Monday, September 22, 2014

From the Bench

Victory Against A&M in Dallas Changes Outlook of Season

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorbacks took care of business on Saturday night in Fayetteville by dispatching the Northern Illinois Huskies from the opening kickoff. The Razorbacks attacked the Huskies in just about every way imaginable -- even the defense scored -- and are now halfway to bowl eligibility. For this game, the play-action pass was even working to allow the offense to be balanced, which will be needed starting next week.

Many fans had the Razorbacks with three victories and one loss at this point in their preseason predictions. The record has not come as a surprise, but what is surprising is how the team has been doing it as they are averaging around 50 points and only allowing around 20. Except for Auburn in the second half of that game, the Hogs have been able to pork chop their way through the schedule.

Even pessimistic me had the team at 3-1 right now. Most have the Razorbacks winning the UAB game meaning the team only has to find two wins in the SEC to go bowling. I have them beating Georgia in Little Rock and Missouri in Columbia. After the Missouri Tigers dropped a game at home against a terrible Big Ten team, the Missouri pick does not look that bad. LSU also looks suddenly very winnable.

Before the season started, some fans, had the Razorback maybe upsetting Texas A&M in Dallas to pick up one of the two needed SEC victories to spend your day in possibly Shreveport. This coming weekend, your team gets that chance as the Razorbacks enter the meat of the SEC schedule.

The Aggies of A&M, though, have surprised many this season as they will enter the game ranked as the No. 6 team in the nation and a 10-point favorite. Understandably, many thought the Aggies offense would struggle without Johnny Manziel, and Kevin Sumlin seems about as concerned with defense as Bobby Petrino. As it has turned out, Kenny Hill at quarterback has made the Aggie offense maybe even more versatile and expanded it in some ways. Plus, their defense is definitely improved. The Aggies complete throttling of the Gamecocks in South Carolina was eye opening.

Starting with A&M, the schedule now gets significantly more difficult for the Razorbacks. Technically, the Razorbacks can be the 18th best team in the country and still be the worst team in the SEC West as all the other six SEC West teams are ranked in the top 17. It’s a brutal schedule. One has to assume the game plan will be significantly similar to the one that destroyed Texas Tech in that the name of the game will be to keep the Aggie offense off the field.

The Razorbacks cannot afford to go three and out very often in the game as the Aggie offense will find ways to score on the Razorback defense, which has been soft on the corners and A&M will exploit it with its receivers blocking for each other out on the perimeter. The Hog defense will have to have its tackling be as sure as it was in the Texas Tech game.

The Aggies will be more talented than the Hogs, so the Razorbacks will have to limit turnovers and penalties as they successfully did against Texas Tech. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Texas A&M being let into the SEC has been a bad deal for the Pigs. A&M’s recruiting has improved and they have shot past the Texas Longhorns as the premiere team in Texas. The Razorback calling card of going into Texas and selling the opportunity of playing in the SEC is now gone as A&M can sell that point better.
But let’s be positive for a second, and let’s think of a Razorback victory in Dallas over the Aggies. It changes the outlook of the season. Arkansas enters the discussion of who might win the SEC West, and the following game against Alabama takes on new intrigue, nationally. The UofA already sent out a message last week to buy your tickets to the remaining games to help the team win to improve its bowl seeding.

In the end, this game will be about the new rock stars of the Razorback team, the offensive line. Fans are moving away from throw the ball to punch them in the face. One can tell there is some joy in watching the Razorbacks punch the other team in the face, and they can do nothing about it but just take it. There was a time in the Northern Illinois game when it was third and short, the Razorbacks threw the ball, and you could tell there was disappointment in that it was a not a running play.

Probably now more than ever, many Razorback fans can tell you the starting offensive line where in the past it was just part of a nameless band on the team. The Razorbacks have shown a propensity to run to the short side of the field like a traditional power running team. Instead of using speed to get to the corner of the wide side of the field, Arkansas is just going to try to outnumber the opponent at the point of attack and see who is more powerful. For the last three games, the Razorbacks have been able to do it, but will it continue this weekend?

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Monday, September 15, 2014

From the Bench

Razorbacks Now Poised to Make Bowl Run

Robert Shields

The first signature win of the Bret Bielema era occurred in a big way down in Lubbock, Texas, against Texas Tech. It was impressive in the fact it was on the road in front of a hostile crowd. Tech is not a great team, but they will more than likely end up in a bowl game at the end of the season. With the win, the Razorbacks’ chances of going bowling increased significantly.

The game was brutal to watch if you were a Texas Tech fan as the Razorbacks literally bludgeoned the Red Raiders into a point of being just unable to put up a fight. As they continued to get punched in the gut, Tech brought more people in for support to stop the run, but Arkansas just countered by bringing in more people to block. Eventually, the Razorbacks had no receivers split out wide, but it did not matter. Tech knew the Razorbacks were not going to pass, so why hold the illusion of it?

The Razorback then just pounded it between the tackles. At times, it even looked like the running backs for the Razorbacks were running into the Tech defenders on purpose to punish them. If it would have been a boxing match, the ring official would have stopped the fight. The final blow was when Alex Collins literally ran over a Tech defender on a long run for a touchdown.

The performance was as one of the best for a Razorback team rushing over its opponent since Quinn Grovey did it to the Houston Cougars in Little Rock. When you start running between the tackles as the Razorbacks did Saturday, the game gets really simple. The stronger team is going to win at the point of attack. It doesn’t matter how fast you are as it only helps you get quicker to the train wreck, but you still have to be strong enough to stop the wrecks advance.

I always liked it when John Madden would talk about how he would know how his team was going to be in the offseason depending on how the line pushed the seven-man sled that he called Rosebud. I promise the Razorback seven would push Rosebud to the point of making Madden proud.

Last week, I said stats sometimes don’t tell the story of the game, but in this game they did as the Razorbacks had the ball for 24 of the 30 minutes of the second half and only one possession in the third quarter. No matter how space age your offense may be, if it’s only on the field for just six minutes its own defense is being mauled in the meat grinder.

In the end, the Razorbacks’ Paleolithic offense smashed the trendy Tech offense like a dinosaur would an Xbox game system. You can be using a Montblanc, but a pencil can do the same thing and it’s really all about the person using it.

Besides the offensive line, which was deserving of the game ball, the lack of penalties for the Razorbacks was impressive. If they play that way all season without committing unforced errors and limiting their penalties, they will win a game they are not supposed to. Brandon Allen always got them out of the huddle with plenty of time to spare. They did not have to burn timeouts on stupid things like not being ready or having the wrong personnel on the field. It was crisp to say in a word.

Being even more positive on Allen, twice on third and long he made the play. This moves him beyond just a caretaker on offense to the title of playmaker, which was not the case in the offseason. The time he pump faked the defenders out of position and flashed into the end zone for a touchdown had to be pleasing for Razorback fans.

The defense even looked sharp at times in the secondary where they were seldom caught out of place and made several plays to break up passes. It was a great effort by the defense to hold the high-powered Tech offense to 28 points even though they got a huge assist from their offense by keeping the Tech offense off the field.

Now the bad. The Razorbacks will not be able to lock up hip to hip and run over other teams in the SEC. If nothing else, it will end in a stalemate because the Razorbacks will not significantly outweigh other SEC teams. The Razorbacks will have to find an effective passing game to get other SEC defensive secondaries from crowding the box.

On a few occasions in the Tech game, Allen had guys open who beat the defense and then missed them by overthrowing them. He will have to connect on these to make the Razorback offense more effective in league play. On the upside, maybe sometimes it is better to overthrow than underthrow.

Regardless, after working over the defense between the tackles, you have to make them pay for moving people up to stop the run. It’s the money play in the Razorbacks’ play-action offense.

I’m sure they will work on it this week, but the botch at the beginning of the game with the punt that was fumbled by the ball bounding into a stray Razorback player was deplorable. It was reminiscent of something that you saw with Houston Nutt special teams. Later in the game, you had a similar situation with the ball bounding wildly with Razorback players wandering around unaware of where the live grenade was. The fumbled punt made the game closer in the beginning than it should have been.

Even with Alex Collins hitting the big run late in the game, the Razorbacks are still missing a big play threat. I keep waiting for Korliss Marshall to make a game-breaking run early in a game. Alex Collins and Johnathon Williams have not displayed the ability to leave people behind. They can run over people and shake tacklers, but they don’t blow by a defense.

Last, even though the defense was well-schemed catching Tech by surprise and sometimes even dropping nine men into coverage, the front four seldom if ever got pressure on the quarterback. This is going to have to improve from the Auburn and Tech games where the opposing quarterback has all day to make a decision.

As a closing thought, the telecast of the game was atrocious. The eight-hour interview of Jeff Long while the Razorbacks are on a touchdown scoring drive was terrible. The game coverage was something that Raycom would have been proud of, but not a production from a major network.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

From the Bench

Texas Tech is a Potential Watershed Game for the Bielema Era

Robert Shields

As Paul Finebaum on ESPN’s “College GameDay” said, it was cupcake Saturday in the SEC. Arkansas was up for the challenge and devoured its snack like it was a mini-cupcake. St. Nicklaus State, as they should be called after being so giving, should be thankful to the Hogs that they took it easy on them.

Good thing the UA athletic department was not shooting fireworks after every score at this game because it would have had to take out a small loan from the Razorback Foundation to pay for it since the Hogs scored almost every time they touched the ball. If you ever wonder if stats tell a story, they did not on Saturday because Nicholls State ran significantly more plays than did the Razorbacks.

Quarterback Brandon Allen was amazing as every completion he made was a touchdown, and every time Jonathon Williams touched the ball he essentially ran out of turf to pad his stats even more.

As was seen across the SEC on this cupcake Saturday, fans were not interested in spending their day watching complete beat downs, and in Fayetteville it was no different. The empty seats for the home opener were very visible at kickoff.

It also explains the specially priced ticket packages the UofA was hawking weeks before the game. If you’re a price shopper, tickets for the Nicholls State game could have been found on StubHub for as low as $9.

Putting the football team behind the pigpen gate was unique prior to running through the A, and instead of who let the dogs out, it looked like who let the pigs out. At least for this game, they were not slaughtered.

What Bret Bielema and company did not need to happen on Saturday was for Arkansas State to beat Tennessee as thousands of Arkansas State fans probably were ready to post #ourcoachhasmoreSECwins across social media.

If you want improvement, you saw it on Saturday. One year ago when the Razorbacks played Samford, it was a donnybrook. One year later, the Razorbacks again play a lesser school and decimate them.

But now for the first real test of how much the team has improved for Bielema 2.0 -- it’s this week against Texas Tech on the road. It’s this year’s version of Rutgers from last season. It’s a potential watershed game for the Bielema era at Fayetteville.

This game has been circled for months as a make or break game for the season. It’s hard to find a path to a winning season without a win in Lubbock.

There could not be a bigger contrast of styles between these two teams. Adding to the interest is Bielema wading into the pace of play issue in the offseason as Texas Tech with its coach is one of the vanguards of playing as quickly as possible. If given the chance, Kliff Kingsbury will try to run up the score on the Razorbacks just like the Hogs did to Nicholls State.

Texas Tech has struggled against lesser competition the last two weeks, and its defense has not looked spectacular. This is coupled with the Razorback offensive line having an extreme advantage in sure weight and ability.

Most fans expect a close game. Bielema needs to find a way to win. If he wins, the hopes of going to a bowl game grow exponentially and his naysayers will be silenced.

If he loses, many more will join the ranks of those who already doubt him. A loss pushes the Program closer to its third losing season in a row, which will make fans grow even more impatient.

The contrast of play in this game will be significant. With a loss, the Razorbacks will be seen trying to run an offense of decades ago while Tech operates a new offense of the future where it can take its lesser talent and beat the more athletic and powerful Hogs.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

From the Bench

Razorbacks’ 10-Game Losing Streak Continues as Petrino Returns to Glory

Robert Shields

In the end, it looks like the Arkansas Razorbacks’ banishment from college football is going to be longer than Bobby Petrino’s.

The Razorback losing streak now is at 10 losses in a row, and nine in a row in the SEC after the loss to Auburn. Mercifully, the overall losing streak will more than likely end this Saturday against Nicholls State. If it doesn’t, you have to wonder what Frank Broyles would have done in this situation.

When the SEC losing streak ends, however, is anybody’s guess, and nobody wants to be the first SEC coach to lose to Bret Bielema and be instantly put on the coaching hot-seat list. The windbreaker mystique is gone from Bielema, and if anything it’s a bad-luck charm at this point.

First the good from last Saturday’s game against Auburn. The offensive line has lived up to its billing as being strong in the running game. They also did a good job in pass protection except for the time that Brandon Allen got drilled leading him to throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and basically ended the game.

Another positive sign for the team was that after falling down by 14 points in the first half, they battled back to tie it before halftime. The team on the road last year probably would have rolled over and gotten beat 52-7. The fact they responded was good and should give you hope for the next three games.

You should be generally hopeful that in a few weeks the Razorbacks will be 3-1. They can and should beat their next three opponents in Nicholls State, Texas Tech, and Northern Illinois. Later in the season, they will beat UAB only leaving them to have to find only two victories in the SEC to make a bowl game.

Also on the upside, the team was efficient in the red zone, which they will have to be in order to convert their chances and not squander them with the Razorback defense being very giving.

Now the bad. Even though the Razorbacks stayed tough until halftime, it was against Auburn’s second-string quarterback. On two possessions in the first half on third and short, the defense stopped Auburn, but you could tell if Heisman candidate Nick Marshall had been in the game they would have gotten those and probably scored.

The Razorback defense was porous and gave up yardage on just about every possible play imagined by Gus Malzahn. The defense looked soft. The secondary has always been a question mark before the season, and most knew it would be a work in progress. But the secondary was equaled in ineptitude by the defensive front. What was supposed to be the strength of the defense was pushed around and essentially never got to the Auburn quarterback.

The fact the defense cannot stop anyone is putting unfair pressure on the offense to have to score on every possession, and that is not going to work. It’s not that type of offense. It’s a methodical offense not a track meet as they will see in Lubbock against Texas Tech.

Much like last year, the Razorbacks have no player who is a game changer, the type of player who can take it to the house on the next play. The offensive line often blocked plays well, yet nobody could break free for a touchdown. The offense has to methodically march down the field to score rather than strike with a big play. That is a problem in the SEC.

Auburn had several players who were game breakers that exploded for big gains or scores. The game looked like a match-up of one talented SEC team playing a slow and lumbering Big Ten team even when the game was evenly matched. I will let you figure out who was the Big Ten team.

The one potential big play for the Razorbacks occurred in the second quarter when Brandon Allen threw what I thought was his best pass of his career way down field and hit the receiver in dead stride behind the defense. The receiver dropped the pass that was a certain touchdown.

The play was significant. If the catch is made, the Razorbacks are winning at halftime. Who knows how the game is played out from that point. The pressure is on Auburn to perform and the Razorbacks can sit back in their methodical game-grinding offense and does not have to put Allen in precarious must-pass situations.

The dropped pass was also meaningful as that play is the payoff play in the play-action pass offense that Arkansas now deploys. You must make defenses pay for cheating by committing too many people to stop the run. When you drop the bomb, the defense is a little more willing to take chances knowing that even if they get beat, there is still a real possibility the Hogs will blow it anyway.

Eventually, the defense cheats and starts committing nine men to stop the run, and seven offensive guys blocking can’t block them all. In the second half, Auburn had the Razorbacks outnumbered at the point of attack and the Razorbacks had no way of countering it to back them off.

Games often turn on a single play, but in the end they often break in the better team’s favor. And great teams are able to overcome the potential game-changing moment. Arkansas as of yet is not near that point, no matter how often Bielema wears the windbreaker.

As you may have seen on Monday night on ESPN, Petrino has landed back in the national spotlight and his new team is already there in his first game. It makes you wonder who exactly is still paying for their sins.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Bench

The Bielema Experiment Rolls Into Season 2 With Key Message of Doing It the Right Way

Robert Shields

The Bret Bielema Era enters its second season when the Razorbacks kick off against the second year of the Gus Malzahn Era at Auburn on Saturday.

Bielema spoke last week to the Little Rock Touchdown club. He is a gifted speaker sans the foul language in front of kids, but it’s just part of who he is. He is genuine. The record crowd at the club’s first meeting of the season broke the old record by about 150 people. One could take this as a sign folks in Little Rock are still engaged in the program, which would be a good sign because the worst sign is apathy and empty seats.

The speech was interesting in what was not said. Having seen quite a few of these preseason speeches right before the season starts, you expect to hear the superlative talk, certain players are mentioned, and there is an overall positive spin. It’s just what coaches are supposed to do before the first snap.

Instead, the crowd was treated to coach Bielema’s life philosophy put into action as a coach. He related a story of building a fence for his dad with his brother and how they started to shortcut the process from using six nails to two nails. The project failed, and through that experience Bielema learned to do it the right way the first time.

That was his message to the crowd -- that he is doing it the right way. It also came off as a plea to be patient because doing it the right way takes time. You can take a shortcut, but in the end it will be something that won’t last. He says he is building something that will last at Arkansas.

A few days later, Bielema spoke at a kickoff luncheon in northwest Arkansas. The significance out of that luncheon was that Chancellor of Athletics and Prosperity (Is that right?), Jeff Long, choked up when talking about Bielema.

If you are wondering if Bielema will be around next season, there was your answer.

The important line from Long was that Bielema has made being around the football program fun again. Of course, some fans choked later when hearing this comment as few found a record-setting losing season of 3-9 as anything but fun being around the football program.

So the theme of the week is that things are being done the right way. To prove this, it was mentioned that Exhibit A is Arkansas was at the bottom of the SEC when it comes to the police blotter standings. I do believe people of good character matter when it comes to building a team, but it’s not the only thing.

It seems universally accepted by those who follow and worship the football program that Bobby Petrino did things the wrong way yet took the Razorbacks to rarefied air being ranked in the top five.

So I interpret in the theme of doing it the right way is that some want it all. They want to win and to do it a certain way. This will be a tough task to undertake at Arkansas. This will begin the second season of the Bret Bielema experiment with the themes given to us that “he does it right, a certain way, we want to win, and this will require time and patience.”

Looking back at the first year of the experiment, it was rocky to say the least. The team is still in the middle of an incredible nine-game losing streak and coincidentally has not won since his wife’s outburst on twitter to Wisconsin fans with the memorable hashtag #Karma.

When Bielema first arrived, he battled with Wisconsin fans on Twitter, which to some looked juvenile and far beneath an SEC coach who really shouldn’t have time for such nonsense.

Then there was the arrival and the proclamation that he came to beat Alabama only to have the Crimson Tide take it easy on the Razorbacks in a 52-0 absolute beatdown.

While still at Wisconsin, Bielema was also guilty of hinting that SEC teams were cheaters. Not surprisingly, some of the coaches in the league did not take kindly to it and were probably lying in wait for him last season with extra motivation from their bagmen.

Bielema’s mouth did not stop at that point. He waded into the debate as a vocal leader about the pace-of-play issue. In that process, he dragged a player from the University of California who had passed away into his argument and later had to apologize after the chancellor of Cal was upset about it.

Bielema got panned in the offseason by at least two writers -- one from the Birmingham News and the other from Sports Illustrated -- questioning if he is a fit at Arkansas.

Change in human nature comes in two forms, one being learned change and the other being forced change. Forced change only lasts as long as the force stays in place. Learned change is lasting.

But I think Bielema is learning about the SEC. He has been quiet since the Cal player controversy. His speech in Little Rock was not brash as his personality in the past has been. His speech was more reflective and engaging. He also doesn’t carry on debates with Wisconsin fans any longer.

I think it’s safe to say he learned his defense from last season would not work in the SEC as he gutted almost the entire defensive coaching staff. They appear to have implemented a more basic defense that will bring more pressure, or at least that is what we are told.

Bielema seems to have found the value of Korliss Marshall, a value that was evident last year. Big plodding runners may work in the Big Ten, but Bielema got exposed to the fact that in the SEC teams have game breakers and game changers who are lightning fast and every team needs at least one.

Bielema also learned, or hopefully learned, that you can be third in the SEC in rushing and still lose all your games. An effective passing game is mandatory.

In the SEC, you control the game by rushing the ball, but you win games by being able to throw the ball.

Or at least you hope he has learned these things. If not, the experiment with the backing of the emotional AD is going to get a whole lot more interesting.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

From the Bench

Will Bielema and Razorbacks Make it to a Bowl? Roll the Annual Predictions

Robert Shields

After calling talk-radio host Bo Mattingly a homer last week, which should have come as a surprise to no one since his web site explains that “leveraging the positive will be a staple” on his show, Mattingly seemed to disagree.

Regardless, Mattingly, who does have the most professionally produced sports radio show in the state, made a very valid assessment of the Razorback Program when he said that the period between August 30 and April 30 will be a critical time for vice chancellor of athletics Jeff Long as he works fiddling with the playoff selection committee, the flailing football program, and what looks like a basketball program on the verge of a breakout season.

Long needs both of his coaches that he hired in the major money sports to win. Anderson has to make the NCAA tournament, and Bret Bielema needs to make a bowl game.

So let’s see if Bielema gets the football team to a bowl and makes the athletic director look good, or if a lack of success puts him on the hot seat where angry fans start to use Bielema’s cursing in front of kids at a scrimmage against him as they compile the traditional list of irrelevant reasons to fire the head coach.

Roll the predictions:

August 30 ¬¬ – Auburn at Auburn
The heat and humidity are stifling to open the season in the deep South. In the first half, the Razorback defense looks to be more aggressive. Thanks to his preseason “suspension,” Nick Marshall misses the opening play and then enters the game on second down for the Tigers. They hang tough and keep the Razorbacks tied at the half at 14-14. In the third quarter, a crucial turnover by the Hogs changes the momentum of the game. Auburn takes control in the second half and wins 35-21 as the Razorbacks wither in the Southern heat that they aren’t used to playing in. The next day, the Opelika News reports Auburn was the hottest place in the nation that day with a temp of 104 degrees, and Bielema is awarded the world record for hottest temperature while wearing a windbreaker.

September 6 – Nicholls State at Fayetteville
The Razorbacks come home in good health and fans are mildly excited about the moral victory of a 14-point loss at Auburn. The Razorbacks get the running game rolling early when Korliss Marshall has a big run to put things in motion. Although fans have known for a year he was the best running back, Bielema finally finds a way to effectively use him in the game. A severe thunderstorm pops up early in the fourth quarter and blows down the new tent for the student party high atop the stands in the south end zone. Luckily for the UA, no one was up there other than lonely DJ Greg. Razorbacks 49-10.

September 13 – Texas Tech at Lubbock
The teams exchange offensive blows in the first half as both defenses can’t seem to stop the other. Tech takes a 28-24 lead at the half. In the third quarter, Tech has a crucial mistake as Razorback linebacker Martrell Spaight returns an interception for a touchdown. The Razorbacks hold Tech in the next possession. The Razorbacks keep on rolling and hold off Tech in a wild one 59-56.

September 20 – Northern Illinois at Fayetteville
Razorback fans are wringing their hands talking about Northern Illinois as though it’s the same team from last year. The visitors are scrappy, but Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland, and company push the visitors around. Razorbacks win 42-24. Bo Mattingly praises Brandon Allen as being the difference maker and being the leader of the team and suggests to every guest on his show the following week that Allen should be mentioned for the Heisman.

September 27 – Texas A&M at Arlington
The Razorbacks stand at 3-1 and have inexplicably picked up enough votes to be No. 25 in the nation. The A&M defense has not improved as much as the Razorback defense, yet both teams struggle early trying to find their way. A&M has a costly turnover, and the Hogs squander a couple of opportunities in the red zone by missing passing plays. Fans wonder why the team threw the ball instead of running it. Korliss Marshall is rarely seen in the game and callers to the Bo Mattingly show question what the coach is thinking. It ends up being the most disappointing loss of the season. Razorback lose 38-35.

October 11 – Alabama at Fayetteville
The game is a rout. Alabama beats the Razorbacks 49-13. Fans feel good that the offense gets on the scoreboard against Alabama for the first time in three years, and some blame the off week for the Razorbacks being sluggish in the game. Bielema guarantees in the press conference that he will beat Nick Saban in a golf-cart race at the next SEC coaches golf outing.

October 18 – Georgia at Little Rock
Korliss Marshall opens the game with a long run. The Razorback defense for the first time in weeks looks stingy. Mark Richt plays the game close, which works to Bielema’s own conservative play-calling advantage. The crowd is wild as the game is tight going into the fourth quarter with the Razorbacks trailing by two. Georgia shanks a punt. The Razorbacks mount a last drive. Alex Collins rips off a tough 12-yard run for a first down putting the Razorbacks at the 30-yard line. The next play off a play action goes to Hunter Henry for another dozen. The Hogs wind the clock down for a 37-yard field-goal attempt on the last play. The kick sails through the uprights as time expires and fans storm the field. Richt loses his job at the end of the season.

October 25 – UAB at Fayetteville
Off the momentum of the Georgia game, the Razorbacks pummel the Blazers and move to 5-3 on the season. It’s Brandon Allen’s best game throwing for more than 300 yards. Razorbacks win 42-10. Razorback Nation sportscasts start running features on where to stay at the college-football playoff sites.

November 1 – Mississippi State at Starkville
The Razorback have a mistake-riddled game and have more than 150 yards in penalties. Fans take umbrage with the officiating as it is questionable. Bo Mattingly agrees with the fans that the officiating was as bad as he has seen it in the SEC. Fans leave off the part that the Razorback have three turnovers. Brandon Allen even has a pick six. The Razorbacks, though, fight to the end but come up short losing 31-21.

November 15 – LSU at Fayetteville
The game takes a similar turn like the Alabama game. The Tigers dominate the Hogs. The schedule shift hurt the Razorbacks as the end-of-the-year game with LSU worked more to the Razorbacks’ advantage with the short week and LSU being beat up. Bo Mattingly agrees with the fans that the team’s sluggishness against these good teams is evident. The schedule break causing the team to get out of rhythm is a common theme. LSU fans are glad they found a passing game as they rack up more than 500 yards. LSU 52, Razorbacks 17.

November 22 – Ole Miss at Fayetteville
Bo Wallace for Ole Miss has a good day, and the Razorback defense is shaky. The Razorbacks just need one more win to go to a bowl game, and most fans think this is the one as the Missouri game is on the road. The Razorbacks can’t get in the end zone enough and end up kicking three field goals. It’s not enough as Ole Miss wins 28-23. The next day the angry guy who keeps running anti-Jeff Long ads in the paper puts in an ad saying Hugh Freeze would have been a great fit as the Arkansas head coach.

November 28 – Missouri at Columbia
On Thanksgiving night, the first winter weather of the season for the region plunges south and winter precipitation on Friday is expected at the game as a reminder that the Missouri Tigers don’t belong in the SEC geographically. The weather, though, seems to spark the Hogs, who are also used to the cold weather of northwest Arkansas. They fight knowing they need this game. Korliss Marshall can’t seem to break one, and the running game for the first time all year seems incompetent in the first half. Jeremy Sprinkle makes a big catch for a touchdown to put the Hogs in front late in the game. Missouri starts one last drive and Matt Mauk for the Tigers is deadly efficient moving his team down field. Then at the most opportune time, Trey Flowers explodes into Mauk out of nowhere causing a fumble recovered by Darius Philon. Razorbacks win 31-27.

That puts Arkansas at 6-6 and into a bowl for the first time since the Bobby Petrino era. I will let you decide how the bowl game goes and where Long and Bielema take the program from there.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

From the Bench

Overly Optimistic Razorback Sports Media Only Setting Fans Up for Disappointment

Robert Shields

Northwest Arkansas radio talk-show host Bo Mattingly recently received an email from a listener who questioned why he and other Razorback media types constantly defended and “bowed down” to Razorback football coach Bret Bielema.

Mattingly’s long response was that he gives you a perspective that you may not be aware of to help you be more informed.

But the real answer is that there is no money to be made for Mattingly and the rest of the Incestuous Razorback Press Clique to be negative toward your team. They are going to sell you, I mean tell you, what you want to hear. There is no economic incentive for them to be negative.

The media that covers the Razorbacks wants you to be excited and interested in the upcoming season because that makes you listen, watch, or read their product, which in turn allows them to sell more Slim Chickens ads.

If the Razorback media was objective, which is often labeled by some fans as “negative,” it would turn many people off of their news product and go looking for someone who will tell them what they want to hear instead.

In his answer to the email, Mattingly said what the Razorback media is doing is making you more informed. The fact that these media people claim to have such insight is especially amazing considering that UA football practices are closed and the Razorback media members are essentially told by the athletic department staff what to report to the public.

As you hear all the optimistic talk in this preseason, please remember that this is from the same media that didn’t question the hiring of John L. Smith and led you to believe the approaching season without Bobby Petrino was going to be just fine.

So you get the same at the beginning of every season with the coaches talking about players in superlative terms and that information regurgitated to you by your Razorback media.

Take, for example, the segment on Mattingly’s show where Clay Henry, the publisher of Hawgs Illustrated, arrives to give his post-practice report. This is where you hear about players getting stronger and faster as you do every year, which is good because you don’t want to hear about them getting weaker and slower.

This information that the players are getting better would matter if it was relative to what other teams were doing. If they actually knew the Razorback players were getting bigger, faster, and stronger than say Georgia, it matters a lot.

The reality is that the players at Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss, and Missouri have also gotten faster and stronger in the offseason.

You have probably heard that the offensive line ran the hill on Cleveland Street in Fayetteville during the offseason, which we are told is proof positive that they are ready. Or are they? Could Auburn’s offensive line and defensive line run that same hill? It’s a feel-good story during this period while we wall wait for the kickoff of the first game.

It’s a story that makes you feel positive about the team’s chances in the upcoming season – and want to consume more news about it from radio talk shows, television sportscasts, newspaper sports sections, and Razorback specialty magazines.

From Clay Henry you hear the positive story of Martrell Spaight taking yoga. Like that is going to matter much when they play Auburn. But who knows maybe it is DDP yoga and will make a difference.

Regardless, it’s the kind of information they push to you so Mattingly and the rest of the Incestuous Razorback Press can “inform” you so that you are more enlightened and see a different perspective than the national predictions.

I get wanting to be positive after the last two horrendous seasons.

I get wanting hope after losing nine in a row, a Razorback record.

I get not wanting to hear all the negatives about this team when they are easy to find.

You want to have belief in your team. And that is what they are giving you when they tell you the players are saying the right things and that the attitude on the team is different than last year.

But when a fan calls your Incestuous Razorback Press Clique out in an email to a radio show, they need to own it.

They are what they are and that is to make money off of you by pumping up a football program that is considered the worst in the SEC in the preseason.

And setting such high expectations for this football team is doing it no favors -- and maybe setting the fans up for another big letdown. But here’s to hoping the team goes from worst to first.

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Monday, August 04, 2014

From the Bench

Preseason Report Card: Secondary and Receivers Are Crucial Areas Needed to Turn Program Around

Robert Shields

The incoming freshmen for the Razorback football team can best be described as an unknown, and how big of a difference that they will make on this team remains to be seen.

But a lot is riding on their shoulders to be difference makers in pulling this football program out of the depths of the SEC. What positions will we most need to see those difference makers?

While we don’t really know what kind of contributions the new players will end up making, we do have an idea of what the returning players can do based on past performance, and here is a preseason position-by-position rundown of what Bret Bielema has returning and where there are great opportunities for improvement, to spin it positively.

Will the preseason for this edition of Razorback football give us optimism that the program will finally get back on track after being derailed when Petrino’s motorbike ran off the road?

Let’s take a look.

Kicking Game – B
The loss of Zach Hocker was huge, and giving this group a grade of B without him is a huge stretch. The field-goal kicking may be accurate at close distance, but at longer distances it’s going to be dicey. Sam Irwin-Hill provides a solid punter, and I’m not sure if leaving it at that is a compliment or not.

Receivers – D
When all you really have to talk about returning at the position is Keon Hatcher, then your team is thin at receiver. Even though Hatcher improved dramatically last season, you have to have more than one guy to throw the ball to, or at least that is what I learned during the cut-short Petrino era. This is a position where an incoming freshman needs to have an impact. The passing game was ineffective last year, and the lack of depth at the position is not a positive before the season starts.

Running backs – A
This is probably the strength of the team in Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins, and Korliss Marshall filling out the stable. The loss of Kiero Small will be felt. Patrick Arinze and Kody Walker could augment the position at fullback. But you can finish high in the conference in team rushing and still finish last in the win column.

Offensive Line – A
I expect good things out of the offensive line with the likes of Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper, Mitch Smothers, Brey Cook, Luke Charpentier, Grady Ollison, Cordale Boyd, and Marcus Danenhauer to name a few. There is depth and it’s a beefy group, which should help Bielema’s struggling offense. But can they pass block? Travis Swanson will be a loss and probably an adjustment for quarterback Brandon Allen.

Quarterback – D
Maybe this should even been an F since the quarterback last year threw almost as many interceptions as he did touchdowns and the completion percentage was anemic. The quarterback is the most important position on the team, and this position will have to greatly improve for the Razorbacks to have any success. Coming out of the Red-White game, the quarterback did not seem to take huge strides from last season. Bielema announcing that AJ Derby was still taking snaps at quarterback left a lot of fans cold and is cause for concern no matter what kind of picture Rick Schaeffer tries to paint.

Tight end – A
Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle are more than capable at this position. The expected addition of AJ Derby when he stops playing quarterback will help round out a good squad.

From this breakdown, it’s easy to tell that the team right now is one dimensional, which will have to be addressed before the season begins to have any success. Otherwise, the team may end up being at the very top of rushing in the league but at the very bottom of the standings similar to last year.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the quarterback situation and lack of quality receivers, which is odd as those were the forte of Petrino teams. Besides the aerial attack needing to be improved for the team to have success, the other area last year that was totally deficient was the defense.

The defense will have to have marked improvement to win six games. So will they? Roll the grades.

Secondary – F
This area of the defense was porous last year and time and again gave up big plays that were the difference in some critical games. The team has to find at least one safety, although two are on the field. Having at least one would be an improvement. Maybe one will materialize such as Rohan Gaines or one could come from the incoming freshmen. You could try to find some silver lining in that Jared Collins and Tevin Mitchell can be serviceable at times.

Linebackers – C
This area of the defense, though, could be a pleasant surprise. Otha Peters might step up, and I’m expecting good things from Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis this year. Spaight and Ellis were both true freshmen but showed some promise. Daunte Carr may also contribute. I’m trying to be optimistic and maybe this is the area of the team that overachieves to improve the defense and create some unexpected big plays.

Defensive front – B
Trey Flowers and Darius Philon are as good as any in the conference. I also like the way Deatrich Wise Jr. plays and DeMarcus Hodge should be solid.

So if true freshmen are going to show up and have an impact in turning around the program, the two areas that you need them are in the defensive secondary and at receiver. You know it’s not quarterback as AJ Derby is still taking snaps.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

From the Bench

Countdown to Auburn, the Biggest Game for Bielema Since Taking the Job

Robert Shields

The countdown begins to the kickoff of college football now that soccer at the World Cup has stopped kicking people in the shins and the bike race that they hold in France that was better when they were all on the juice has reached its conclusion.

The uneventful SEC media days has come and gone, and before you know it there will be Razorback media days where also nothing will happen. But then two-a-days start, so you know you’re in that time frame to start making predictions.

As everyone knows, the Razorbacks have a big test right off the bat when they go to Auburn to open the season. I have written before that Arkansas needs to leave that game with at least a moral victory if not the actual thing.

The SEC also needs the Razorbacks to put the Tigers down quickly after they woefully misrepresented the conference in the national title game breaking the SEC’s seven-game winning streak. It would be fitting for one of the worst SEC teams to put them out to pasture (not hard to do when Auburn is mostly one big pasture).

Let’s face it, Auburn never deserved to be in the national championship as they should have lost to Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama during the season. They lucked out getting to play Missouri in the SEC championship game. And Missouri should never win the SEC East again. Shame on Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina.

Gus Malzahn teams in the past have tended to start slowly and finish fast, or at the very least their luck seems to pick up at the end. This presents the Razorbacks with the opportunity to go on the road and catch Auburn before the Tigers start rolling like Utah State almost did a few years ago.

Auburn has also had to deal with its starting quarterback getting into some trouble, again providing the Razorbacks a chance to catch them.

And if the Razorbacks beat the Tigers, then Auburn can trademark the saying “WTF” after the game just like the Razorbacks did for the Woo Pig Soiee chant. I’m not sure that I’m even allowed to write that, but maybe the trademark only applies if I verbalize it.

Regardless, I am going on Zazzle or whatever those places are on the web to make some T-shirts ahead of time in orange and blue with “WTF, Auburn” on them.

While I’m at it, I have also designed a pig-looking creature in red and white that I call Big Red Swine. And not to leave an opportunity on the table while I’m branding things, you can also pick up a shirt with “Who is Robert Shields?” Of course it comes in red and white.

Regardless, this is Bret Bielema’s chance to punch another SEC team in the mouth, and no team better to do it to than Auburn. This is his chance to put anyone talking about “Gus Malzahn shoulda been the Razorback coach” to bed in this opening game. After going 0-8 in his SEC debut season, Bielema needs something to kick start the program.

I have to give Bielema this fact. Last year, the most prepared his team looked all year for a game was the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. After all the talk about the Razorbacks maybe dropping that opening game last year against a team that was supposed to have a great quarterback, Bielema’s Razorbacks took it to them from beginning to end. It was by far the Hogs’ best game.

Nothing could springboard this season into a memorable one –– like the 2006 season in which the Razorbacks also shocked Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium –– more than a knockout blow to Malzahn and Auburn.

But if the Razorbacks lose big to Auburn, the season may already be in the tank.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

From the Bench

Trip to Yellowstone Yields Better Omen for Razorback Season Than SEC Media Days

Robert Shields

SEC media days went on for days last week, and we found out that those on the outside have no expectations for the Razorbacks next season. So the good news for Bret Bielema is that Arkansas can only exceed expectations. It will take a real crash off the side of the road, no pun intended, for the season to be considered a complete failure.

In past years during SEC media days, I have typically gone on the road to the wonderful waters of Orange Beach, Alabama, to take the pulse of SEC fans from across the South who congregate on the Redneck Riviera each summer as if it were an annual convention. This year, we altered things.

I have never ever really mentioned my family in this space, but this year we did not make the beach. My wife wanted to do something different because one of my sons has graduated from high school and is heading to college. It’s a turning of a page in our life with one leaving the nest, and she wanted the family vacation to be a memorable one.

The choice for vacation by her this year was Yellowstone National Park, which I quickly learned is referred to as YNP by the locals, and then we finished by staying three nights in the Teton mountains.

It was no surprise that we saw very few people wearing SEC colors as is the standard in Orange Beach. I did see one person wearing a purple-and-gold LSU fishing shirt, but I did not bother him as he was winded coming back up the trail from the brink of the lower falls of the grand canyon of Yellowstone. Being from Louisiana, I’m going to assume that he was used to being a flatlander much like me and going up more than 8,000 feet is daunting. So I can’t blame him for huffing and puffing and won’t blame the diet of gumbo and etouffee.

I wore my long-sleeve red shirt with a large white Razorback emblazed on the back and a smaller one on the left side in the front on one day of the vacation. The logo apparently was not recognizable by those in the park, which is not the case on the beach when wearing anything with a Razorback on it. Most looked at it like I was wearing some new fashion like a “Life is Good” shirt.

The park was outstanding, but I felt the ground was explosive and ready to go at any time as I witnessed the geysers, hot springs, and boiling pots, and at times it felt weird if you thought about it too much looking at the caldera in which I was at the bottom.

If there was one spot that stuck out to me that was very memorable, it was the brink of the upper falls that I just happened upon at dusk one night when I pulled off the road. The violence of the rushing water was incredible as it cascaded toward its ultimate drop. I would recommend it to anyone as a must stop.

After five nights in YNP, we headed south into the Teton mountains and stayed at Signal Mountain Lodge. The view of the mountains was spectacular across Jackson Lake. Here we met Travis, who was from Harrison and served us several times as we ate at the restaurant. He mentioned that he had run across very few people from Arkansas in those parts.

Then one night as we waited for our food Travis came by and mentioned that there was a group outside on the deck from Arkansas also. My son looked outside and said, “That’s Jake Bequette.” Bequette is a former first-team all-SEC defensive player, maybe one of the few Razorbacks to make that honor in the last few years.

We went out to visit and needless to say he had a warm and inviting personality. We introduced ourselves and explained that I was a Little Rock Catholic High graduate and that my son had just graduated from the school. Bequette was also a standout Rocket when he attended the same high school. He made the comment that the Rockets were in the house.

The next morning we woke up early and took the ferry across Jenny Lake to climb up to see Hidden Falls and up further to Inspiration point. We pressed further and went up the mountain and the tree line and glaciers were visible above us. I wish we could have pushed farther and made it to the forks, but we did not and I hope one day to go back and make it.

On the way back at the dock where the ferry stops, there was a map and if you’re from a state and are the first you can put the state up on the map. It goes without saying that we were the first from Arkansas to return. My son grabbed the red state magnet and put it on its place on the map.

The map, though, was distorted, which I liked since Arkansas was the same size as Texas. Each state magnet had things of importance to that state. The Arkansas magnet had Christ of the Ozarks, deer, diamond, and of course the ever-present Razorback.

So, maybe in such a remote place from my home state to run into Jake Bequette and find a magnet with a Razorback on it, that is a good omen for the coming season.

It was at least better than the portents coming out of SEC media days.

Send your serendipitous Razorback finding this summer to

Monday, July 07, 2014

From the Bench

This is Not Your Father’s Razorback Experience

Robert Shields

If you like things the way they are, just wait and they will change.

This could not be any truer for the Razorback football program as it has been in a state of flux for more than two decades – much more so than other college football programs as head coaches at Arkansas fly off in the middle of the night and go to Clemson, get fired at the beginning of the season after losing to the Citadel, and wreck with a girlfriend on the back of a motorcycle.

But all those soap operas are just a small portion of the many changes Razorback fans have been through in the last 20 years that have changed the experience of being a Razorback fan.

The current Razorback experience is far from your father’s Razorback experience. It’s definitely not the Razorback Program that most grew up with and loved when it was such a part of your life and the state’s culture.

For richer or poorer -- and the UA is hoping richer -- most of the new Razorback fans are from out of state. They did not grow up with the Razorback experience and have it in their DNA. Not that it’s bad, but these are the new fans with money that the UA now caters to and it has changed the makeup of the Razorback Nation.

The person next to you at the game now probably would rather be eating humus rather than a hot dog. For that matter, your father and family probably sat in the same seats forever, but you don’t because a big-money out-of-state donor or corporation is in those seats now.

The media people who bring you the Razorbacks have changed. Many used to read Orville Henry who provided you the update on your beloved Program. Now you’re stuck with a mostly young cadre of broadcast and print reporters covering the Razorbacks. Or, you have to go to the Internet for an interesting mixture of truth and rumor.

I personally miss hearing Paul Eells greatly and have yet to get over that loss as a Razorback fan. It’s how I grew up getting to know the Razorbacks. He was the reason that I turned off the sound on TV and turned up the radio. Now you get Chuck Barrett and no matter how good or bad you think he is, I don’t do the same thing for him.

I wonder if today’s younger fans do what I used to do or are they just watching the TV and hitting the advance button on the DVR and pause button to get some Doritos.

Even though Eells has been gone for years, it has lessened my Razorback experience. Would you be more of a Razorback fan if he was still the voice of the Razorbacks? Whatever is the case, I know it’s not the same as it was.

Back in the day, banks all over Little Rock would give you a Razorback sticker for the coming game that weekend. The only way that’s going to happen now is if the bank is paying a monetary homage to the Razorback Program to get that privilege of handing them out.

The UA doesn’t recognize the value of free publicity if someone else is capitalizing on using its “branding marks,” which used to simply be known as the Razorback and seemed to belong to the state.

In the past, you got to get jacked up once a year for the big showdown with Texas. When it was gone, it took years and David Bazzel creating the Golden Boot for you to transition to LSU being the rivalry even though it never came close to igniting the passion that Texas Week did.

Now, the marketers at the UA are hoping to transition you to accepting that Missouri is now your year-end in rival. Why not just get it over with and make the rival Alabama like every other team in the SEC?

Your Razorback experience is just different now than it was in the past, for better or worse.

Your father grew up having four games in Little Rock and three in Fayetteville. Your children will ask, “Games were played in Little Rock?” Maybe it’s all for the better, but as has been written in detail before, it’s a foundational change.

There was a time when the team wore red and white. Now the team wears black (or it’s dark gray to me), but the UofA tells me it’s anthracite. I have to believe yellow cannot be far behind.

This past year, they changed the red to a different shade that is something like Red Dye No. 5. Part of the explanation was to standardize the color as if there has been anything standard in this Program.

The Hog Call is not even the same anymore. It’s started now with an inexplicable whoop. Maybe it’s better that way, but whatever it’s different.

Also new this year will be the new logo of the forward-facing hog that looks like Pumba. It’s not the Razorback that I grew up with, but maybe variety is better. The Razorback was the brand decades ago, but it’s been repositioned, rebranded, and remarketed to the point that they might as well make it green because that is all they are after.

One thing that cannot be argued is that the Razorback tradition has changed, and regardless if it was for the better or worse, it has mirrored the decline in wins.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

From the Bench

Bielema Will Be Right Fit for Arkansas Only if He Wins

Robert Shields

Summer sports talk is always slow in SEC country where football is the only thing that really matters.

It was exciting for Vanderbilt’s baseball team to vindicate the SEC when so many were blasting the conference for being overrated and having so many teams knocked out of the tournament early. Yet, in the end, an SEC team proved it was the best as usual.

But now that college baseball is over and we have more than a month before football teams begin two-a-day practices, some fans just have to find something to talk about to fill the time.

The recent soup du jour stirred up by an online column from is the debate as to whether Bret Bielema is the right fit at Arkansas.

As much fun as it is to talk about, Bielema’s “fit” at Arkansas is really an irrelevant question because you can be a bad fit and still win at Arkansas, which was the case with Bobby Petrino. Or you can be a great fit like Houston Nutt, but he had to go.

The much larger question is if Bielema gets to stay at Arkansas after the coming season. The only thing that matters is if he wins.

The caveat to that rule is you can’t wreck your motorcycle with your girlfriend that you hired on the back of it and lie about it. For me, that was still not enough to fire him because I don’t have any other delusion except that winning in the SEC is the only thing that matters. I left behind a long time ago that college sports is a business of integrity.

Razorback fans had to feel for a brief moment when Petrino was here that they were about to defy the gravity of the SEC and break the event horizon. But instead we all got sucked back into the depths of the black hole and compressed into something unrecognizable.

It’s quite clear to anyone who is paying attention that Bielema does not fit culturally in the SEC. He’s brash. He’s very assuming and only as of late has he kept his mouth shut. If you want an opinion, he will give you one, and it may not be good.

The downside is that when you arrive and proclaim you came to beat Alabama and then get pummeled by Alabama 52-0, every other SEC coach makes sure they are not the first to lose to the new kid on the block that won’t shut up about himself.

Here is a side prediction: Any SEC coach who loses to Bielema next year will be put on the hot seat at his school, and if Mark Richt at Georgia loses to Bielema in Little Rock it will be the beginning of the end for him.

Bielema is going to have to find a way to win and win soon. Winning brings money and that is the primary reason the UA wants to succeed in college football.

The Razorback Foundation is $10 million behind in donations for its last fiscal year. They had an explanation that it was caused by the expansion of facilities, yet it’s still a scary fact for the UA if that trend continues. There has always been some sort of expansion going on somewhere at the Razorback Sports-Industrial Complex.

The football team still being in the midst of its longest losing streak with no SEC wins last year plus a lackluster Red-White game in the spring has not been inspiring for fans statewide, and it will be interesting how donations will be affected.

Money talks and if the team is not winning, not selling tickets, and donations are falling off, Bielema won’t get to stay. It won’t matter if he fits or not.

Bielema is going to have to find a way to at least make fans feel that the Razorback team will be competitive. Right now, that does not exist in many fans’ minds. The team opens with Auburn on the road, which is a tough task to start the season.

Bielema needs to at least provide hope and the team needs to at a minimum find a moral victory. I believe in moral victories because sometimes you can still leave with pride after defeat.

Blowing a big lead in some obscure village in New Jersey last year to Rutgers was the exact opposite of a moral victory. It was a stunning defeat, which is difficult to overcome. The Razorbacks cannot suffer that kind of defeat again.

The article points out the lackluster recruiting at Arkansas, which in Bielema’s defense is commonplace since Arkansas arrived in the SEC. Arkansas is typically always in the lower half of the conference rankings when it comes to recruiting.

This means on average that the Razorbacks will probably have less depth and typically a slightly lower-caliber player. The question becomes, can Bielema win against his peers with slightly lesser talent.

Last year did not lead to that conclusion. In three games in the fourth quarter when the Hogs could have won against LSU, Rutgers, and Mississippi State, Bielema’s teams found a way to lose all three.

I believe you can win at any school with any scheme if you have the right players and the right coach. And here is the test if Bielema is the right coach.

In life, most of us learn through memorization or mimicking what others do. Few of us are original thinkers in certain areas.

There are coaches who are successful because they are good mimickers and can take something that someone else did and make it better. They can recreate and they can be successful. Then there are those coaches who truly understand what they are doing and innovate to be successful.

As a former Outstanding Student of Economics at the UA, I see this all the time as people use statistics and know how to use the formula and do it correctly, but if pressed they don’t know why you can use certain variables and why you cannot on others. They just know how to follow the rule without understanding why it exists.

Love or hate Nolan Richardson, he understood the whys of basketball. He knew what the other coach often was going to do before they knew what they were going to do and why. Nolan could just see the game in his head.

For Bielema to be successful at Arkansas, he also has to be that kind of coach who isn’t just mimicking college football fundamentals and putting X here and O there because that is what the book says.

I go back to the time after beating Ole Miss when Houston Nutt spoke his infamous quote, “I called that play, Chuck.” He was obviously excited and I think for once he had been ahead of the opposing coach. He knew what Ed Orgeron was going to do before Ed did and that felt great.

To succeed at Arkansas, Bielema will have to always be ahead of the opposing coaches with the scheme he is trying to implement, and that will determine if he is the right fit. He will have to call that play, Chuck.

Send your short list for the next Razorback football coach to

Monday, June 23, 2014

From the Bench

How to Turn the World’s Game Into a Sport Worthy of the SEC

Robert Shields

You probably have that friend that is all excited about the World Cup like it means something, probably because they played it or later coached their kids in some lame youth league.

For those who don’t have a friend who gets excited about it and haven’t been exposed to this phenomenon, I am talking about soccer. The World Cup is to soccer like the Tour de France is for biking -- and just about as many people care.

I think the media works overtime trying to get Americans to care about it because the rest of the world does. Rick Schaeffer knows what I am talking about. Sure, most understand that you’re supposed to kick the ball into the net, but I think for most Americans it gets about as much respect as Hacky Sack.

I don’t feel shame not getting into the sport, yet I know some get off watching 90-something minutes hoping someone kicks a ball into the net. The SEC athletic directors agree with me since all of them save the confused administrators at Kentucky and South Carolina refuse to sponsor men’s soccer.

I don’t see soccer ever becoming a major sport in Arkansas, in the SEC, or for that matter the nation. The SEC is a culture of sports that are popular in the South, and in Arkansas and all the other conference states most of the small towns don’t even play it.

Soccer in regular play is designed to end in a tie and Americans hate ties. I don’t see people in the SEC watching half a day to see if a ball finally goes into a net to tie a game. A tie? Why did you even play the game?

I’m not sure if the Team USA men’s soccer or whatever they call it has beat the television ratings that the women’s team got in 1999 when the girl took off her shirt after they won whatever the women’s version of the World Cup is. This speaks volumes about the sport’s progression.

The reality in the SEC is that soccer is viewed as a women’s sport. It’s actually a scholarship sport for women in the SEC, and the women’s Razorback team had a good season last year, though like everyone else you probably don’t know that.

So what could change the sport to make it more interesting in the SEC to give fans something to do between the College World Series and when two-a-days starts in August? Here are 10 suggestions.

First, the constant regulation ties have to stop. The game should start with a shootout to get the scoreboard going right from the start.

Second, this not using your hands thing is ridiculous. A player should be allowed to pick up the ball and throw it into the net. But if he does, everyone on the opposing team is allowed to punch him the rest of the game.

Third, the field should always slope toward the net so the ball is always moving and if you’re not kicking it, it’s rolling toward the net anyway.

Fourth, there needs to be a tunnel on the field that players can kick the ball into that goes into the net like in mini-golf. If you get slammed into the concrete pipe it becomes SEC soccer’s version of hockey’s getting checked. It would be called getting “holed.”

Fifth, put more than one ball in play at a time. Matter of fact, as a penalty, another ball pops up in front of the tunnel similar to pinball.

Sixth, the goal should be at least twice as large. The only place the goalie can use his hands is in front of the tunnel. If he uses it anywhere else, all the other players are allowed to punch him.

In this world of equality that we live in, it’s terribly inequitable for the goalie to get to use his hands while no one else can in the field of play. This rule levels the playing field. The lone exclusion is that if someone picks up the ball to throw it into the net, then the goalie can use his hands to stop it.

Seventh, the balls in play would be of different sizes and colors. The red ball would be the largest and worth six points. This system seems to work in Quidditch, which is about as legitimate a college sport as soccer.

Eighth, if you’re carrying someone on your back and they head the ball into the net, its double points.

Ninth, if the goalie ever catches your ball in the air, you’re eliminated from the game like dodge ball. It’s called the dodge ball rule. You have to go sit on the sidelines and hope the referee calls out “Jailbreak!”

Last, there is the Super Player, which is designated by the person wearing a cape, and he can do whatever he wants except he can never punch anyone.

I think these simple rule changes could make a fun month in the summer for some SEC fans. Might be especially good now that the money-printing SEC Network will have some time to fill.

The U.S. improved rugby so no doubt it can improve soccer.

Send your peace, love, and understanding of soccer to

Monday, June 16, 2014

From the Bench

UA Going All Out to Lure Fans With No Hope for Coming Season

Robert Shields

Even in the darkest hours of the Razorback football program, there has always been hope.

When the team was coming off a bad season in past years, there was always a sense of “wait until next year and they will be better.” Even after the bleak Danny Ford years, when Houston Nutt was hired there was hope that things would be better the next season and that Arkansas could beat SMU.

I don’t get that same sense from the downtrodden Razorback fans right now. There seems to be little hope for this coming season to be anything but bad.

The aspiration from fans for the coming season is just to be able to have hope that the team will be competitive and not get to feel the full extent of 52-0 beatdowns from Arkansas’ SEC brethren.

Fans are just hoping to climb out of the cellar – and that is about the worst place to be for a major football program.

Right now, the Razorbacks are No. 14 in the conference. Let me repeat that, the Razorbacks are No. 14. Make no mistake that if the SEC added two more teams, the Hogs would be No. 16. One can argue Kentucky is worse, but that’s a hollow argument to make against a school that only cares about basketball. The fact that you even have to make that comparison is embarrassing.

The goal you hear from some fans is for the team to be 6-6 making the Hogs bowl eligible to fill one of the all-time high of 78 spots. Right now it seems like a lofty goal.

Most fans don’t have hope that this will be a breakout season for the Razorbacks like the one experienced by Missouri last season. What is frightening is that the Razorbacks are returning an experienced quarterback while other SEC teams are having to break one in next season, yet the Razorbacks are still expected to finish last.

The big hope for Arkansas is to find its first SEC win in almost two years.

The UofA posted a new job listing recently with the title of “assistant director for marketing and fan development.” I’m sure they realize fan attitude needs to be developed. But knowing the UofA, the position will probably be more involved in how to develop fans’ willingness to cough up more money.

One of the stated descriptions of the job is to “schedule and execute pregame and in-game promotions and entertainment in an effort to increase attendance…” The operative phrase in that quote was “increase attendance.”

There is obviously a problem or a metric that is not being met that needs to be addressed to add this new position.

More importantly, by reading that quote, one can also discern that the product on the field is not enough to keep fans going to the game. It’s been a difficult two years to sit in the stands and watch the Hogs get pummeled on the gridiron.

Although attendance and ticket sales are separate animals, I empirically have to believe the two are correlated. Hence it comes as no surprise that the UofA has been offering ticket deals as of late.

I am guessing ticket sales for this expected lackluster season to be lagging what was occurring just a few years ago. The email message recently received from the UofA offers season tickets for as low as $300 with three easy installment payments. It read more like an ad from QVC with the easy pay options.

I also have to wonder if the special deals impact the loyalists who pay their ever-increasing mandatory donation limits on time to get their desired seats when if they would have just waited they probably could have saved thousands.

Or, maybe they have just that much corporate money that price is irrelevant for that group. Instead of being the Wolf of Wall Street, they live the lives of the Wolves of Razorback Club Seating.

Regardless, the fire sale on tickets is telling.

The UofA recently tried to hit the heart strings of fans by trying to sell the same $300 package pushing it as a father’s day gift for your dad. The ad included a picture of a father and son enjoying a Razorback game.

My only thought was that the picture had to have been taken a long time ago if they were enjoying the product on the field. The ad had the feel of something Hallmark would have produced, not a major football program. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

To put things in perspective, the last memorable game for a boy and his dad would have been the LSU game in 2010. Those boys who were freshman in high school have now graduated.

Long gone are the days of the Razorbacks in a Top 10 showdown in the SEC with the nation watching with interest.

Now the UofA is just hoping that it can get its own fans to show up and watch with interest. And it is willing to make you a deal and hire an entertainment director to do it. Can Groupon be far behind?

Send your Debbie Downer lines to