The postmortem on the 2018 Arkansas football season need only be characterized by a flood of unwelcome superlatives: most anemic, least disciplined, farthest from national relevancy and ... well, just plain worst.
The 38-0 whitewashing at the hands of Missouri, which has made a habit out of getting fat on Hog blood the past three Novembers, drove home the other insulting nail in this metaphorical coffin. The Tigers bear large responsibility for Bret Bielema's ultimate ouster: In 2016, the Hogs were coming off a rout of Mississippi State at Starkville, and at 7-4, were poised to end an uneven season in a grand fashion by bumping off a Mizzou bunch that, in Barry Odom's first year as head coach, was floundering badly. The Tigers were 3-8, 1-6 in SEC play, and Arkansas was licking its chops after dutifully marching to a 24-7 halftime lead.
After that promising first half at Faurot Field, things started to go belly-up for Bret, and fast. Quarterback Austin Allen was turnover-prone in the third and fourth quarters, and Missouri started to string together stops and drives. The Razorbacks didn't score in the second half, losing 28-24, and then things crashed even harder in the Belk Bowl as they blew a 24-0 halftime lead to Virginia Tech and lost that one, 35-24. From November 2014 all the way up until the Missouri debacle in 2016, Bielema had turned things around at a rate that was pretty damn phenomenal. After starting his Hog coaching career ignominiously with a 7-14 mark, including an 0-13 record in SEC games, Bielema righted the ship nicely to post an 18-10 record over the next 28 games, and that included 10 conference victories.
Mizzou put the brakes on all that progress with its win the day after Thanksgiving in '16, and Bielema would only win four of his final 14 games, with the last loss being the finale against the Tigers last year. For this purported rivalry game, it has gone lopsided fast, and Arkansas's one win over Missouri in the past five years since the "Battle Line" tag was appointed to this game came against Gary Pinkel's last team in 2015, which incidentally finished 1-7 in SEC play. The other four games have progressively gotten more aggravating, but nothing will top Friday's dispirited performance to cap off Chad Morris' memorable-for-the-wrong-reasons debut campaign.
Arkansas let the Tigers score early, then couldn't move the ball against a Missouri defense that didn't exactly fashion itself as world-beaters when it yielded 30-plus points to five straight opponents throughout late September and October. But as with the 2017 bunch, which started 1-5 before cruising to six consecutive wins to get Odom to a bowl in his second season, this Missouri group improved markedly as the season wore on, letting senior quarterback Drew Lock make plays with his legs as well as his arm, and turning loose a defensive line that, naturally, features a Fayetteville product (Akial Byers) who made some impact plays and even fell on a loose football for one of the Tigers' five touchdowns on a wet, windy day in Columbia.
Missouri is, incidentally, mirroring the trajectory that Bielema's earliest teams had. The first team was a bit hapless, but competitive, and Lock got a lot of valuable work under duress. Odom's 2017 squad went 7-6 with a Texas Bowl bid against the Longhorns, which is precisely what happened to Bielema's second team as well (Missouri lost to the Longhorns, however). Now, as with the 2015 Hogs, the 2018 Tigers have notched some nice wins, been reasonably competitive in most losses, and hit the eight-win plateau.
That's program growth. And it's coming from a place with far less enticing and expensive football facilities and a less zealous fan base.
Just due south, Arkansas fans are now left wondering if Morris, who counts among his first-year results a humiliating pair of nonconference losses to Colorado State and North Texas, an inability to close out floundering Ole Miss in a genuinely winnable game, and consecutive touchdown-free efforts against mid-level bowl teams in the last pair of games. The Razorback football program had never experienced a 10-loss season before, but that badge of infamy is now plastered upon the 2018 team, which wasn't overly snakebit — they had some injuries, naturally, and a lack of depth to rely upon — but was listless and uncommitted as the season wore on. And make no mistake, losing is hard business for young kids who have traditionally tasted success on an individual or team level.
But Morris can only decry this performance as "unacceptable" for so long. As the head coach who plunked down nearly $4 million on his house in Northwest Arkansas despite having yet to acquit himself and prove himself worthy of the job, he has to recognize what was similarly beyond the realm of tolerance as far as his coaching was concerned, and remedy that immediately. Because the next record he sets may well be the permanent Hog coach with the shortest tenure in that capacity in the modern age.