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SEC hope?



Last week, this column was headlined "Bumbling Bielema" in the wake of Arkansas's third straight cringe-inducing loss to an FBS program, and the overtly critical tone of what was unofficially the 250th Pearls that I've penned over six years didn't go unnoticed on social media or message boards. Having to watch that farce against TCU was hard, no doubt. Having to write about another Razorback football fiasco was the kind of task that customarily carries the advisory label, "induce vomiting immediately."

Arkansas could not have played any worse in its opener in Fayetteville. The only reason the score was remotely respectable was due to the Horned Frogs' own bizarre bouts of ineptitude. That game is now nearly two weeks in the rearview, and for the sake of the entire coaching staff, the Hogs have to treat it like a necessary early-season learning experience, a hiccup on the front side of a long season.

There's precedent for the Hogs rebounding from a September misstep or two. Houston Nutt, for all his innumerable faults, made a habit of it — in 2001, the team started 1-3 but then won six straight, and the next year the Hogs bounced back from a terrible home loss to Alabama to get to the SEC Championship Game. The 2006 season opened with a prodigious dud when the Hogs were swamped by USC in Fayetteville to the tune of 50-14, but they reeled off 10 straight wins after that and got to the conference title game again, the last time that occurred. Bielema himself has experienced the reversal of fortune as recently as 2015, when the Hogs gagged two consecutive shots as favorite against Toledo and Texas Tech, then finished with six wins in seven games to keep the current coach employed and generally in good standing with the fan base.

While those comparative halcyon days — eight wins counts as such in this tortured corner of the world — are a seemingly distant memory now, this is still a team that has promise. The primary reason fans cannot abandon hope is that the SEC West, not long ago the apex of this cottage industry we call college football, is now a rough-hewn collection of utterly flawed teams. While Arkansas got the benefit of a bye week, this is what went down on the Occidental half of the league:

*Mississippi State, a middling team with an exceptional coach, throttled then-No. 12 LSU by 30 in Starkville, exerting complete dominance on both sides of the ball and showing off Nick Fitzgerald to the world;

*Auburn, sputtering badly on offense as usual (because Gus Malzahn has never been anything special at the collegiate level unless he had Cam Newton at his disposal), eked by FCS foe Mercer, 24-10, a mere week after rolling up a whopping two field goals at Clemson; and

*Ole Miss went out to Berkeley, Calif. to play in the Golden Bears' crypt, and trailing by four late, their latest annoyingly cocky signal-caller, Shea Patterson, promptly tossed a game-icing pick-six right after game commentators proclaimed that this was going to be his moment to distinguish himself.

The East is pretty weird too (Kentucky and Vanderbilt are sitting 3-0!) but let's focus on the Razorbacks' plight, which looks less foreboding now. They go into this weekend's tilt with Texas A&M, in theory, angry as hell about their showing against TCU and motivated to open conference play the right way for a change. Bielema has lost four straight to the Aggies, the last three of which were obscenely painful late-game collapses, and if that didn't fuel him and his staff, then the fact that this game could very well determine their long-term futures seemingly should.

A&M choked its opener at UCLA in such a garish fashion that it seemed inevitable that all the furor over Kevin Sumlin's fate would give way to a calmer couple of weeks. That has indeed transpired. The Aggies were lethargic against lowly Nicholls State at Kyle Field the week after, but they survived it with a fourth-quarter surge, and then they shook off pesky Louisiana-Lafayette over the weekend and finally demonstrated a semblance of a passing attack. True freshman Kellen Mond had a horrible experience in Los Angeles, thanks in large part to playcalling that betrayed him, but he was rock-solid winging it against the Cajuns, and he's backed by excellent tailbacks.

Thus, the challenge for the Hogs is not only to overcome a terrifying recent ledger in this so-called Southwest Classic, but to also take the legs out from beneath an Aggie team that is bordering on resurgent. They won't be able to do it with a neutered receiving corps, immobile offensive tackles, a kicker with the yips, or defensive linemen who are incapable of fighting off blocks. It seems dubious that all these persistent issues can be rectified in a matter of 14 days, obviously, but the odds at least favor Dan Enos getting back into a playcalling groove. Both Nicholls and Lafayette had some success moving the ball, and UCLA obviously shook off a bad half of football to work over the Aggie secondary exhaustively.

What will be most critical for Arkansas is starting well, which seems cliché but is sometimes obscured by the atrocious finishes they have authored of late. When the Hogs have looked their best under Bielema, it's been a function of strong starts — notably, they pushed LSU around early in 2015 en route to a 17-point win and last year got untracked with a defensive score on the way to routing Florida — so they can ill afford a sluggish bolt from the gate. Poor finishes can be rendered negligible with a good opening bow, and Arkansas, coming off one of its ugliest start-to-finish performances in a while, desperately needs to catch fire early or another long day will be in the offing.

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