It’s the third week of September, and it’s already do-or-die time for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
It’s an all-too-familiar feeling.
It seems like every year that by the time the Hogs are getting ready to play Texas A&M, the game is pivotal. It was that way in 2009 when the series resumed, and it is definitely that way this week.
Everyone from fans to media perceives it to be a key game for the Hogs’ eventual fortunes, whether it actually ends up that way or not.
While Saturday’s meeting between the Aggies (2-1) and Razorbacks (1-1) has been relegated to the 11 a.m. appetizer spot on the college football menu, a victory on Saturday in the ESPN-televised game at Jerry Jones’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will taste like a sumptuous dessert to the victor, while a loss will nauseate like clabbered milk.
Under Bobby Petrino, it was like old SWC times against the Aggies, with the Hogs winning three in a row. However, since that fateful Sunday afternoon motorcycle crash, the Aggies have owned the Razorbacks, taking five in a row, all in SEC play.
While only four of those losses are on Bret Bielema’s resume, taking it on the chin from the Aggies in Arlington has become tough to stomach. Razorback fans are already on edge after TCU whipped the Hogs, 28-7.
The open date might have been great for the Arkansas staff and players, but it only allowed the fans to stew in their own juices. There is a bitter taste in the Razorback Nation’s collective mouth.
During much of Bielema’s tenure at Arkansas positive-minded fans could refute some of the negative barbs spewed by the less-optimistic members of the Razorback family, but when the Hogs haven’t scored in the second half against a Power 5 football team since before Thanksgiving of last year, it’s hard to respond.
Throughout the spring and summer, Bielema insinuated this year would be different, that his Hogs would know how to finish games, that the misery of watching double-digit, first-half leads erode in the second half would be over.
Not only did the Hogs not finish against TCU — scoring nothing in the second half and giving up two late touchdowns – some would say the Razorbacks never really got started against the Horned Frogs’ super quick defense.
In his press conference Monday, Bielema pointed out that TCU is the No. 15 team in the nation and that the game boiled down to several missed opportunities by the Razorbacks that could have turned the tide when TCU led just 14-7.
What he said may be true.
A play here or there and the outcome of the TCU game could have been different. But, that could be said for any number of Razorback losses in recent years, and in particular three of the four of the losses to the Aggies during Bielema’s tenure.
However, there is a difference in coming up just short to Alabama like Bielema’s Hogs did in 2014 and coming up short to the Horned Frogs, no matter where TCU is ranked.
The tradition of Arkansas’ program says the Razorbacks beat the Horned Frogs. That’s the expectation.
Now, TCU coach Gary Patterson guides a better breed of Frogs today, and losing to a solid TCU team isn’t an unrecoverable blemish.
However, the question on everyone’s mind is when will Bielema truly get his Razorbacks over the hump?
When will the Razorbacks apply that “SEC strain” that Bielema and his assistants like to mention and put away or pull out victories on a consistent basis?
When will the offense get over its red-zone issues?
When will the defense rise up in the fourth quarter instead of falter?
Bielema mentioned last week that there were no mistakes made by the Razorbacks in the TCU game that could not be corrected. On Monday, he said the Hogs are so close to being a team the Razorbacks’ fan base can be proud of.
Believe me, I want to be a Bielema believer. From all appearances, he has the program in fine shape except for where it counts the most, on the field on Saturdays.
I would like to buy that he has the Hogs close, but I need something more tangible than words in a press conference to truly believe the Razorbacks program is progressing.
Bielema has lived by the axiom at Arkansas that if you build the program in the right way, the results will eventually come. There is absolute truth in that.
My hope is that we see some of those results play out this Saturday against the Aggies and in the weeks ahead.
The attitude among Hog fans is getting pretty grim. Bielema and his Razorbacks need to give them something they can latch on to before the meat of the SEC schedule arrives in October.
Victories are a cure-all. Hog fans could use a big dose this Saturday.