- Brian Chilson
- BRET BIELEMA: File photo.
Bret Bielema is the subject of some derision, the aggressiveness of which ebbs and flows based on his team's record, for being a little casual with his yap. That gabbing ensnared him earlier this season when Kliff Kingsbury turned a flippant summer comment into press conference fodder after his Texas Tech team caught a reeling Razorback team with its guard down in Fayetteville.
As the 2015 season has unfolded to its terminus, it appears the coach has done some learning along the way just as much as his players have done some wagon circling. In the wake of a bitter 51-50 slugfest that went Mississippi State's way due to some obtuse playcalling and failed execution at the end, Bielema owned those failings. What may have been more telling was how he spoke in the aftermath of the bounce-back 28-3 whipping of hapless Missouri to close the regular season.
Bielema said that during the week he emphasized to his team that he didn't want Mississippi State to "beat us twice." That's coachspeak for letting the repercussions of one emotional loss bleed over into the next week. You saw that happen when LSU tanked its No. 2 ranking and hopes of an SEC championship in a loss to Alabama, then followed that with a listless showing against the Hogs in Baton Rouge seven nights later.
Arkansas wasn't impressive against Missouri, to be sure, but the Razorbacks dealt capably with oddball circumstances, namely a Friday afternoon kickoff in a half-full (optimists' view, natch) Reynolds Razorback Stadium with driving, chilly rain falling and clearly affecting the quarterbacks' accuracy and the skill players' ball security all day. Brandon Allen's final bow on Senior Day was a modest 11-of-17, 102-yard one, but Alex Collins and Kody Walker got going again after a frustrating outing against the Bulldogs. The junior tailback tandem grinded out 207 combined yards on 44 runs, scored all four touchdowns, and most importantly didn't cede possession of the slippery rock despite a couple of close calls.
Missouri finished a 5-7, 1-7 year in a fittingly messily fashion. The Tigers boast a high-octane linebacker, Kentrell Brothers, and some other valued personnel on that side of the ball, but even a worthy effort against the Hogs could do nothing to offset the most moribund offense in the league in quite some time. Over eight league games, the punchless crew rolled up a whopping 73 points, and one-third of those came in the Tigers' lone victory against South Carolina. Drew Lock seems like he could mature and be productive, provided that Gary Pinkel's successor is of an attacking mindset, but the freshman quarterback's day against the Hogs was ugly. He completed 9 of 27 for 83 yards, tossed a late interception, and was hounded in the backfield all day by a defensive line that had just been baffled by Dak Prescott to the tune of 500-plus passing yards.
That's the missing ingredient for Arkansas: consistency. A team that loses to the likes of Toledo, Texas Tech and Mississippi State in such fashion does not boast the depth needed to be an SEC contender; conversely, a team that toughs out road wins at Knoxville, Oxford and Baton Rouge clearly adapts and hits its apex when the competition is weighty. Allen's maturation at the end of his career is a promising harbinger regardless of whether his younger brother or Ricky Town takes over the quarterbacking duties for 2016. The receiving depth will be excellent because Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, Jared Cornelius and Keon Hatcher all should return healthy, and if tight end Hunter Henry is gone, Jeremy Sprinkle can be an obvious asset as a senior with young blue-chips like C.J. O'Grady in wait.
Defensively, the Hogs can and will improve, too. In fact, the impending bowl game may be the showcase for that unit first and foremost. Robb Smith's group recaptured some lost luster against Missouri, seized upon the conditions being conducive to aggression, and looked more like the 11 that finished out 2014 in suffocating fashion than the one that was taken off its rails against the Mississippi schools' speed-based approach. Last year's bunch was 7-6, but a whisker away from being two or three wins better. This year's team finishes the regular campaign a hair better at 7-5, demonstrably improved in conference play, and yet still had two or three certain victories slip away.