Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
After eight weeks, the Razorback rollercoaster finally got a needed, belated servicing. Some probably expected 5-3 at this point; others are likely infuriated with the fact that the team's pass protection has thoroughly vanished in the span of months, and that in those three losses, the opposition has averaged 50 points on the snout.
The bye week was necessary and, in the view of many, the intermission that may well precede the final act of Robb Smith's tragedy. Let's not mince words: This defense has been terrible, even in winning, and the personnel decisions there have been curious at best. If Smith is to survive, then it starts this Saturday with a rare CBS televised date against Florida.
I'm not a betting man, but the Gators' sketchy offense is improving at just the wrong time for the weary Hogs to muster any sort of blowback. Then there's the inescapable history: a full quarter-century after triggering the Southwest Conference's crumbling, Arkansas remains winless in SEC play against Florida. No, it's not an annual dance, but it's almost always ended with the Razorbacks being toyed with by disparate talent, crappy officiating, or theater-of-the-absurd late-game developments. You can ask Reggie Fish and Tony Bua to weigh in on the latter.
If the Cubs and Indians can take a joint hatchet to the edifices of failure, maybe Arkansas too can find escape from the clutches of its past in 2016. There are reasons to believe, and thusly, in no order, they are:
1. Not your father's Gators. Not Spurrier's. Not Meyer's. Hell, not even Zook's! Jim McElwain's incredible success so far smells a little fishy. There's been a quarterback carousel powered by injuries, suspensions and the like. Many of the wins have been narrow and garish, and the losses he has overseen have been flat ugly. As ever the Gators have robust athleticism everywhere on the field, but at times look handcuffed by it all. Case in point for 2016, the loss at Tennessee, where McElwain called a brilliant first half en route to a 21-0 lead that made Butch Jones' dismissal at halftime seem realistic. The Vols, with an inconsistent quarterback of their own, somehow fired off 38 straight points.
2. The defense will be inspired. Arkansas players have had time to wash out the ill flavor of the Auburn loss, and undoubtedly they still maintain a degree of confidence in themselves even if outsiders are dubious. Expect some shakeups at most positions, and as is common in so-called "gut check" scenarios, some of those will pay dividends. It won't hurt that the weather and the home crowd will juice the team up beyond its presumed performance ceiling.
3. Austin Allen has not, to anyone's knowledge, been flattened by another human in the past 10-12 days. The junior quarterback's poise and toughness has been hailed here and else all year. But even someone with his makeup can't take beating after beating without consequence. And he can take cues from the way his elder sibling finished 2015 as well: Brandon was on fire permanently once the leaves turned, and the Razorbacks' once-dismal fortunes reversed accordingly. For all that Austin has been through, he remains an efficient and productive guy under circumstances that have been less than hospitable, and he can count, too: He knows that this team still has a shot at hitting the nine- or 10-win mark, starting this weekend. Don't expect him to chalk that up as folly.
4. A few guys still have to prove they've got professional aspirations, and this is their last hurrah. Jeremy Sprinkle's been too quiet. Dominique Reed has rarely shown up. Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan still need to demonstrate that they can be of service to teams in need of possession receivers. Don't underestimate the urgency that these seniors can and should demonstrate, knowing their futures hinge on it.
5. Bret Bielema seems completely unwilling to sit on the hot seat. In 2014, needing some spark, he guided the team to a 3-1 finish after his Razorback coaching tenure began so inauspiciously. Losses to Texas Tech and Toledo threatened his job security again last fall, and the team rallied again with a flourish. If the aforementioned nine- or 10-win season materializes with the Florida monkey cast off his and the program's back, the team's record will continue its steady if less than glamorous rise, and he'll be in line to be the first Hog coach to ever win three consecutive bowls. That distinction alone should buoy him and the team for the short term.
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