McCollum’s Column: The fire in Fayetteville is spreading

The photograph that accompanies this column illustrates the current state of the University of Arkansas football program.

 

UA senior quarterback Austin Allen is face down on the turf, grass on his facemask, with a badly stained jersey and mouthpiece on the ground.

It’s more than a reality slap. It’s a pounding.

The Razorbacks stunk up Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon in a 44-22 thumping by a so-so South Carolina team that scored three defensive touchdowns and came a close replay to having four.

Even diehard UA fans used embarrassing (the most family appropriate adjective ) for the loss.

Reality has the Razorback fan base numb: The Hogs are a bad football team right now. The flames that engulfed the program after back-to-back second-half meltdowns against Missouri and Virginia Tech last year have not been extinguished — the Hogs have actually added gasoline a situation that has gone beyond a dumpster fire.

The UA is 0-16 when trailing at halftime under coach Bret Bielema. Nuff said.

What is being consumed is hope — that things are not getting better and may get worse under Bret Bielema, who one service that rates offbeat stuff considers having the hottest seat in college football.

A significant and growing portion of the Arkansas fan base has lost confidence in Bielema and his staff and are openly (and rather vehemently) questioning whether he is the right fit for the Arkansas program — despite that he’s a nice guy, a good interview, loves his players and does all the right things off the field.

But this is a performance-driven profession on the field, particularly when the coach is making $4.25 million a year.

Much of the discussion among Hog fans in recent days has concerned, not how the Hogs can possibly improve on the field (which right now, they do very little very well), but whether someone can come up with the $15 million buyout on his contract before Dec. 31.

The buyout drops after Dec. 31 but the dilemma is what waiting until the end of the year will do to recruiting and it’s obvious the Hogs need better, quicker and faster players to compete in the top echelon in the Southeastern Conference. Already, you can sense rival coaches saying in a competitive recruiting situations, “Coach Bielema is a fine man, but can you be sure that he and that staff will be there when you sign?”

Some fans are fantasizing about Washington State’s Mike Leach (the opposite of Bielema’s power football philosophy) or even former University of Central Arkansas star and current Memphis coach Mike Norvell, rated one of the best up-and-coming head coaches in the game. A few have mentioned bringing back Houston Nutt. Bobby Petrino II is not gonna happen.

To add to the problem of an angry fan base is the Razorbacks play Saturday against top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide struggled somewhat in a less-than-eye popping victory over Texas A&M, prompting observers to question whether Clemson is more legitimate as a No. 1 team and whether Georgia is really the best team in the SEC.

Alabama coach Nick Saban added to UA’s problem by stating after the A&M game that the headlines and press clippings about his team being at another level were like rat poison to his players, resulting in a less-than-acceptable effort and that they better choose whether to listen to outsiders or to him. Saban may have been addressing to the media but he was really talking to his players. Translated, practices and preparation are going to be more demanding this week and the Razorbacks can expect a highly motivated team that will be ready to have its “A” game loaded in Tuscaloosa.

And that’s with the Hogs coming in with senior quarterback Austin Allen, who is battered and bruised (physically and mentally) with an untested freshman (Cole Kelley, who has been on mopup duty so far) behind him and an offensive line that is a glaring weakness. Allen is as tough as they come but it’s questionable whether he can finish the season.

One added layer is whether a wildfire can spread to athletic director Jeff Long, who could be forced by frustated higher-ups, under pressure from major donors, to fire Bielema to save his job.

Currently, the program is hemorrhaging pride and hope.

You have a fragile team with major downsides plus a volatile and angry fan base that is questioning coaches and demanding answers.

After Alabama, we may be witnessing a three-alarm fire.

 

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