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The beginning of the end?


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If Toledo triggered a sudden and unanticipated referendum on Bret Bielema, then it's likely the Texas Tech debacle — and we'll make the case herein that it was arguably a worse loss — could have sealed his exit, assuming an equally shocking reversal of fortune isn't imminent.

For months, Bielema's gamesmanship had been refreshing and amusing, and now it's deader than disco. When you spout off at coaching clinics, public gatherings and the like, it's good fodder and maybe it does serve to energize the fan base. But losses to MAC teams and Big 12 also-rans don't play well with this group.

The mood outside Reynolds Razorback Stadium last Saturday night was, bar none, the most aggressively derisive and sour as I have ever witnessed it in the 23 years since the program dedicated itself to a life of misery in the Southeastern Conference. People were stewing, and rightly so. Robb Smith's ballyhooed defense was shredded by a slight, inexperienced quarterback and a slew of undersized receivers who slanted their way to as much yardage as they wanted against a relaxed man defense. The special teams unit again floundered. Offensively, Alex Collins ran for a season-best 170 yards and showed some toughness as the Hogs tried to grind away the clock just to keep it away from Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes, but he also had zero burst when he made it into the open field. Penalties dogged the Razorbacks for the second straight week, but worse yet, the Hogs actually needed the calls to go their way after a shockingly inept defensive performance.

The Red Raiders are 3-0 after a 4-8 year, and Kliff Kingsbury was feeling his oats so much in the aftermath that he besmirched Bielema repeatedly, declared the 11-point win an "ass-kicking," and all but declared the nonconference clash between unranked flyweights to be some kind of vindication for the spread offense. Well, it really wasn't. Sorry to disappoint the Raiders' chirpy cover boy, but knocking off a wounded, demoralized Hog team at this point is no way a triumph of methodology. Last year, Arkansas bulled its way to well over 400 rushing yards in a 21-point rout of the Raiders, who entered that home game 2-0 while the Hogs hadn't beaten a FBS team in a full year. Bielema indisputably needs to eat crow, but Kingsbury doesn't need to be serving it.

Now that we've dispensed with discussions about two insolent head coaches who haven't earned the privilege, let's focus on where this seemingly lost autumn can and should head from here. First of all, once again, Brandon Allen is the undeserved whipping boy. Despite sketchy protection, he is staying upright and showing newfound mobility. The senior is also completing passes at a rather staggering clip to a receiving corps that is now down to Drew Morgan, JoJo Robinson, Kendrick Edwards and maybe a couple of extras from "Little Giants." Jared Cornelius had such a nice opener against UTEP and then had an electric punt return touchdown taken away against Toledo, and a really garish arm-break against Tech. His season is likely finished, and with Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister weeks from returning, the impetus is on the tight ends more than ever to make yards after the catch. Allen has missed badly on a couple of critical tosses, but he's far from the problem.

No, that dishonor rests at the feet of Smith's defensive unit, which is thoroughly lacking in leadership now that Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight cannot be leaned upon. It's still a commendably talented group, but in the absence of a field general, it finds itself floundering. Linebacker Brooks Ellis was left exposed by the Raiders' spread attack, often embarrassingly out of position, but not due to his own lack of effort. There were no discernible halftime adjustments made, Mahomes was never pressured (presumably out of fear for his mobility), and the depth that Bielema crowed about was nowhere to be found.

All this sounds super, huh? Well, now Arkansas limps to Arlington, Texas, to face a seemingly resurgent Texas A&M team, yet the betting line opened with the Aggies as a rather modest favorite. As always, take lessons from Las Vegas: The bookmakers recognize that the Razorbacks are not without talent, but presently without heart and motivation. SEC play tends to change that, and moreover, it's within the realm of reason to think that the upstart Aggies got too much love for a win over an Arizona State team that then struggled to beat two out-of-conference pushovers. These Aggies may be a bit better equipped defensively than in prior years, but Arkansas still, shockingly, can do good things against it if mouths close and minds engage.


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