LITTLE ROCK — Four months removed from a prediction column, there is nothing new to alter opinions.
Every Arkansas positive against Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Mississippi is tempered by the quality of those opponents. For starters, there is the dominance of the offensive line and the effectiveness of the defense. Gauging Travis Swanson’s group or interpreting the opponents’ lack of production cannot be done with certainty because we’re talking about beating up on one team that has disappointed, another playing with 20-something less scholarships and a third with the longest losing streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Who knows what Arkansas’ 883 yards rushing means or how to read a pass defense that has limited big plays?
For the heck of it, I dredged up a mid-May column that said the 2012 team might have won a couple of more games if Bobby Petrino had remained in charge, but that “shortcomings at linebacker, defensive back and the offensive line were very real.”
The column continued: “A year later, questions about those positions remain unanswered.”
Despite Arkansas 89, Opponents 38, I stand by that with the acknowledgement that the offensive linemen are athletic.
For example, Arkansas made only 122 yards on 31 running plays in the first half against a Southern Mississippi team that could focus on the run once A.J. Derby replaced Brandon Allen at quarterback and the Razorbacks signaled their intention to play safe by running draw plays twice on third-and-long. Effectiveness of the offensive line also declined after tackle Grady Ollison was injured.
Trying to interpret the 258 rushing last week vs. 292 against Louisiana-Lafayette and 333 vs. Samford, should the emphasis be on Arkansas’ low-risk offense or Southern Mississippi’s defensive front seven or a combination of both? And, how does the Southern Miss group stack up against Rutgers or teams in the Southeastern Conference?
All along, Arkansas’ defensive front four has evoked a certain degree of confidence. Behind Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Robert Thomas and Byran Jones, I don’t know what to make of the next seven because Arkansas has not faced a running back comparable to Alex Collins or Jonathan Williams nor a passing attack with a quality quarterback. A couple of times on Saturday, I thought a Southern Miss back who popped the line of scrimmage was in position to make a big play but lacked the necessary burst.
Appreciated is that Alan Turner, Tevin Mitchel and Jarrett Lake — the defenders responsible for squelching the Golden Eagles’ final, serious threat — did not hang their heads over earlier mistakes vs. the pass. On five straight downs, each made a singularly outstanding play late in the third quarter.
As much as I am in the dark about Arkansas, there is a better feel for at least two SEC teams based on weekend results against reputable opponents.
For example, Oregon 59, Tennessee 14 confirmed that Butch Jones’ first team in Knoxville is undermanned, but it also indicated the shortage of talent is even worse than first believed. Tennessee actually led 7-0 before suffering its worst loss in more than 100 years.
Even though Texas has slipped in the last three years, Ole Miss winning in Austin in front of an announced crowd of more than 101,000 reinforced the idea that the Rebels will not shrink and could be the surprise of the SEC. The Rebels outscored Texas 27-0 in the second half.
Kentucky hanging close to Louisville is more difficult to read, particularly in light of the Wildcats’ three turnovers, dropped passes and Louisville coach Charlie Strong’s admission that he had “really good words” for his team after a lackluster first half.
Heading for New Jersey, there are too many variables to accurately assess the Razorbacks’ chances. Depending on who plays quarterback for both teams, we could depart Piscataway still wondering about the O-line and the back seven on defense.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org