It wasn’t a banner year for the Arkansas Razorbacks athletics program, but all-in-all 2016-17 wasn’t a poor one, either.
Yes, the football Hogs’ slide in their final two games left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but Arkansas’ other key programs had very solid seasons.
Arkansas’ track team closed the book on the year over the weekend with strong finishes at the NCAA Championships. Chris Bucknam’s Hogs placed fourth nationally, while Lance Harter’s women’s squad garnered sixth place.
Both of those program’s legitimately set their sights on national titles each season, and while Arkansas track fans became spoiled by the sustained dominance of John McDonnell’s track program for more than two decades, anytime Razorbacks squads finish in the top 10 of any sport, it’s a great year.
In that rarified air, it’s easy to lose sight of those accomplishments. It’s also harrowing when you notice which teams that finished ahead and behind them.
On the men’s side, Florida won the national title with Texas A&M placing second. Virginia was third right in front of Arkansas. Then came No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 LSU, and No. 8 Tennessee before Oregon popped up at No. 9 and Alabama rolled in at No. 10. That is incredible dominance by the SEC.
On the women’s side, Oregon won the title by 1.5 points over Georgia. Kentucky and Florida finished fourth and fifth, just ahead of Arkansas, which had one of those meets where nothing seemed to go as planned. Sixth isn’t where the Harter’s women wanted to finish, but all things considered, it was still a strong showing.
If one wanted to take a half-empty approach to the 2016-17, it could be labeled as a season of near misses. The Razorbacks almost made the Sweet 16 in basketball, and the Diamond Hogs almost made it to a Super Regional in baseball.
It may be stretching things a bit to say the Razorbacks football team almost won nine games, considering that they blew big first-half leads in back-to-back losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, but with better game management by the coaching staff, the Razorbacks were right there.
Cynically, some have taken to suggesting that the motto of Arkansas’ athletic program should be “Next Year.”
However, “Next Year” is the battle cry for all programs but one in every collegiate sport if the sole criterion of judgment is winning a national championship.
Competing in the SEC means the Razorbacks work under slim margins of error in every sport. At times, it means the Razorbacks can play over their heads and still not have enough juice to knock off the SEC’s elite.
That’s the tradeoff for competing in the nation’s most competitive, most lucrative, and probably the best athletic conference across the board.
Life is tough in the SEC for a program like Arkansas whose budget falls in the lower middle of the conference and whose in-state recruiting territory is insufficient to fuel an SEC contender. At the moment, men’s basketball might be the exception to that rule with a uncommonly large number of extremely talented young men coming of age in the Natural State at the same time.
For the most part, though, the Razorbacks are behind the eight ball competing with the SEC’s elite, and yet, you have to love that the Hogs generally make it interesting, whether they win or lose. The Razorbacks were certainly interesting on the hardwood and the diamond this season.
While it was frustrating at times, taken as a whole it was amazing to witness the development of Mike Anderson’s basketball squad during the season. After a promising start, it appeared the Razorbacks had stalled out in early February. It was hard to believe the squad would make the NIT much less the NCAA Tournament.
But by the time the season ended, Anderson and his staff had developed the Razorbacks into a salty crew that scared the daylights out of eventual national champions North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The loss of Manny Watkins, Moses Kingsley, and Dusty Hannahs to graduation is significant, but with six seniors returning and an infusion of young talent form the high school ranks that is reminiscent of the better recruiting classes of Arkansas’ hey days makes the upcoming season mighty intriguing.
Likewise, Dave Van Horn’s baseball program is back on track after uncharacteristically missing out on postseason play in 2016.
After being picked to finish fifth in the SEC West, the Razorbacks challenged LSU for the SEC Western Division and SEC Tournament titles.
The Hogs had to work through the preseason losses of two expected starting pitchers, and did so thanks to the fine work of Trevor Stephan and Blaine Knight, who came into their own as a solid one-two punch on the mound.
Hitting droughts hurt the Razorbacks from time to time and ultimately became their key weakness, but the Hogs did lead the SEC in home runs with junior first baseman Chad Spanberger’s bat coming alive in SEC play. His five home-run performance in the SEC Tournament garnered him the MVP award and capped a memorable season.
Arkansas played well in the Fayetteville Regional, but Missouri State proved too resilient, beating the Hogs two out of three in the double-elimination round of the NCAA Tournament.
Despite falling a bit short of making it to a Super Regional, there is no doubt Van Horn has control of the Razorbacks’ rudder and continued success is on the horizon for Arkansas most consistent program among the big three sports.
It’s hard to get a handle on what exactly happened with the Razorbacks football team last fall.
Did they underachieve or did they overachieve?
The Hogs were without a doubt expected to be better than their 7-6 finish last fall, but in hindsight, it’s clear the Hogs were overrated in the early going.
Everyone assumed the Razorbacks would continue to exert their will on most opponents along the offensive front last year, but first-year OL coach Kurt Anderson struggled most of the season to find five linemen he could trust.
The Razorbacks struggled to protect quarterback Austin Allen and never truly had a solid push in the running game, despite sophomore Rawleigh Williams Jr. producing All-SEC type rushing totals. Williams, however, suffered a second neck injury in three years in spring practice, ending his college career.
Without a consistent running game, the Hogs struggled to move the ball and score in the second half off football games all season. Even with big leads, Arkansas’ coaching failed to protect double-digit, first-half leads in their final two games.
On the other side of the ball, the Hogs’ defense went A.W.O.L. last fall. The Hogs gave up a league worst 39 rushing touchdowns last year. Offensive issues failed to protect the porous defense that played confused and apathetic at various points in the season.
All of that led to a change in defensive leadership with Robb Smith encouraged to move on to Minnesota, and Paul Rhoads, former Iowa State head coach, promoted to the defensive coordinator role from his role of secondary coach.
Rhoads and his staff are installing a 3-4 scheme, which ideally will give the Hogs the ability to disguise blitzes and bring more heat on the quarterback.
It does not appear to be a promising season for Bielema and the Razorbacks in 2017, but historically Arkansas has had some of its better football teams under unexpected circumstances.
This does appear to be a pivotal year for Bielema and his football program. While Bielema remains well regarded by a majority of Arkansas fans, the bloom is off the rose five years into his tenure as coach.
Some fans are getting restless, particularly after the season imploded in the final two games of the season. By failing to protect double-digit, first half leads in the Missouri and Virginia Tech losses, Bielema expended a lot of good will.
He and his Hogs can gain that back, but the only way to do it is to win in the most competitive football league in the country.
It certainly is going to be an interesting 2017-18 season for the Hogs. Like most of you, I can hardly wait.