a methodical fashion, and it was on the shoulders of a typically unreliable player. Alandise Harris confidently stroked his lean-back jumper to the tune of 15 points, many coming in big moments down the stretch. Anton Beard steadied the team from the point. And Bobby Portis anchored the squad with 15 of his 21 in the first half, keeping the team in range despite falling behind by 13, and Michael Qualls had 15 in yet another stable, multifaceted effort. It was a quality road win in a scenario that almost always has led to heartache.
And it buoyed the Hogs for the follow-up at home. Portis was an unstoppable force with an SEC-season-best 32, and as Vanderbilt's young gunners surged within a point in the second half, a quick flurry of seven points in less than half a minute kept the Commodores at bay. Qualls was again magnificent, proving conclusively that he is the antithesis to the usual Hog "athlete" who never converts to a true skilled basketballer. While the Landis Williamses and Antwon Halls of the past could hammer a dunk and make highlight reels in other ways, they could never mature enough to offer a tangible effect from game to game. Qualls, on the other hand, now sports a dependable shooting stroke, a menacing but controlled defensive presence and a coolness on the free-throw line.
It's all a refreshing scene. Will it last? The schedule plays well for that. If Arkansas can set out to a 4-0 or 5-0 SEC start, it may translate to a Top 10 ranking* and not just in the RPI, where the team has already benefited from its stronger schedule and the conference's significant progress overall.
*This was written before Tuesday's road loss to Tennessee