I have to admit around this time of year, I have a penchant for being overly optimistic about the state of Razorback football. Facebook reminded me of this just before I sat down to write this column.
It’s that relatively new feature that pops up showing your status updates from previous years. Evidently on Aug. 10, 2013, I opined the Hogs would be better than many thought following an open scrimmage where Alex Collins showed out. I probably don’t have to remind you that the Razorbacks finished the season 3-9.
There were extenuating circumstances, primarily the health of then sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen. Allen hurt his shoulder diving into the end zone in the first half of a 24-3 victory over Southern Miss. Had Allen been healthy the following week, I have no doubt the Hogs would have defeated Rutgers, but he wasn’t, and Arkansas allowed that game to slip away in the second half when the offense ground to a standstill. Unable to move the football, the defense was left exposed and the result was 28-24 Rutgers. That loss started a Razorback losing streak that seemed like it would never yield.
I apologize for dredging up such ill memories while the Hogs bask in the spotlight of being the nation’s chic dark-horse pick in the SEC West. I don’t mean to throw cold water on the dreams and aspirations of Hog fans before the season ever starts, but as one who has watched a lot of Razorback football, it always worries me a bit when the national media buys into the Hogs.
I distinctly remember Beano Cook tabbing the 1987 Razorbacks as his preseason No. 1. Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes trampled Beano’s pick 51-7 on a miserable day in Little Rock as they marched on their way to the national title.
Back-to-back Razorback losses to Texas and Houston in October did in Sports Illustrated’s preseason No. 1 pick in 1978. But that SI cover featuring Lou Holtz, Ben Cowins and Ron Calcagni sure was cool. Now, that team didn’t crash and burn, not at all. However, a 9-2-1 record including a 10-10 tie with UCLA on Christmas day in the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the way any Hog fan envisioned a year concluding that began with a 31-6 rout of Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners in the Orange Bowl.
The last nightmare reminder I’ll bring up is one I’m sure most longtime Hog fans have buried even deeper in the recesses of their long-term memory. After Ken Hatfield’s Razorbacks had won back-to-back Southwest Conference titles in 1988 and 1989, the media tabbed the Hogs as the favorite to win the SWC again in 1990. The only problem was that Hatfield was now coaching at Clemson, and Jack Crowe was in over his head after being elevated to head coach from his role as offensive coordinator. Crowe’s offense did put points on the board. How could they not with the wizardry of Quinn Grovey under center, but the 1990 defense was the worst Arkansas has put on the field dating back to the 1940s when World War II depleted the Razorbacks’ ranks of able-bodied players.
I only mention all of this as a slight warning to Hog fans whose spirits might be soaring a little too high at the moment. Keep expectations in check. Enjoy the upcoming season for what it is not for what you hope it will be.
That being said, it is hard not to like this team. Head coach Bret Bielema is so up beat, so up front and so consistent in talking about this team that it’s hard to keep expectations in check for this season.
But we also have to remember that the Hogs haven’t even practiced in full pads, yet. There is a long way to go until the Sept. 5 season opener with Texas-El Paso and even longer until the SEC slate opens Sept. 26 with Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.
While Bielema has truly advanced the program to where it appears to be approaching SEC contender level, depth remains an abiding concern almost across the board. Tight end and defensive line are relatively deep areas, but even at those positions, an injury here or there leaves the Hogs searching a bit. And, let’s face it. This is football. There will be injuries.
At this moment, my expectation for the Hogs is eight wins with the full knowledge that they might win one or two more, but that it’s just as likely they could lose one or two more.
To me, that’s a safe place to be. Course corrections can always be made as the season rolls along.