Where. To. Begin.
At the outset, let's point out that Arkansas, though recently liberated of the albatross of a 10-game losing streak that bracketed nearly a full year, still had not won an SEC game since pelting woeful Kentucky in Fayetteville all the way back in 2012. And the Hogs had not beaten a ranked conference team since dismantling South Carolina the November prior to that, when all seemed so rosy.
So this little statement game against sixth-ranked Texas A&M was one hellacious measuring stick on a schedule front- and back-loaded with them. Here was Arkansas's golden opportunity to convince America how fast and how furious it has worked to launch itself from doormat. And guess what? The Hogs did genuinely succeed in that regard. You don't check a Kevin Sumlin offense to 14 points for three quarters and display fearlessness in all facets of play over that same stretch and not consider it a pretty significant triumph. Arkansas had explosive plays in the passing and running game, and on special teams, and that translated to what appeared to be a commanding posture heading into the final minutes.
The spirited revelry ended there, though, and it's that nasty aftertaste of another dodgy fourth quarter, debilitating errors and bewildering play-calling that still haunts Hog fans days after the Aggies finished off a 35-28 overtime win that felt so sickeningly familiar. Now, the postmortem has conventionally called out penalties, namely two massive mistakes by Dan Skipper (whom, I might add, has a really hard time hiding from the officials) that negated a full field's length of gains, cited A&M's deep threats getting loose twice in the fourth quarter for long scores and pointed out that John Henson's badly whiffed field goal attempt gave the Aggies the CPR they had to have in the waning moments. But this game wasn't decided in the fourth quarter, and if you review the tape you'll see that the Hogs should have had this contest well in hand much earlier in the afternoon.
They once again smartly executed the game plan and ate up 37 minutes of regulation with the ball. This columnist, never prescient about much, offered this basic prescription for accomplishment back in the summer. The problem? The offense only generated three scores (punter Sam Irwin-Hill's long scoring run on the fake punt call before halftime being the other) and that's simply not enough. Yes, the Skipper penalties cut two more presumed touchdowns out, but there was something strangely erratic about the Hog offense in Dallas. The Hogs played behind the chains a little bit too much, and weren't quite in sync even in building that two-touchdown lead. Brandon Allen was very good once again, yet his receivers had little meaningful impact, as Keon Hatcher, Kendrick Edwards, Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius combined for seven grabs, 94 yards and no scores. That would've been serviceable against Texas Tech, but against the Raiders' much deeper in-state brethren, it was paltry and evidence of an advantage that the Hogs didn't exploit nearly enough.
It's also beyond dispute that the quality of Jim Chaney's play-calling went decidedly southward once that precarious lead was built. The largest offensive line in the free world, road-grading for a spectacular running back tandem to the tune of another 200-plus yards, was inexplicably called upon late to pass-block on second down three separate times in the fourth quarter. Yet when a deft play-action throw might've been called for on third-and-7 with less than three minutes remaining and the Hogs clinging to a 28-21 lead, Alex Collins got stuffed on a short run. That left it up to the untested Henson to pull a long attempt hard left, a situation in which the kicker frankly should have never been placed.
Therein lies the nagging pain that our long-nurtured inferiority complex has wrought upon us interested Razorback fans. Murphy's Law seems to have this football program in a vise, and even as the Hogs seemed absolutely destined to shock the world Saturday in Arlington, they couldn't escape their history. Bret Bielema correctly and astutely noted that all the failings on this particular afternoon were imminently fixable, but he's having to wrestle with a culture and a long-held perception rather than a mere trend. What the schedule does afford the Hogs is the luxury of opportunity: The past two seasons, the Alabama game was a source of obvious dread, borne out by 52-0 scores in 2012 (that team quit) and 2013 (that team simply was overmatched). This year, though, it's a chance at redemption, and a seemingly reachable one.
As a bye week is ahead, it's easily the best-timed contest against the Crimson Tide in a while. The Hogs can spend a week doing what Bielema is pledging to do, which is right whatever wrongs surfaced in the late going against Auburn and Texas A&M. This Arkansas team is so much better equipped to play the Tide now, and Alabama will be coming off what theoretically will be a taxing game against Ole Miss.