Monday, January 26, 2015

From the Bench

Oaklawn Handicapping Class is in Session with Bonus Dating Tips

Robert Shields

As you wait for football spring practice to begin and wonder if the defense will be as good, the new offensive coordinator can generate more yards and points, and if German Battle Gray will become a permanent Razorback color, you can go to Oaklawn Park and watch the horses run away with your money (Charles Cella, send your ad donation to

Oaklawn is a great Arkansas pastime that often outdraws Razorback football games in its final week of the season known as the Racing Festival of the South. If you have never been to Oaklawn, I recommend watching “Secretariat” before making the trip to Hot Springs to give you some bonus atmosphere.

Just as a teacher at my old high school gave his annual one-day course on betting at Oaklawn to a new crop of sophomores each year, I also devote one column each year as a service to my readers, especially all my new fans, to winning at the races.

Read this and you will be winning as much as the dean of Arkansas sportswriters, Harry King, in no time. Here are my 11 basics of going to Oaklawn and how to handle your date or significant other while you are there. You can thank me as you cash in your ticket.

1) Start a show pool with your friends.

It’s the best way to make it to the $50 wager window. A show pool is when each person in your group contributes $5 to make a pool of money for wagering on an agreed-upon horse to show. The winnings, if there are any, are carried over from race to race until the group decides to cash in the pool to be divested among the participants.

I’m always the one who wants to cash in the pool early only to be foiled in the end by others wanting to continue to test their luck, which is exactly what your date will want to do. So tell your date to keep her yammer shut unless she does this all the time. If it’s your friend’s date causing the problems then ask her, “How many grams does she carry in the saddle?”

2) Do not bet on every race.

If you want to keep your money, some races are better skipped – another reason to have a show pool so you still have a horse to follow during a race. The show pool is kind of like a bad mistress, but you’re glad she is around for the extra excitement. Hopefully, this is not how you feel about the date you are on. While at Oaklawn, be sure to refer to your date as “the Filly.” This will help you gauge how uptight or fun she can be.

3) Buy your own racing program.

It’s rude to borrow others’ especially while the person’s back is turned at the beer line. If your date wants to share a program with you, it’s a great indication she is too clingy. So then ask her, “If you were going to measure something, would it be in inches or centimeters?”

4) Bring your own writing instrument from home.

Those pencils they sell at Oaklawn are lame and using them shows the people in line at the betting windows that you are a novice. Also, never borrow someone else’s writing utensil. Again, it’s a good indication your date is too clingy if she is borrowing yours all the time. Shouldn’t she have her own pen in that big-ass purse she hauls around everywhere? What is in there if not? Also, if she’s using your pen too much just ask the question, “Do you grip everything that way?”

5) Eat the gumbo.

Again, get your own and do not ask others how it tastes hoping for an opening to share a bowl. Unlike the previous rules, if your date wants to share a bowl of gumbo, this may be a sign that the green light is on for later.

6) You do not have to always bet on the gray horse.

It’s not a unicorn that developed its super-magical abilities by eating dragon meat even if that’s what your date’s kid thinks. Wait a minute, your date brought her kid to Oaklawn?

7) Stay away from exotic wagering.

The payout is higher for a reason. If you want something exotic, Hot Springs has a few establishments for just such activity, and this is how you also find out more about your date. Much more.

8) Listen to the Oaklawn announcer between races.

He has no real incentive to mislead you like your friend’s date does because the track has no vested interest in who wins unlike that Tunica casino. If you can’t ever hear the announcer because your date won’t stop talking, she better at least be talking about something she read in the racing form. To shut her up, you can ask her, “What’s the biggest thing you have ever put in your mouth?”

9) Avoid people who talk to themselves, including your date.

If your date is talking to herself by the fifth race, she is one of those Ole Miss bad-drunk types and it is going to be a long drive back after the races are over. You handle this by asking her, “If you were going to tie something down, would you use rope or duct tape?”

10) A horse using Lassix for the first time is likely to have an improved performance.

(L1) will be the designation in the program for a first-time Lassix user. A lot of times, you have no idea what your date is on until it’s too late.

11) Always look at your horse before wagering in person.

Would you ever buy a car without looking at it first? No. By visually seeing your horse, you might see something that encourages you or discourages you from betting – like the horse limping.

This is also called the rule if you’re thinking of dating someone online.

Happy wagering!

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Monday, January 19, 2015

From the Bench

Put All Your Money on Eight Wins for Razorback Football Next Season

Robert Shields

When Missouri and Texas A&M entered the SEC, I projected that A&M would fare better in the long run but Missouri would do better in the short run. This wasn’t a hard guess as the SEC East was down and still is, which has helped Missouri win two SEC East division titles. During those two years, Missouri only beat one SEC team that had a winning conference record.

I think now that starts to change. Arkansas, which represented the bottom of the SEC West, took Missouri to the wire at Columbia. Next year, the Tigers must give the Hogs the return trip. The Razorbacks are going to be better, and the SEC is going to start to improve with Tennessee and Florida.

The proclamations that the SEC is dead are premature, and, in fact, the conference finished 7-5 in bowl games, essentially still better than every other major conference except the Pac-12. The SEC still had more bowl wins than any other major conference. To regain its lofty throne, though, better defense is going to have to be played in the SEC.

While the Big Ten that had its day in the sun, the SEC still went 2-2 against them with Missouri killing Minnesota and Tennessee smashing Iowa. The two games the SEC lost to the Big Ten were games the SEC should have won as Auburn should have beaten Wisconsin but instead blew it in overtime and Alabama just had too many turnovers and mistakes against a good Ohio State team and lost by a touchdown.

After Ohio State won the national title in the first college football playoff game for the big schools, make no mistake the NCAA does play favorites. Oregon had players for the title game suspended by the NCAA and for good reason. But, I only have to roll back four years to the Sugar Bowl where Ohio State players should have been suspended and the NCAA allowed them to play in the game.

I can say for certain the Razorbacks would have killed the Buckeyes without those players, though that may have sped up Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle accident a year earlier.

Ohio State would be later punished and put on probation for cheating and have to forfeit the game to the Razorbacks. I know technically the Buckeyes had to vacate the game, but to me that’s a forfeit and should be reflected as such in the records and media guides. Jim Tressel, the Ohio State coach, was fired and basically put on the NCAA do not hire list.

It did my heart good that the ESPN crawl at the bottom had Ohio State 0-10 against the SEC with the note that Ohio State had to vacate the last Sugar Bowl. Unfortunately for Alabama, it now holds the record as the first SEC team to lose to Ohio State.

In the end this year, the Razorbacks may have had the best defense in the SEC as it already had the league’s leading tackler in Martrell Spaight. Robb Smith rode the defense’s success to a pay raise and an extension as the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator. He deserved it.

But for next season, don’t be surprised if at the beginning there might be a drop off on the defense. It’s difficult to replace guys like Spaight, Trey Flowers, and Darius Philon. So, if there is a drop off, it’s not that Smith all of a sudden can’t coach, he’s just going to have to rebuild. I have not seen them, but the word is that backup linebackers Randy Ramsey and Khalia Hackett are extremely fast. We will see if Smith can work his wonders with them.

The Razorbacks were 6-6 in the regular season. On average, the belief is that the most teams can usually improve from the previous year is three more wins in a season. The Razorback accomplished that feat this year by going from 3-9 to 6-6. If that pattern holds, the Razorbacks could win nine games next year. The team could have won 10 this year if it would have won the four games it was leading in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Missouri.

The Razorbacks will have the opportunity to win three of those games next year. The problem is that the two SEC wins this year against LSU and Ole Miss will be on the road next year. So for now until my two-a-days prediction comes out in August, my early gut feeling is that the team can win four in the conference to be 8-4 overall in 2015.

As a side note, the college pick ‘em tournament that I participate in called Poolsville, which I have written about on a few occasions in the past, was won by legendary Arkansas sportswriter, Harry King, who was also voted the Arkansas sportswriter of the year. When asked which one he relished the most, he said hands down winning Poolsville. Interestingly, the win that put him on top was picking Ohio State over Alabama.

Send your very early preseason predictions to

Monday, January 12, 2015

From the Bench

Annual Report Card: Bielema’s Grade Improved But Still Average

Robert Shields

It’s report card time as I have dealt out grades to Razorback football coaches for more than 15 years. I know Jeff Long is waiting for this before he can complete Bret Bielema’s annual review, so let’s get on with it.

The last Razorback football coach who got an overall “A” had the headline “Petrino Gets ‘A’ Despite Bad Conduct,” and that headline came even before the motorcycle accident.

We now see in his second season if Bret Bielema can make the grade -- because he did not last season.

Last year, Bielema got a lot of bad grades and I received lots of hate mail. I guess they wanted me to give him an A after losing every SEC game and finishing 3-9. Let’s see what a 7-6 season brings.

Player Development: A
(Last season: F)

Everyone got better. The defense -- with a lot of the same players from last season -- may have ended up as the best defense in the SEC as other conference teams decided to go the route of other conferences and not play defense.

Linebacker Martrell Spaight led the SEC in tackles, which just does not happen for a Razorback player. Spaight, Darius Philon, and Trey Flowers formed what some ended up referring to as the Bermuda Triangle.

The secondary also improved, and the offensive line improved markably. Brandon Allen at quarterback improbably improved to the point that he ended up being the Texas Bowl MVP. Everyone just got better.

Fundamentals: B
(Last season: F)

This follows player development. The tackling this season was superb. Some other areas, though, still need some work. The offensive line, even though it played well, had problems at times against some teams they shouldn’t have such as Missouri.

The receivers still dropped too many balls. Untimely penalties early in the season also hurt the team. And lastly, there were fumbles and interceptions at inopportune times. The fundamentals were improved throughout the season over last year, but there is still room for improvement. I have little doubt it will be get better next season.

Play Calling: C+
(Last season: F)

This grade may be high. Jim Chaney as the offensive coordinator was under heat for a good portion of the season by some fans who think he threw the ball too much with this quarterback and this receiver set.

Conversely, the Razorbacks’ third-down conversion percentage was good, which sometimes came on pass plays. In the end, though, Chaney is no longer calling the plays.

Had they been caught, dropped balls would have made the play calling seem a lot better. It was disconcerting that the coach decided to punt several times when picking up the first down could have led to a victory when around the opponent’s 35-yard line in tight games.

The team was notorious for scoring and driving early in the game, which means pregame planning was solid. Yet, inevitably, the team slowed down in the second half and too often the offense stagnated.

Image: B
(Last season: F)

This could have been higher, but early in the offseason comments on a California player and then being chastised by their AD was not good. But after that point, the coach shut up and only talked about his Razorbacks.

There were no comments about coming to beat Alabama, hashtags, arguing with Wisconsin fans, or pace-of-play issues. Bielema stuck to his knitting and talked about football and his players. The team’s image from that point started taking off even when his team was losing.

Success: C+
(Last season: F)

When you set the record for the most consecutive losses in Razorback history, you get an F as he did last season even though fans took me to task on that measure.

For a Razorback fan, this was about as good of a 7-6 season as one can have. Beating Texas in the bowl game and shutting out LSU and Ole Miss was very satisfying.

Even though during the season the team extended its record-setting SEC losing streak to 17, the way the team finished made fans feel better. You can project better things for this team, but that’s not how grades work.

You get graded for what you did, and 7-6 is still 7-6.

Game Management: C
(New category)

This is a new category for the coach in my report card. This category existed before and it’s being added back because this is the one area that has to be improved for the team to improve its overall record.

Over his last two seasons as the Razorback football coach, Bielema is 0-7 in games that went down to the wire. In 2013, the games were against Rutgers, Mississippi State, and LSU where the Razorbacks were leading in the fourth quarter and let the games slip away.

This pattern was repeated in 2014 with Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Missouri where the games slipped away in the fourth quarter. The team has learned now how to win, though, so maybe next year they win their share of close games.

Management of the Athletic Director: A+
(Last season: A+)

When you get the athletic director to cry about you and say that you made football fun again in the midst of the school’s longest losing streak, you are gold.

Hiring Assistant Coaches: Incomplete
(Last season: A)

You can consider this an A if you want. His staff is solid and he does not have to really replace a lot of coaches. He lost Randy Shannon and so he needs to find a linebacker coach, but he has not done that nor has he had time to consider possible new offensive coordinators so the grade for hiring assistants for this year is unknown.

The hiring of Steve Loney to review film as a consultant was brilliant. He has earned his pay as the game plan for teams has been spot on and I believe he has helped contribute to it.

Leadership/Discipline: A
(Last season: B)

Bielema dealt with the Korliss Marshall situation as best as he could by dismissing him but caring enough to help Marshall find his next destination. His players are not hitting the police blotter, which is not the case for other SEC schools. He suspended two players before the bowl game and has made it clear that you will do it his way.

Overall grade: B-
(Last season: F-)

When you are 7-6, it probably deserves a C, but I am going to weight the last half of the year heavier than the first half. They won three out of their last four. The win over the Texas Longhorns cannot be undervalued. It was huge. The shutout of two ranked SEC teams was also great. That is the kind of finish that gets even Broyles off your back.

Coach Bielema, please have this report card signed by your athletic department guardian and returned to me by email or Twitter by national signing day.

Send your report card to

Monday, January 05, 2015

From the Bench

Razorbacks Were Pride of the SEC in Bowl Season

Robert Shields

A week after the absolute curb stomping that the Arkansas Razorbacks put on the historic rival Texas Longhorns, the glow of the victory still shines.

Before the bowl season, it would have been hard to imagine that a Razorback team that was 2-6 in the conference and dead last in the SEC West would end up being the pride of the SEC in bowl games.

The Razorback defense, which was stifling in most of the second half of the season, absolutely wrecked the Longhorns, holding them to the lowest offensive total of any team this season. Brandon Allen grew slyer with each game and in the end was the most valuable player of the prestigious Texas Bowl.

The win meant a lot to the Razorback football program because beating Texas is important no matter what today’s kids think. It was a lot better to finish 7-6 than 6-7. Charlie Strong at Texas has a much harder offseason ahead than does Bret Bielema. For those who were not Bielemers, the Texas game moved many into that category.

With the win, Bielema helped change the complexion and projection of this team. After a 17-game conference losing streak, it would be easy for fans and maybe even the players to start to question the strategy of what they were doing. But instead, the coaches and players stuck to their knitting.

Many were skeptics that the Paleolithic offense would work in the SEC, and at first it did not. But Bielema stayed the course, and by the end of the season the team had its identity and Bielema had the opportunity to define the team.

The team would be physical and by the end it was. The team would play defense and by the end it did. The team would run the ball no matter what and it did. It would not abandon these pillars even if everything else was falling apart and every other team was doing something differently.

By the end, Bielema and the team were able to provide some validity to the “see, it will work” philosophy. This can work in the SEC and it can happen at Fayetteville.

The SEC finished a lack luster 7-5 in bowl games, but that’s still good compared to some other conferences. Yet, it was maybe one of the worst bowl seasons for the SEC in a decade, maybe two or even three.

One can argue that the SEC should have won three that it lost. LSU blew many opportunities against Notre Dame to send it down to the last play. Auburn never should have ended up in overtime against Wisconsin. And lastly, Alabama should not have had three interceptions and lost to a game Ohio State team.

But in the end, they all lost so instead of the conference being a robust 10-2 it’s a paltry 7-5 by past conference standards. Way to go, Auburn.

And for the first time for today’s youth, the SEC will not be in a championship game. Oddly, the SEC East, considered the soft side of the conference, went a 5-0 in bowl games while the SEC West went 2-5. In defense of the SEC West, they had to play up, but it’s not an excuse as SEC teams are supposed to win against out-of-conference teams.

By playing up, I mean a three-loss Ole Miss team had to play the best from the Big 12 in their champion TCU. Mississippi State had to play ACC runner-up Georgia Tech. And lastly, a three-loss Auburn team had to play the Big Ten runner-up in Wisconsin. Alabama drew red-hot Big Ten champion Ohio State, and lastly LSU was slotted in against Notre Dame.

In other words, the SEC West was playing the very best in the country. So, they were going to be tough games, and it should not have come as a shock that many of those games went down to the wire. In the past, the SEC traditionally wins these games in the fourth quarter because they are supposed to be the teams with the most depth.

The shocking part about the SEC losses in the bowl games was the lack of defense. SEC teams were destroyed and their defenses looked like Swiss cheese. Many of these fine SEC teams gave up more than 40 points in a game, and that is just not SEC football.

The hallmark of the SEC is great defense. The SEC has big, strong, fast defenses that wreck other team’s offenses. SEC teams then run the ball on the other team’s skinny opposing defenses and crush them.

Instead this season, you saw SEC teams embrace the spread all the more and become more enamored with the pass like a Big 12 team where those kinds offenses often cannibalize their defense. When Ole Miss and TCU met with offenses that were somewhat similar where the quarterback takes a shotgun snap every play, we got to see which team was more prolific at it.

At the end of this season, the Arkansas Razorbacks looked like the most traditional SEC team as they played great defense and stubbornly ran the ball.

Who would have thought that by the end of the season Arkansas would look more like Alabama than Alabama.

Send your season rewind to

Monday, December 22, 2014

From the Bench

Listen Up, Youngins, Texas is the Team We Hate the Most

Robert Shields

With the coming showdown with archrival Texas in the appropriately named Texas Bowl, it provides a great time to look back in history. Maybe for the younger generation the rivalry against Texas is something from yesteryear like cassette tapes and Atari.

For the kids out there in this category, all I can say is that you grew up without really understanding a rivalry.

Back in the day, the best part of the Razorback football season was known as Texas Week. It was a big deal for everyone on campus and across the state. I fondly remember the parties in the days leading up to the game.

Like it or not, and yes I know the feeling is not reciprocated, but Texas is THE rival for Arkansas, and all these years in the SEC has done little to change that other than for the kids who have grown up not experiencing such a special part of Razorback history.

So with those memories in mind, here are the most memorable Texas games to me from back in the day. I realize if you are older that the games from 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1969 games will hold a special place in your memory for better or worse. While I’m older than the youngins, I’m just not that old to have experienced those games.

My top-five memories from the Texas rivalry:

No. 5 – 1985
This game really hurt me. The Razorbacks, for once, were clearly the better team. The game was played in Fayetteville and the Razorbacks were ranked No. 4 and Texas was not ranked. Like usual, it was a defensive game. The crowd was raucous as it was the first game played in the newly expanded stadium with luxury boxes. The Razorback defense lead by David Bazzel kept Texas out of the end zone all game, yet the Longhorns kicked five field goals. The Razorback offense got into the end zone twice but still lost 15-13. To add insult to injury the Razorbacks missed three field goals that were all very makeable. The following week, I kicked field goals in the dark from where they were missed in Razorback Stadium. Turns out I might have missed a few also.

No. 4 – 2003
It was the Razorbacks’ first return visit to Austin after leaving the Southwest Conference. The attitude going into the game was different, though, because the Razorbacks were now SEC hardened. No longer was there just Texas, but the Hogs were battled tested against the likes of Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Georgia. Texas was ranked No. 5, and the Razorbacks were unranked. It didn’t matter, and as hard as Texas tried, the Hogs with Matt Jones handily beat them 38-28.

No. 3 – 2000
This Cotton Bowl was the first meeting of the two teams since the Razorback left the SWC. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 24 and Texas was higher at No. 14. Cedric Cobbs caught a dump pass from Clint Stoerner and raced into the end zone as the Razorbacks blew out the Longhorns 27-6 in Dallas. It was a great way to finish out the 1999 regular season as the Hogs had also avenged their 1998 Tennessee loss a few weeks earlier.

No. 2 – 1981
For many, this will be the most remembered game. It’s hard to forget a 42-11 beat down of the Longhorns. Texas was ranked No. 1 and Arkansas was unranked, which made it all the more sweet. Texas landed in Fort Smith and legend has it that they arrived late traveling over a foggy and nasty Highway 71. On the field, it was never a game. The Hogs scored early and often.

I was just a young kid in high school visiting my brother in college. I had a ticket to the game and sold it, which at the time seemed like all the money in the world. So I watched the game in Yocum Hall with a bunch of college guys drinking beer thinking that was the life. The weather was nasty, but I remember a lot of the college guys all saying let’s go down to the stadium when the gates open after half. Many did just that and got the opportunity to storm the field and take down the goal post. I remember the goal post not actually being taken to the ground but just bent over.

Dickson Street became a throng of people celebrating, and even a car was turned over. I remember several fire alarms going off in Yocum that night into the wee hours. It was crazy to say in a word. It was and still is only the third victory over Texas in Fayetteville in the long history of the rivalry.

No. 1 – 1979
This is my fondest memory as I went to the game with my father. We sat in the press box at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. It was my first visit to the luxury seating. Well-known lawyer Herschel Friday sat on one side of me. I was a little kid and didn’t know him from Adam even after my dad told me who he was.

Texas was ranked No. 2 and Arkansas was No. 10. Most of my childhood, I never knew what it was like to beat Texas. During the ‘70s, the Razorbacks did not have much luck against the Longhorns. The Hogs lost every game between 1971 and 1979. I guess today’s kids feel the same way about Alabama.

Arkansas scored first with a lightning-fast freshman named Gary Anderson who took the ball wide and outsprinted the Texas defense. As usual with Texas, the game was a defensive showdown. A Little Rock Parkview kid playing tight end, Darryl Mason, caught a touchdown pass for the Razorbacks moving them out to a 17-7 lead. Again, Texas fought back late.

The Texas quarterback got lucky as Texas always did and he hit their tall rangy receiver, Lawrence Sampleton, in the helmet (personally, I think it got stuck in his face mask) and he ended up scrambling in for the touchdown to cut the Razorback lead to 17-14. Texas got the ball back and made one last drive.

The tension in the stadium was high as you could feel that one more time a win over the Longhorns was going to slip away. But instead, the defense held forcing Texas to kick a field goal. Their very dependable kicker, “Good Foot” Goodson, lined up for the kick. It was sickening that the game would end in a tie. (Back then, kids, there was no overtime and coaches went for ties all the time, and it felt like a loss if you were winning the game before the tie.)

I wish my memory was good enough to remember if it was left or right or short, but regardless it was no good. The crowd went onto the field when the game was over. It was really the only memory of mine where fans stormed the field in Little Rock.

It was a magical feeling and cars were honking their horns all over the city. I remember the trip back to the car with my father walking up Harrison Street toward Lee Avenue. That is what the Razorback experience is all about, and I will never forget it.

Send your favorite Razorback Texas memory to

Monday, December 15, 2014

From the Bench

The Year that Was Not for Predicting College Football Games

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorbacks 6-6 finish was probably not a huge surprise as many had them picked to finish with that record including this scribe. The surprise for me came in how they got to 6-6.

I did not see this team reaching the six-win bowl eligibility plateau through the route of beating LSU and Ole Miss. The victory over LSU was one of the finer Razorback wins of this decade to snap that 17-game SEC losing streak. The fans stormed the field for only the third time in history at Fayetteville.

I expected the 6-6 record to have some very ugly losses in the mix. Although one could argue the Auburn and Georgia games might fit that category, I do not. In both games, the Razorbacks were up for the challenge and fought hard. After spotting Georgia 38 points, the Hogs rallied, and that simply would not have occurred in the previous two seasons. There was not a 52-0 beat down this year.

At the beginning of the season, I made light about Bo Mattingly on his radio show mentioning Martrell Spaight doing yoga as though it was going to help his play. Spaight finished the season as the SEC’s leading tackler. He was a monster on the field, so if it was due to yoga, others on the team need to consider it.

Also at the beginning of the season, I posed the question as many did as to which area of the team would see the most improvement -- quarterback play or the defense. I guessed it would be the defense since it was wretched the last two seasons. But I have to admit that I never anticipated the defense improving as much as it did. The defense was the reason the team won six games.

I guaranteed a victory over LSU in my column the week before the game, but it was one of the few games that I had a feeling for this season.

If imitation is a the highest form of flattery, this is where my column takes a page out of the script of Razorback legendary writer Harry King, who writes a column once a year before the season starts about the college pick ‘em pool that we play in.

The name of it is called Poolsville and roughly 150 participate in the game each year with people ranging from sports writers, previous Heisman voters, a seminarian, successful lawyers, my wife, and even someone undeserving as me.

The winner is awarded the prestigious Ramon Escobar Trophy and many would tell you they would easily trade the large monetary reward that comes with winning if they could just get the trophy. The award is named after a bruising running back who played for Holy Souls in the brutal Central Arkansas Parochial League.

Poolsville quirkily has crowned its own college football national championship named “Slabby” for more than a decade. It’s a 75-pound stone tablet that is offered to the winning school, which can keep Slabby for one year if it completes what is referred to as the Frank Broyles Feat of Strength.

The athletic director of the winning school has to carry Slabby 10 feet to its resting spot. Though no AD to this date as accepted the challenge, I have no doubt Frank Broyles even to this day would easily complete the task.

Three times I was on the wrong side of the national championship game that kept me from winning it all. In the 2005 season, I had USC over Texas. I think my screaming “NO!” still reverberates around the universe when Vince Young danced into the end zone to beat the Trojans.

In the 2012, I had Notre Dame. I was spared the close game as Alabama destroyed the Irish. Last season, I picked Auburn like everyone in the pool. But had I picked Florida State, I would have carried home my own trophy. It’s the reason many refer to the game as “Cruelsville.”

This year I had one of my best starts ever in the game, but unfortunately the game is not a sprint – it’s definitely a marathon. Slowly, the season slipped away from me as close game after close game I was on the wrong side of the outcome.

I watched Georgia lose to South Carolina by a chain link. Many learned from that game that the football does not have to touch the stick, but just clear the last link. The Bulldogs did not. I watched Clemson fumble its game away against Florida State and send the game into overtime (bonus points, ouch!).

I witnessed a ref call a pick foul on Notre Dame against Florida State and have never seen that foul called again the rest of the season. I witnessed a replay official wipe out a game-winning touchdown by Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss against Auburn and decide it was a fumble.

A couple of weeks later, I watched a replay official reverse an Alabama fumble at the goal line against Mississippi State and make it a touchdown that ended up being the difference in the game. And I don’t even need to mention the replay official reversals in the Razorback game against Missouri.

In every case and many other close games, I was on the wrong side. I finished the regular season with a dismal record.

Alas, year after year, I am reminded of my failure in Poolsville as a Ramon Escobar Trophy wearing a pink tulle skirt is prominently displayed on my mantle. And that trophy does not belong to me. It belongs to my wife, a past champion of Poolsville, who will never let me forget it.

Help me in the pool by sending your bowl pick suggestions to

Monday, December 08, 2014

From the Bench

Texas Bowl is Must Win for Bielema and Fans

Robert Shields

The Razorbacks officially found out that they were going to a bowl on Sunday for the first time since Petrino ran the motorbike off the road. The 6-6 record was enough to earn them a trip to the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29 against the Texas Longhorns. It’s a fitting game.

This provides Bret Bielema and the team another chance to redeem themselves after the bitter loss to the Missouri Tigers, who were sent back down to earth against Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

For two years, Missouri has backed into the SEC Championship game playing in the weakened SEC East. In reality, Missouri is probably the sixth best team in the SEC and some might consider that generous.

They had the luck of the draw this year getting the two worst SEC West teams on their schedule. I back up my claim that Missouri is soft by the fact that over the last two years they have only beaten one SEC team that had a winning conference record.

Many Razorback fans were disappointed in the loss at Columbia and how it all went down. For a week, the radio call-in shows rehashed the fact that Brandon Allen was hurt. In hindsight, it was easy to see after losing that Austin Allen should have been given a chance because what was there to lose?

That final loss of the regular season left a bad after taste, but the team has a chance to erase it in the bowl game. Ending on a winning note would wipe out the memory of that final loss, but a bowl loss will in some way negate some of the gains the team made this year.

With a win, the Razorbacks are 7-6 and on the winning side of .500. If they lose, the opposite happens with the fact that they would be 6-7 and will finish a third season with a losing record.

Bielema needs the bowl win as bowl wins make Razorback fans happy as the Razorbacks have not always been stellar in bowl games. Also, the win helps Bielema as his own bowl record is not robust at 2-4.

Lastly, one has to hope that Bielema understands the importance of this bowl game. The rivalry against the Longhorns is legendary and it still resonates with a large portion of the fan base today. The teams played in the game of the century in 1969 that was dubbed the Big Shootout.

In some ways it seems all the more appropriate to play this game with the passing of James Street a little more than a year ago. The 15-14 loss in 1969 is still burned into the memory of the fan base, and a win against Texas will erase a lot of the losses this year.

When you beat your rival, it makes the season, especially in a bowl game. Like it or not, Texas is Arkansas’ main rival even if that is not reciprocated.

It goes without saying, but a loss to the Longhorns would be unacceptable.


Long’s Playoff Committee Gets it Wrong

And now my thoughts on the college football playoff. The Jeff Long led selection committee looked silly in the end mostly because of the weekly rankings, which were meaningless. They had to backtrack after moving TCU up to No. 3 the previous week, but on selection day they dropped them all the way to sixth, down three spots even after TCU easily won its game.

It’s schizophrenic to say the least. They would have been better off not releasing polls for most of the year and only released the six teams at the end. That way nobody would have known where Baylor, TCU, and Ohio State were placed throughout the year in the selection committee’s mind.

But without that charade, ESPN would not have gotten to hold the idiotic and meaningless rankings show each week as though it was something important when it was the exact opposite.

Instead, it looks like they rewarded Ohio State for one game blowing out an unprepared Wisconsin team that was also beaten by the fifth-best team in the SEC West in LSU when the Tigers did not have a quarterback.

The Big Ten looked terrible all year. The conference lost all its key matchups. Michigan got drilled by a bad Notre Dame team. TCU beat Minnesota. LSU beat Wisconsin. Oregon killed Michigan State. And most importantly, Ohio State lost to a terrible Virginia Tech team.

In the end, TCU got rewarded with a game against Ole Miss in their bowl game, which is a game TCU may very well lose as Ole Miss is very good and was the lone team to beat the two best teams in the SEC in Alabama and Mississippi State.

Also, what does it mean if TCU beat Ole Miss (the one team that Alabama did not beat) in its bowl game, and Alabama wins the playoff? It’s easy to assume Alabama would crush TCU, but TCU uses close to the same crazy offense that Oklahoma used last year to crush Alabama.

The AP had Baylor No. 4, not Ohio State, at the end of the season. But ESPN got the matchups that it would want to televise. An Ohio State and Alabama matchup brings more viewers than a game with TCU or Baylor. In the end, isn’t it always about the money and thus the big name money teams? If it was the Texas Longhorns instead of TCU, do you think they fall to sixth?

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Monday, December 01, 2014

From the Bench

Conservative Play Calling Led to Demise More Than Sticking With Quarterback

Robert Shields

After back-to-back weeks of excellent play at home, the Arkansas Razorbacks took the show on the road to Columbia, Missouri, and endured a bitter loss to finish 6-6 for the season – right where many fans had them back in August.

The team’s struggles followed the same path as did their injured quarterback, Brandon Allen. As he got tighter and tighter trying to fight through the pain, the team played the same.

The path of losing to Missouri started in the second quarter just as the Razorbacks were on the verge of putting a beat down on them with a 14-3 lead. The Razorbacks started a drive that ended in a Jonathan Williams fumble. But the defense came right out and answered forcing Missouri into an interception by a Razorback defender, D.J. Dean.

The Razorbacks started the drive with penalties, but continued to the Missouri 42. With a fourth and 5, the Razorbacks took an intentional delay of game and punted the ball to the Missouri 7. Missouri was bailed out on a review that turned a fumble into an incomplete pass. With Missouri keeping the possession, they began a long drive that ended in a field goal leaving them down just one score at the half.

This was a sign of things to come as Missouri proved it could have long drives on the Razorback defense. On the day, Missouri finished with 80 offensive plays, which were 14 more than the Razorbacks.

In the end, the trajectory of the game was the same as the games against Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State. Fans were hoping for something different but got the continued growth of the team as a consolation.

The day after the game, Gary Pinkel was on ESPN and was asked about making the SEC Championship Game two years in a row. He said it’s a tough league that has a lot of fourth-quarter wins and that games are seldom blowouts.

In the previous two weeks, the Razorbacks have pretty much won in blowout fashion, but Bret Bielema has struggled in fourth-quarter wins. In his sixth attempt with a lead going into the fourth quarter, he lost. I blame it on the conservative play calling that looks like you are playing not to lose but, guess what, you lose.

The first touchdown for the Razorbacks came on a dump-down pass to Williams, who then went the distance. This play was never really seen again the rest of the game. It’s the type of play that stops a constant run-blitzing defense that Missouri threw at the Razorbacks all day.

The Razorbacks had two chances to take back control of the game at the end of the third quarter with the Hogs still winning 14-6. The Razorbacks reached the Missouri 31-yard line, and after a third and three and an incomplete pass, the offensive staff thought the best way to get the first down was a direct snap to Kody Walker, which went nowhere.

This speaks volumes when you think that your best chance of picking up the first down was pulling your quarterback and snapping it to a little-used running back.

The next occasion to regain control of the game was the next series when the Razorbacks reached the Missouri 34 and with a fourth and 6 the coaches decided to punt. The conservative decision of playing field position with the idea the defense would hold on was a losing bet.

Instead, Missouri took the ball at their own 2 and then drove 98 yards for the tying touchdown. Missouri was driving all day, and it was only a matter of time for them to break through as the defense was on the field so long.

As Pinkel pointed out, in the SEC games are won in the fourth quarter. Seldom are you allowed to go in to turtle mode hoping the rain and thunder will pass you by. When your record stands at 6-5, you roll the dice and go for it at your opponent’s 34.

The conservative play calling will keep games close, but it’s going to make it difficult to win at the end.

The controversy coming out of the game was if Bielema should have pulled Brandon Allen and replaced him with brother Austin Allen. After the struggles at the end of the second quarter, there was an opportunity to test the waters. By the time the Razorbacks got to the last drive, it was too late.

It was Brandon Allen’s game to win or lose, and he was actually moving the team into position for a possible game-tying touchdown. The Alex Collins fumble brought the debate to an end.

I would be remiss to not mention the replay review calls that went against the Razorbacks. I have railed against replay for years. I hate it. It’s destroying the game. Were the replay calls right or wrong? This is exactly my point. Some things are just so close and are judgment calls no matter what.

With replay, we have just replaced the judgment of guys on the field who are the closest to the action with guys who are way upstairs in a both looking at weird angles that can have depth-perception problems and slow motion that distorts what might have really happened.

So today we sit around and debate if the replay official got it right. I say put it back down on the field with the officials who typically have the best view and are closest to it. It will never be clear cut and you’re now having guys trying to make such a determination while removed from the field.

The standard is supposed to be that the evidence is indisputable, but who’s the judge of that?

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Monday, November 24, 2014

From the Bench

Tough Learning Curve Now Reaping Success for Razorback Coach and Team

Robert Shields

The question I asked last week was: Will the beating of LSU become a cornerstone upon which another brick could be laid?

The answer Saturday was yes.

The Razorbacks not only placed the brick, they ran the rebar right through Ole Miss.

In doing so, the team became bowl eligible only needing one more win to prove me wrong with my preseason prediction of 6-6. (Look it up, Internet.)

This Razorback team is not the same one that started the season, and credit can go to Coach Bret Bielema. The team has gotten better throughout the season, and that is coaching.

The team has grown, but not only the team, so has the coach. Bielema said several times during the losing streak that the team “would win when they earn it.” We will never know, but maybe in some small part, he was also talking about himself as a coach.

He has earned the last two SEC victories in smashing fashion.

In the post-game press conference, Bielema said, “Maybe I have also grown as a coach.” He pointed out that when they won the toss this time they deferred it to the second half, which is a practice done by most SEC coaches and a good sign that maybe Bielema is not completely obstinate and set in his ways.

Bielema was determined early in the game when the score was 10-0 and the team was at the goal line that they were going to go for it on fourth down. A field goal would have been defeating. After a penalty gave the Razorbacks new life and another chance on fourth down, the team went at it again and scored to make it 17-0. The game was over at that point.

In other games, Bielema has been more conservative and might have taken the field goal. There were fourth-down chances in the Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State games that if the Razorbacks would have gone for them and made it, the outcome of those games might have been very different.

And if the Razorbacks would have won those games, they would have been leading the SEC West only needing to beat Missouri to get into the SEC Championship game. The Razorbacks would be 6-2 in the SEC West with the tiebreaker over Alabama and Mississippi State.

Amazingly, the Razorbacks could have or should have beaten two of the teams that will be in the four-team college football playoff.

Regardless, this team’s turnaround has been through the defense. After accomplishing what had never been done before with an unranked team shutting out a ranked team on back-to-back weekends, this defense is making it easy for the offense to play within itself.

The credit for the defense also largely goes to Bielema. After an absolute sickening defensive effort over the last two years, Bielema changed out his defensive coaching staff almost completely save for Randy Shannon. Give Shannon some credits also as the linebackers have come light years and may be the best group of Razorback linebackers to take the field since David Bazzel played.

Coordinator Robb Smith has taken over the defense and has turned them into a pack of “piranhas” to use Bret Bielema’s word. Others will certainly come after him now, and the Razorbacks need to tie him down.

Also, some credit goes to Steve Loney who has been working in the shadows. Bielema took a page from Nick Saban, as he said in a recent press conference, and hired him as a consultant. Bielema’s old friend has broken down film on Razorbacks opponents two weeks out. This has been money well spent.

The defense now understands what other teams are doing and adjusts accordingly. Give Smith credit for being able to implement what the consultant is effectively seeing on film. Some guys are just good at seeing what other teams are doing and even more importantly, why they are doing it.

The work of the consultant breaking down film is also paying dividends on the offensive side. It’s no small coincidence the Razorback offense is killing people in the first quarter. This is due to good research by the consultant and enables Bielema and his staff to implement a better game plan. It usually takes other team’s defenses a half to catch up to what Arkansas is doing.

Gone are the days of Bielema talking about hurry-up offenses or coming here to beat Alabama. All he talks about now is doing things the right way.

This goes back to his speech given at the Little Rock Touchdown Club about his own personal story of building a fence. His dad instructed him and his brother how to do it properly. They started cutting corners on how many and how to put the nails into the posts. The fence failed. He said this taught him to do it the right way.

Bielema is learning how to do it the right way in the SEC, and now he’s adapted with great success. This is a sign of a great coach.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Bielema is still learning. He’s only 44, still a very young coach. He has only been a head coach for eight years. And, he’s only in his second year in the SEC, one of the most competitive leagues in the world in any sport.

Every team in the SEC West is bowl eligible, and every team the Hogs have faced in the SEC have been ranked No. 17 or higher. That is a tough learning curve for any new coach. But if the current trend holds, Bielema seems to be getting up to speed fast.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

From the Bench

Cornerstone Laid With LSU Win, Now on to the Next Brick

Robert Shields

The Internet exploded Saturday night with imagery of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ victory over LSU as fans and players were exalted. Maybe it was all a little melodramatic, but who can blame the fans and players for being excited about ending a 17-game SEC losing streak and celebrating my guarantee from last week that Arkansas would beat LSU.

The Razorbacks played with a certain urgency as though their lives depended on it, and LSU could not answer with the same tenacity. For the first time this season, the Razorbacks could see the fear in their enemy’s eyes and not the other way around. It was exhilarating and carried players and fans onto the field in celebration at the end.

The question was raised, should the fans have stormed and celebrated in such fashion. The answer is a resounding yes. The Program was in a place that it had never been before. The football team was in uncharted territory, and two years ago to even think that the team could end up in the midst of a 17-game losing streak would have been implausible.

This was the wrong kind of history to make, but if you were present then you were part of it and can say, “I was there when the 17 game conference losing streak ended.”

Over the last two years, Razorback fans have endured humiliating losses and absolute heartbreak in losses that should not occur at home in Fayetteville. The supernova explosion of emotion that erupted on the field as the clock ticked down was warranted. It was historic.

The players, enduring heartbreaking losses during the streak, did not give up. It would have been so easy after losing to No. 1 Mississippi State to say just forget it and mail the rest of the season in. Instead, they went back to work.

This has been a team that has been belittled by many -- even its own fans -- as the players were often denigrated or abandoned. Steve Spurrier said the Razorbacks would have to recruit their way out of this mess after putting a 52-7 beat down on the Hogs last season. Even the media delved out its share of piling on the players as they often referred to the players left by Bobby Petrino as being untalented.

In the end, fans will miss Petrino guys like Trey Flower, Darius Philon, Jonathan Williams, and others who did nothing but pour their guts out week after week with constantly changing coaching staffs.

Give Bret Bielema credit, he never gave up on them when other coaches would have, and the team repaid the favor to him by never giving up on him. When talking about some of those guys, Bielema has gotten emotional. He knows what they have had to put up with. Bielema gets paid millions win or lose, but those players only got misery.

The players surely had to feel that they hoped nobody would forget the price they paid over the last couple of years sticking with the program. They received a resounding answer to that question on Saturday night.

On a very cold night, in the middle of deer season, with a team that is struggling and stands 4-5 overall, and 0-5 in the conference, the Razorback fans arrived with an announced crowd of about 70,000. I’m not sure that would happen anywhere else.

The fans wanted this win for this team and showed their support in grand fashion. Maybe if for no other reason, they knew this group of players deserved it, win or lose, as they have never quit this season.

If you want to feel happy for one person, let that be Brandon Allen. The kid has suffered through the vast majority of those losses. He has been the piƱata for fans who have been disgruntled during this losing streak. Now he has the monkey off his back as does his coach, and maybe now they can play to win instead of feeling the pressure of ending this streak.

The football Program that has been mired in muck trying to build its foundation has maybe finally laid its cornerstone with this victory over LSU. Just as a losing streak starts with its first loss, so does a winning streak with its first win. This week we get to find out if the cornerstone that was placed Saturday night sinks back into the mud or if the next brick is laid.

A few weeks back, I wrote that the fan base was becoming divided with those who saw the close losses an improvement by fire that would turn this team into gold and others who just saw the losses. Winning cures all ills with football, and as of Saturday night, all was right with the world as thirsty Razorbacks got to once again drink from the fountain of victory and it tasted oh so sweet.

It’s not every day that you get to win with 265 yards of offense. Yet, that was the viciousness the Razorback defense countered with making it easy on the offense. The question this week will be if they can do it again.

Otherwise, the win seems hollower where a cornerstone is more of substance.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Bench

Guaranteed Win Against LSU Could Launch Three-Game Winning Streak

Robert Shields

Since I started writing this column more than 17 years ago, I have made four guarantees. And if you are keeping count, my record is 3-1 on those guarantees.

It’s been years since I have made a guarantee in this space, but I am going out on a limb with another one this week -- I guarantee an Arkansas Razorback win over LSU this Saturday in Fayetteville.

Do I believe it? No. But some things have to be based on faith, and I have faith that the 17-game SEC losing streak is coming to an end and it happens this weekend.

In the past, I usually give reasoning as to why I guarantee a Razorback win. Not this time -- it’s just based on pure Razorback faith. The losing streak has to end at some point, and being a one-time statistician I believe in the law of averages, which I remind everyone is not a theory of averages but a law.

I also believe in a benevolent creator. I have to believe at some point Brandon Allen is showed mercy and given a victory in the SEC. Do I believe that God above cares about football? Again, no. But do I think he hears the agony of those below? Yes.

Allen has had his truck torched, his property egged, and has probably received enough hate mail to get the FBI to open a terroristic threatening file. He has been criticized to no end. When you are the quarterback, the wins and losses can weigh heavily and he has been losing.

Even one of Allen’s biggest supporters in Bo Mattingly from “Sports Talk with Bo” has started to show some doubt this past week after the Mississippi State loss. This was the same Bo Mattingly who last year predicted that Allen would be as good as Connor Shaw by the time he leaves the UofA. South Carolina fans and Steve Spurrier are probably thinking Shaw was pretty good right now and would like to have him back.

Much like Hagar at the well whose cries were heard, I have to believe the creator above knows Allen’s pain. Allen will be vindicated this weekend.

And after the win over LSU, the Razorbacks may launch themselves into a three-game winning streak to finish the season 7-5. This is not a guarantee, but you can feel the Razorbacks just need that one win to get the ball rolling.

If by some way the Razorbacks win their next three games, they will end up with a 3-5 SEC record playing in the most difficult conference division in the country. And many will point out that the Razorbacks were just a few plays away from actually being 6-2 in the SEC as they could have and maybe should have beaten Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State.

So for this feel-good ending to happen, the Razorbacks have to win this weekend against LSU. So, it will happen. I guarantee it.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

From the Bench

17-Game SEC Losing Streak Starting to Fissure Fan Base

Robert Shields

Amadeus, when will the madness stop?

The Razorback football team stretched its SEC losing record to 17, and if you’re keeping track that is 13 in a row for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who is running out of time this season to get his first SEC win.

When history repeats itself, it’s known as tradition, and the Razorbacks are establishing the wrong kind of tradition.

In the game against No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday, Arkansas took a 10-7 advantage into halftime, but unfortunately the Razorbacks and their beleaguered coach failed to take advantage of three Bulldog turnovers in the first half, which was similar to not taking advantage of the turnovers offered by Alabama that were instead squandered.

At some point, you have to try to win a game by not playing it close to get it into the fourth quarter – a Houston Nutt philosophy if there ever was one.

When the best in the SEC decide not to play their best against you – you have to make them pay for not showing up. This is not the case when you play the Razorbacks. You can play your worst and still walk out with the win.

On their second possession of the game after Dak Prescott threw an interception, the Razorbacks mounted a drive to the Bulldog 32-yard line where they landed with a fourth and one. Bielema decided not to go for it, but instead punted it.

When you’re playing the No. 1 team on the road, you have to play to win and not play conservatively always worried something bad will happen. Because in the SEC, something bad will happen -- as it did when Prescott hit the wide-open receiver for the go-ahead touchdown to win 17-10. When you are the underdog against the No. 1 team, the Bielema book instead says play field position.

You have to take advantage of your opportunities in the SEC, and I believe more than any other reason this is why the Razorbacks have failed time and again in the conference with this ultra-conservative decision making from a coach who seems incapable of being adaptive and is stubborn in his philosophy to the point of being self-defeating.

In the coach’s defense, at key times this year when the Razorbacks have been faced with fourth down and need a conversion late in games, they have failed. You can blame this on player execution or the play call. Or is it a play call the players cannot execute in that situation? You can decide.

It’s an odd philosophy because fourth and short should be right into the wheelhouse of the power-formation running team that is the strength of the Hogs.

This, though, is symptomatic of Arkansas’ problems. A dead giveaway power run in the SEC will go nowhere a lot of the time in a completely defensive-dominated league. Even the Razorback defense has played well on fourth and short this season as they stopped Dak Prescott, and they did the same thing to the Alabama quarterback.

The SEC just has great big powerful defense people playing. It’s not like going up against Illinois.

It is frustrating to be a Razorback fan right now as the odds of going to a bowl game have gotten longer and more out of reach each week. The Razorbacks need to win two out of their last three games. They have two home games coming up so maybe they can find wins in those opportunities.

With each loss, a division in the fan base continues to develop. The perception of the two sides is a stark contrast with each reality being completely different. I don’t think it’s one of those cases where the truth lies somewhere in between the two. In the end, one side will be correct and the other wrong.

One group is squarely in Bielema’s corner. He is their general leading their Hogs in the SEC, and there is nothing else they want. They see improvement in their team. They see the team almost getting there and say that given enough time they will.

They believe in the philosophy that the Razorbacks will be able to recruit superior athletes compared to other SEC teams and will be able to out power other SEC teams at the point of attack.

They see a team that was blown out last year turn around and almost beat top 10 teams this year and say that shows marked improvement. This coach is just a step away from getting this done. They say the fire this team is going through will turn them into pure gold.

The other group sees something totally different. They see the 0-17 in the SEC and Bielema going 0-13.

But for this group it’s more than just the losing SEC streak -- it’s the fact that in six games that came down to the wire during the last two years, Bielema has lost every single time.

They believe improvement is measured in wins and losses. They don’t believe Bielema can accomplish what he is trying to do in the SEC.

They believe that he won’t get the players needed to be more powerful than his opposition. That the offensive philosophy is so rigid and so conservative that the team has to play perfect to win and that won’t happen in the SEC.

They see penalties destroying drives and an offense that can’t operate out of its comfort zone. They see more of the same occurring and while the team may eventually win some SEC games, it won’t be enough to ever be a great team.

One side is right.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

From the Bench

Bielema Not Feeling Pressure From 16-Game SEC Losing Streak

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorback football team bested its record of last year by beating UAB to go to 4-4 on the season, just two wins shy of making it to the field of 76 schools that will play in a bowl game at the end of this season.

Meanwhile, the Razorback basketball team, which was picked to finish third in the SEC coming out of the SEC basketball media days, is hard at work to make the field of only 68 basketball teams to make the big dance.

There are lots of expectations on the basketball team to make the 68-team NCAA basketball tournament, while there seems to be no pressure on football coach Bret Bielema to be one of the 76 teams playing in a bowl game, end the longest conference losing streak in the nation, or really do much of anything.

Razorback fans were satisfied Saturday with the trick play of an offensive lineman passing to another offensive lineman. I guess the purpose of the play was to showcase Bielema’s play-creating ability and willingness to take chances against a much lesser opponent.

One can guess that you never try to run that play in the SEC as it probably goes south quickly.

On the upside, the Razorbacks may have found a kicker as the extra points were certain and a long field goal was made to boot. But the question remains, as with everything else that went well against UAB, can he do it in the SEC?

That question looms large for the rest of the season as all the cupcakes are now eaten and Arkansas has beaten all four of its non-conference opponents. Only SEC teams remain, and none of them will be easy.

Maybe Missouri in Columbia is the best opportunity, but the Razorbacks will need two more wins to go bowling. Thus meaning the Hogs have to win two out of the next four, and the other three teams are some of the best in the country.

Up next on deck is the No. 1 team in the nation in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs to date have proven to be the most well-rounded team in the SEC. The play great defense and denied Auburn the end zone three times when the Tigers got inside the 10-yard line. State has an explosive offense led by Dak Prescott, who very well may win the Heisman.

The Razorbacks have to play the Bulldogs in Starkville, which has been a place that has been difficult for the Razorbacks to win even when the Hogs had good teams. The 1998 game comes to mind when the Razorbacks were clearly the better team but still found a way to lose it.

The path stays tough after the trip to Starkville. The Hogs get a bye week, then face a much-improved LSU team, which seemed vulnerable early in the year but has grown up and now has an excellent running back and a quarterback. The timing of the Tigers’ maturation is unfortunate for the Razorbacks.

Then Arkansas draws Ole Miss in Fayetteville following the LSU game. Ole Miss by far has the best defense in the SEC. The Razorback defense maybe could find a way to stop Bo Wallace and company and turn it into a defensive game. Fans can hope with the new kicker that maybe he hits a game winner and sends the Rebels home with a loss.

With the Mississippi State game being an unlikely win, the Razorbacks have to find a way to win one of the two home games against LSU and Ole Miss and break the current SEC losing streak that might stretch to 0-17 after the Mississippi State game.

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the SEC West is a remarkable 33-1 against teams outside the SEC West. The lone loss, of course, was from the Razorbacks last week against Georgia.

The losing streak has to come to an end and sooner rather than later. Bielema does not need to go another season without an SEC win and run the losing streak past 20 games on his watch. Because what kind of coach does that?

One that gets fired.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

From the Bench

UA Doesn’t Deliver Product Worth $100 Ticket at War Memorial Stadium

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorback football team took a huge step back this week in Little Rock against the Georgia Bulldogs. Before the game, there were very few Razorbacks fans who would have expected an absolute beat down in the first half to essentially end the game – but that’s what they got.

There are two things that became clearer this weekend that sheds light on where exactly the Razorback football program is at this moment. First, Texas A&M is a really bad team, and just a few weeks back the Razorbacks let an inferior team get away with a victory they never should have had.

Secondly, the Razorbacks had a chance against an Alabama team that for whatever reason took last week off from football, yet the Razorbacks could not take advantage of a rare opportunity being virtually handed to them.

How will the SEC losing streak ever end if they can’t pull off just one of those two wins?

Overall, Saturday’s edition of Razorback football looked exactly like the teams that got shellacked last year. The defense was exposed like Swiss cheese right out of the gate.

It was also disappointing that the running game was stymied by the Georgia defense at times forcing the Razorbacks to go to the air, which this offense was never designed to do. You can skip watching Razorback games and look at the box score, and if you see Brandon Allen had to throw more than 40 times, the Razorbacks lost.

The overall disappointment was compounded by the fact that the same mistakes over the last three games continued to be repeated. The missed extra point after the Razorbacks’ first score against Georgia was deflating to the fans especially in the face of what was the exact difference in the Razorbacks’ loss to Alabama the previous week. If you had hoped before the Georgia game that such mistakes had been rectified, the answer is no.

Even further disappointment is that mistakes such as turnovers keep haunting this team. The lack of ball security is disconcerting. The Razorbacks had three turnovers against Alabama, and they were up to the task this week against Georgia to better that mark.

Without the turnovers, maybe the game against Georgia would have been competitive. Apparently all the experts liked the Razorback chances, as at least four on CBS Sportsline had the Hogs winning as did analysts on ESPN and the SEC Network.

Instead, the streak of losses against SEC teams went to 16 in a row and the last 12 belong to Bret Bielema. Even more shocking, the Razorbacks have lost their last three SEC games in Little Rock and four out of their last five in the Old Gray Lady. The once impenetrable confines seem no different than any other place the Hogs have been slaughtered during this most dire time for Razorback fans.

Bielema heads into a dangerous game this weekend and maybe a crossroad for him as the fan base will get nasty if the Razorbacks lose to the UAB Blazers because the program is supposed to have advanced way past the point of losing to non-SEC teams on its regular season schedule.

In spite of the product on the field, Ole Miss fans would be proud of the Razorback fans as they won the party, though.

The tailgating around War Memorial Stadium and in particular on the golf course was gargantuan. It was certainly one of the largest attended tailgate events ever at the stadium and easily exceeded 80,000 people. Many said it was the largest ever. It was epic to say in a word.

The tailgaters hit it hard and arrived early at the golf course. Traffic was a mess and snarled as people vied to find their space to party. A first for the golf course, a man was seen with two large snakes wrapped around him. Having a little port-a-potty camping tent thing they make now is also coming into vogue on the golf course. I cannot blame people as the port-a-potties provided by the city are limited and overwhelmed by such a large crowd that is out to celebrate like it’s the Burning Man Festival.

The Razorback mascot arrived around 11 a.m. on Markham Street getting his police escort. A Georgia fan nearby was actually excited to see the Razorback mascot pass. It was kind of like a celebrity star sighting for him. He was probably more excited than the Razorback fans and was surprised by its size.

The team arrived 30 minutes early than has been the customary practice in the past of arriving two hours before the game. The players arrived around 12:30 p.m. catching many fans unaware. Their arrival was also fast blitzing down the street at a high rate of speed. I witnessed no fans going out into the street as all stayed on the sidewalk to avoid getting run over by the speeding buses.

The fast approach gave fans little to no time to greet the team out on Markham for their approach, and it was a light turnout to greet them. If the plan is to kill the tradition of fans going out onto the street and beating on the buses and yelling at the team like they are rock stars, it could not be executed any better.

The fans arrived in the stadium expecting a victory, yet once again were disappointed. The first drive brought the fans alive, but that was to be it.

Some fans had to pay an extortion fee of $100 to witness this debacle. The fans got to watch another serving of losing football with the always looming threat that all games will be pulled out of Central Arkansas.

If they are going to lose, they can do that just as easily in Fayetteville and make more money.

It’s a shame the UA football program could not match the same level of excitement as seen on the golf course by the fans. Like a bad breakup where one is saying to the other, “it’s not you, it’s me,” maybe it’s time for Little Rock to tell the UA to stop coming instead of the other way around.

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