Razorbacks’ 2015 Schedule Portends Death of Little Rock Tradition

Sign of the End Times

Sign of the End Times

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

 

Yesterday, Arkansas released its 2015 schedule. Also released: Any enduring hope among Razorback fans that Little Rock and its no-longer-grand-enough War Memorial Stadium will remain a second home.

The process of ushering the doddering old man out the door has been ongoing for about 15 years now, ever since Fayetteville’s Reynolds Razorback Stadium expanded to 72,000 from 51,000 seats – meaning Hogs leave significant money on the table every time it plays a home game away from its home campus at the 55,000-seat War Memorial Stadium instead.

Games at War Memorial have dropped from three or four a year, to two a year – and starting this season through 2018 – one a year. This Saturday’s game in Little Rock against No. 10 Georgia, the SEC East frontrunner, is a marquee matchup with enough significance to somewhat soften the blow for some War Memorial traditionalists. It should be a sellout.

Not so with next year’s Little Rock game against the University of Toledo, a Mid-American Conference program that has lost all three games it has ever played against SEC competition. This game, which marks the first time since 1947 (vs. North Texas) Arkansas hasn’t played a conference home game in Little Rock, is the latest sign Razorback leaders are phasing out the home-away-from-home tradition altogether.  Given the opponent isn’t even in a Power 5 conference, “how many people will pony up $55 or more per person just to see Arkansas vs Toledo?,” Arkansas Fight’s Doc Harper asked.  “I can envision more people than usual staying on the golf course.”

Some fans may feel remorse Little Rock’s once central place in the Razorbacks’ schedule has been knocked down so many rungs, but they shouldn’t forget the main motives behind this demotion – “brand building” and revenue generation – are the same reasons Little Rock was used as a second home in the first place. In the early 1930s, Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its entire state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium.

Across the U.S., examples of home away from home traditions are legion.

This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in the New York Times last  November: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.’”

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on to contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, War Memorialists, it’s true: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But clinging to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed in much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

In the 1930s and 40s, the smartest rural programs traveled 30, 50, 100, 150 miles to the in-state stadia that would give their teams the most bang for their buck in terms of exposure and revenue. In today’s world, where cable television and the Internet make distance far less of an obstacle for fans to follow their teams, the smartest programs realize that “neutral site” games in the obscenely talent-rich metro areas of Texas often provide the best return.

This is an update of an earlier Sports Seer post. Read the original here

Other Schools with Multiple Home Stadia

Oregon
Home Campus: Eugene
Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1924, then every year through 1966.
Last Game: 1970
Distance Between Homes: 105 miles

Big Win: 21-0 over a UCLA team that would finish 8-2 on Oct. 5, 1957.
Sample Decade: 1952-62: Record of 11-11*

*Includes rivalry games w/ Oregon State


Oregon State
Home Campus: Corvallis

Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1941, then every year through 1973. (w/ exception of two WWII years in which team wasn’t fielded)
Last Game: 1986
Distance Between Homes: 74 miles

Big Win: Oct. 16, 1971- 24-18 over an Arizona State team which would finish 11-1.
Sample Decade: 1963-73: Record of 11-4


Washington State
Home Campus: Pullman

#1 Home Away From Home: Spokane*
Years Played There: 1950-1983
Last Game: 1983
Distance Between Homes: 66 miles

*In 1970, WSU’s home stadium burned due to suspected arson (possibly involving a perpetrator from the rival University of Idaho only eight miles away). As a result, WSU played all its home games in Spokane in 1970 and 1971.

Big Win: Sept. 23, 1978 – 51-26 over an Arizona State team which would finish 51-26.
Sample Decade: 1973-83: Record of 8-12

#2 Home Away From Home: Seattle (the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium, Centurylink Field)
Years Played non-UW opponents there: 2002 through 2008; 2011; 2012-14*
Last Game: Ongoing
Distance Between Homes: 252

Big Win: August 31, 2002 – 31-7 over Nevada to set the tone for a 10-3 season that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Record since 2002 at what’s now Centurylink Field: 6-4

*N.B. the campus of this program’s rival – the University of Washington – is in Seattle. So WSU often plays WU there. Washington State had also played three home games in Seattle against out-of-state powerhouses (USC, Ohio State) in the 1970s. It lost them all.


Read the rest of this entry »

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Bret Bielema: Darkhorse Candidate for Michigan’s Opening?

hokepointbielema

In the last seven years, the University of Arkansas has had arguably the most turbulent stretch of head coaching changes in all pro or college football. Razorback fans will certainly accede to this. The following word associations shall forevermore rub salt into their psychic wounds: Nutt, text gate, Malzahn, Mustain; Petrino, Dorrell, motorcycle, neck brace, red face (not from shame); John L. Smith, awkward, national, laughing, stock.

From a public outrage standpoint, though, none of the above fallouts would match what would happen if Bret Bielema left Fayetteville after this season. The idea that Arkansas’ most recent coach would pursue greener pastures after only two years seems far-fetched. But not far-fetched enough for one long-time Ohio State football writer to spend a full column on.

TheOzone.net’s Tony Gerdeman recently laid out a case for why Michigan should hire Bret Bielema to replace its current embattled coach Brady Hoke. Hoke, in case you haven’t heard, makes Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida look more secure than a Chuck Norris handshake. This year (Hoke’s fourth) Michigan has lost four of six games including a 31-0 drubbing to Notre Dame – the first time the program’s been shut in 30 years.

Gerdeman argues since Bielema has already found success in the Big Ten (he had a 39-19 conference record as Wisconsin’s coach), he could do even better with a far richer program like Michigan. Other potential candidates have also been successful, but they don’t represent a return to the glory days of the Wolverines patriarch Bo Schembechler like Bielema could.

“He is the perfect fit for a program that wants to play football the way their ancestors played — between the tackles and on the ground. Few coaches have the track record that Bielema has when it comes to playing the type of football that Michigan thought they were getting with Brady Hoke. If they were to land Bielema, then they would finally be on the right track toward establishing the identity that they so badly want to portray.”

Finally, and most importantly, Bielema “is smug, arrogant and he hates Ohio State. If that’s not a Michigan Man, then I don’t know what is,” Gerdeman writes.

No doubt, Bielema hates himself some Buckeye. Any time, any place:

At Wisconsin, he beat Ohio State only once in six tries but Hayes Almighty what a loss! The Badgers’ 2010 win ruined Ohio State’s national title shot. Fourth-quarter issues plagued Wisconsin in many of those losses, as they have so far in the Hogs’ two SEC losses against Auburn and Texas A&M. If a fourth quarter meltdown proves the difference in Arkansas’ Saturday showdown against No. 7 Alabama, Bielema will start facing the same kind of local scrutiny he felt from Wisconsin fans and media during his last months in Madison.

Gerdeman then considers whether Bielema would actually want to leave Arkansas even if Michigan showed interest. He starts talking money, and this is where his argument breaks down.

He points out the Wolverines’ assistant Doug Nussmeier makes $200,000 more at Michigan than he did at Alabama, and insinuates the Wolverines have deep enough pockets to lure practically anybody they want to Ann Arbor.

This is Big Ten-centric thinking. Yes, Ohio State and Michigan make much more money off football than most SEC schools, but that doesn’t mean they are investing the same percentage of their “profit” (revenue-expenditures) into football as schools in the middle of the SEC pack like Arkansas. Additionally, the numbers below show that Arkansas is on par – and in some cases superior to – Michigan when it comes to investing in its football program:

Arkansas

Michigan

$99,770,840 Athletic Dept Total Revenue* $143,514,125
$92,131,933 Athletic Dept Total Expenditures $131,018,311
$3.2 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs** Head FB coach contract $3.25 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs
$3.2 million Head FB coach salary 2014 $2.3 million***
$3,205,000 circa Feb. 2014 FB Staff Salary 2014 $3,072,000 circa Dec. 2013
Jim Cheney, OC, $550,000Robb Smith, DC, $500,000

Sam Pittman, OC, $500,000

Highest Paid FB Assistants Greg Mattison, DC, $835,000Doug Nussmeier, OC, $830,000

Yes, Michigan has shown it’s willing to pay its very top assistants more money than most other schools. And yes, with $25.3 million coming into its football program as donations from an enormous alumni base, it would be willing to pay off any buyout clause necessary to get the coach it wants – including Bielema’s $2.5 million price tag.

But those aren’t nearly strong enough reasons for Bielema to uproot after a mere two years getting acclimated to the SEC. His primary reason for coming to Arkansas was to get a shot at the big boys. The burning competitor in Bielema wants to know how he measures up as a head coach against the very best.

If he, his staff and his recruits try their best, and after five or six years they don’t measure up, then he can one day retire knowing he at least didn’t shy away from his sport’s greatest challenge. Gerdeman wrote Michigan’s imminent opening would give Bielema “an opportunity to get the hell out of the SEC, specifically the SEC West. Coaching in the SEC is too hard because every school is always trying to win.”

Sorry, but no.

The fact every SEC school is “always trying to win” is the main draw to coaching there in the first place.


*The most recent data reported as of summer 2014.

** Both coaches’ contracts are loaded with a mind-numbing array of opportunities to earn more.

*** Last year, Hoke banked well over $4 million dollars but that was because of a $1.5 million “stay bonus” paid following the season and a $1.05 million payout for “deferred compensation,” according to mlive.com.


Bret Bielema Embraces the Gecko, Breaks with All Kinds of Convention

Think the modern big time college football coach is entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.

Think modern big time college football coaches are entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.

For someone hailing from the breadbasket of America, Illinois native Bret Bielema sure knows how to cut against the grain.  The second-year Arkansas head football coach has most famously eschewed the up-tempo philosophy adopted by so many of his peers to build a fearsome, old-school running game that has transformed the Razorbacks into the nation’s best slow-down* offense, and sixth-best overall.

The question of how good 3-1 Arkansas really is will be answered this Saturday when Hogs, who have cracked CBS Sports’ Top 25, take on undefeated, No. 4 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Buoyed by an unexpectedly strong defense, the Aggies have crushed each of their four opponents including South Carolina on the road. In his third season at Texas A&M, head coach Kevin Sumlin has his up-tempo Aggies clicking on all cylinders, churning out 612.5 yards a game under the direction of quarterback Kenny Hill, as surprising an Heisman Trophy candidate now as Johnny Manziel was almost two years ago.

Arkansas is a 9 point underdog but whether it wins or loses on Saturday, one thing’s for sure: Bielema’s not changing tact any time soon. He’s not falling in line with the Malzahn and Sumlin-ites around him. Indeed, sometimes he’s contrarian without even intending to be. For evidence, look no farther than his post-game press conference after Arkansas’ 52-14 decimation of Northern Illinois last weekend.

In it, Bielema’s does his thing, talking in rapid fire fashion and making reporters chuckle with quick asides, when he starts praising his team’s special teams effort. He lauds kickoff specialist Adam McFain, an unrecruited walk on who’s on the brink of also becoming Arkansas’ long-range field goal kicker. Then, with the signage of Razorback athletics sponsor Farm Bureau Insurance behind him as usual, he describes a couple defensive special teams formations unveiled against the Huskies because “we knew they would take some chances in the kicking game.”

The first is “a punt safe look” he tells the reporters is called “Allstate.” As in Allstate Insurance Company.

Then, with that Farm Bureau signage still behind him, he praises freshman cornerback Henre’ Tolliver for making a clutch tackle of Northern Illinois’ quarterback on a 4th-down running attempt. So what was the defensive formation called on that play?

Geico. Yet another insurance company not named Farm Bureau.

geico

The Hogs used this "Geico" formation to stymie Northern Illinois' fake punt kick attempt.

This Geico formation insures against fake punt success.

Bielema and his staff could have easily labeled one of their formations “Farm Bureau,” but I find the fact they didn’t to be marginally refreshing. Major college football is such big money these days, with so many corporate ties, it’s nice to see that the names of coaches’ plays and formations don’t have sponsorship tie-ins.

Not yet, at least.  As long-time Arkansas sportswriter Nate Allen noted, Razorback athletics have “operated in increasingly corporate fashion since 2008 when Jeff Long replaced longtime athletic director Frank Broyles.” Indeed, the University of Arkansas recently trademarked the “Hog Call,” its sports teams’ nearly century-old cheer.

Such revenue pursuit, of course, follows in line with other major college football programs because every other school – especially in the brutal SEC West – is pouring more and more tens of millions of dollars into its most lucrative sport. But the business logic is sound: With enough winning, those tens of millions of investment can lead to tens of millions of profit. That’s why Texas A&M looms as a pivotal game for a rising Arkansas program. Bielema knows, too. He said last weekend his players have shown “a certain mentality and attitude that has not been here since I’ve been here.”

If that translates into the Hogs’ winning on Saturday by slowing the nation’s most deadly offense**, and in the process shocking pundits around the nations – then the players’ deeds will match their already sky high confidence.  And, so long as SEC wins result, Arkansas’ corporate sponsors should hardly care what’s written on the pages of a playbook.


*Arkansas ranks as far and away the nation’s most deadly methodical offense (which takes into account the team’s % of drives with at least 10 plays), according to the number crunchers at Football Outsiders.

** Texas A&M has the nation’s most efficient offense, when measuring ” its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.”

Via Football Outsiders

Want to know what the hell the above abbreviations mean? Here’s some light shed, thanks to Football Outsiders:

  • OFEI: Offensive FEI, the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense.
  • OE: Offensive Efficiency, the raw unadjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense, a measure of its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.
  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that run 10 or more plays

N.B.  You’ll notice above Arkansas’ record is 2-1, not 3-1. That’s because stats from Arkansas 73-7 win over FCS foe Nicholls State don’t count here.  The numbers above are filtered to eliminate games against FCS opponents, first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores.


K.J. Hill Believes He Can Flip KeVaughn Allen From Gators to Razorbacks

 (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. )

Not going to be Billy Donovan’s best friend (Courtesy:              Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. )

Much has been made about the surge in the Razorbacks’ recruiting prowess under head football coach Bret Bielema. By early September, he’d been able to get commitments from more ESPN300 recruits than at any time since 2006. A large part of this success comes from the state of Florida, from where Bielema, assistant Randy Shannnon and others have been able to pull in major game-changing talents like running back Alex Collins and offensive lineman Denver Kirkland.

There could be another game-changing talent coming to Arkansas from Florida. Although this time, it would come in the form of an Arkansan – not a Floridian. KeVaughn Allen, a top 50 national recruit in basketball, is a North Little Rock High School senior who has announced he’s attending the University of Florida. K.J. Hill, Allen’s teammate and also an elite recruit in football, has other ideas.

Hill, who recently committed to Arkansas, told Sync’s Nate Olson he believes he can convince Allen to de-commit from Florida and become the latest high flyer to join Arkansas’ program. “When I go back to basketball I will talk to him even more,” Hill said. “It’s on my mind. I think I can get him to come [to Arkansas].”

The 6’1″ Hill, who said he received interest to play basketball for the likes of Wichita State, Baylor and Michigan State, is considering playing football and basketball for Arkansas next season. “Coach Anderson wants me to start talking to him about it,” Hill told Olson. “I think he wants me to play.”

Although his long-term athletic future is likely as a dynamic wide receiver, in SEC basketball, Hill projects to be a disruptive defensive force at guard. If he can get Allen to flip, though, likely his most impressive collegiate assist would arrive before he ever plays in an official game.

On the football front, it appears K.J. Hill is most interested in the rebuilding efforts going on at the biggest programs here and in the Buckeye State:

Q: You have said you are going to look around a little bit and visit other schools. But Razorbacks fans shouldn’t worry too much about you going elsewhere, right?

A: I just want to see different schools and just see how different schools are. I’d like to see Ohio State and Urban Meyer. I have never been up there. I want to see the facilities and the campus.

Q: Will Gragg, a Dumas 4-star tight end, is going to make a decision soon. Do you feel confident he will pick Arkansas? And do you think you can get La’Michael Pettway, a Nashville 3-star athlete, to commit, too? What are your strategies to get them to commit to Arkansas?

A: Even before I was committed, recruits from in-state and out of state were asking me where I was going to go. Coach Bielema told me that I don’t realize how much other players are looking at what I do. I wasn’t thinking about it like he was thinking about it, but then when I committed a lot of stuff started changing. Players started asking, “Do you think we can get it done?” and stuff like that. La’Michael Pettway was asking me and then de-comitted, and Will is 100 percent onboard. I think he is going to come. Everyone has been asking me for the longest where I was going to go, so when I decided, that made them think about it.

Read the entire interview at syncweekly.com


In other news, below is an interesting excerpt from an ESPN.com article published today. In the wake of Arkansas’ 49-29 win against Texas Tech, it delves into specific reasons why Bret Bielema’s increasingly counter-cultural football tactics are becoming so difficult to prepare for:

“The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent,” Bielema said, according to ESPN. “We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.

“Those programs that don’t recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we’re doing it now.”

Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it’s a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power. “Programs just don’t have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback,” Bielema said. “They don’t have a 280-pound tight end. They don’t have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that.”


SEC Predictions: Auburn vs. Georgia in 2014 Championship Game

celebrate arkansas predictions

 

 

As if there weren’t already enough info about SEC football out there already, this fall ushers in the debut of the SEC Network and its torrential flow of news, game coverage, opinion and analysis. Yet, despite a constant rush of Tim Tebows, Greg McElroys and bald men named Finebaum, so much unknown will remains so long as the ball is pointy and the players so young.

For who could have predicted Johnny Manziel’s surge to the top of the athletic world two years ago, or the extent of Auburn’s historic turnaround last fall? Hardly anyone – except, oh, I don’t know – someone named the Sports Seer. And I’m at it again, dusting off the ol’ crystal ball for Celebrate Arkansas magazine. I see good things for almost everyone except fans of Missouri and Vanderbilt. In 2014, parity will be the name of the game in the Southeastern Conference.

N.B. Below are my picks, as chosen before Week 1.  So far, so good – with one exception. 

 

SEC West

 

Auburn: Arkansas native Gus Malzahn returns for his second season at the helm of a squad that will be fearsome in its up-tempo attack. Yes, the Tigers lost a superstar running backin Tre Mason, who left for the NFL.

Yes, Gus, we know.

Yes, Gus, we know.

But they gained a full year of experience under Malzahn’s tactical genius. Senior Nick Marshall was a dual-threat pain for opposing defenses last year but will be a full-fledged nightmare this year. He the first starting college quarterback Malzahn has had for two straight seasons.

Final Regular Season Record: 11-1

 

Alabama:  Heading into a season with a chip on the shoulder isn’t something the Crimson Tide do much of. After two straight losses to end last season, though, Nick Saban’s troops are hungry to prove themselves. There is concern about youth and inexperience early in the season, but don’t be fooled – quarterback Jacob Coker is a future star, running backs T.J. Yeldon is an established star and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper will be emerging superstars. The defense will have major trouble only with Ole Miss and Auburn.

Final Record: 10-2

 

Ole Miss: For the last couple years, head coach Hugh Freeze has been stockpiling young talent from stellar recruiting classes. This season, the youngins’ finally break through. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace will regain health after two injury-hampered years, and he’ll hook up with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell to form the SEC’s most productive tandem. They will finally get past Alabama, but losses to Auburn and Tennessee mar a dream season.

Final Record: 10-2

 

LSU: The Tigers have a lot going for them, including a freshman All-SEC lock in running back Leonard Fournette, but they don’t have a passing game. Indeed, they have the worst passing attack in the SEC. That’s a killer in a conference in which the ability to churn out points has become more vital than ever. These Tigers will lose nail-biters against Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss.

Final Record: 8-4

 

Mississippi State: Relative to the program’s past, head coach Dan Mullen is really good. In his first five seasons, he accrued a winning percentage (56.3%) higher than any MSU coach since the late Darrell Royal, who won 60% of his games in 1954-55 before heading to Texas in 1957.  But Mullen hasn’t yet finished better than 4-4 in conference. “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said this spring. “At some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”

Nope.

Final Record: 7-5

 

Texas A&M: It’s not as if head coach Kevin Sumlin can’t find another elite quarterback. Before Johnny Manziel, he’d worked with the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. He’ll develop another top-notch quarterback in true freshman Kyle Allen. But the problem for now is that the Aggies don’t have another game changer while waiting for Allen to mature. [Hmmm. Now that I think about it, the crystal ball was smudged in one part...]

Last year, that role was shared by both Manziel and Mike Evans, who both left early for the NFL. Even more problematic: the Aggies defense, which gave up a league-worst 476 yards a game last year, will this fall still get torched for 450ish yards per game.

Final record: 5-7

 

Arkansas: Good news: There will be a lot of measurable improvement, at each position, in Year 2 of the Bielema Era. The days of 52-0 drubbings are over. Bad news: It won’t yet translate to significantly more wins.

The offense will be more potent, we know this. But that’s not the problem. The issue is how much the secondary and linebacking corps can improve from last year, under new defensive coaches, without an injection of elite talent and size/speed.

They will improve, but not enough for the Hogs to score major upsets early on. Still, Arkansas will be in the game late in many of their contests, and will finally break through late at Missouri with Bielema’s first SEC win.

Final record: 4-8

 

SEC East

 

Georgia – Last season, SIXTEEN Bulldogs – including a few of major stars – got injured. That won’t happen again. That, and a relatively soft schedule, makes all the difference in the Bulldogs’ reclaiming the SEC East perch.

Final Record: 10-2

 

South Carolina: Poor Steve Spurrier. At this program, the man is the master of the 10-win season without winning the division. His Gamecocks have won 42 games over the last four years but don’t have an SEC Championship Game appearance to show for it.

Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back/human battering ram Mike Davis will lead the offense to another nice bowl game, but an early season loss to Georgia [ahem-Aggies, too] will show the rest of the nation they are still pretenders to the crown.

Final Record: 9-3

 

Florida: The 2013 Gators notched only four wins – the program’s first losing season since 1979. There is way too much talent, size and speed on this squad for that to happen again. Throw in a motivated new offensive coordinator and a very strong defense, and you have a recipe for the league’s top turnaround team.

Final Record: 8-4

 

Tennessee: Listen to second-year head coach Butch Jones talk long enough about his vision for the Vols, and you’ll hear an almost Bielemic focus on process and foundation building. With great recent recruiting classes, these Vols are indeed building toward something. But they aren’t there yet.

Final Record: 5-7

 

Missouri: What is down, then goes up, probably must go down again. After an astonishing SEC East title run last year, the Tigers are set for a rapid plunge after losing an elite receiver in Dorial Green-Beckham and a raft of quality running backs and defensive disrupters.

Final Record: 5-7

 

Kentucky: The Wildcats have played a lot of youth in their last two seasons, which resulted in back-to-back 0-8 SEC finishes. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally here. This particular light is a black and gold one.

Final Record: 4-8

 

Vanderbilt: Well, it was fun while it lasted, Commodore fan. James Franklin showed you the promised land. Expectations were sky-high with Vanderbilt’s first back-to-back nine-win seasons since the Woodrow Wilson administration. And then Penn State came calling. New head coach Derek Mason, fresh off Stanford’s staff, is in for a rude awakening.

Final Record: 3-9

2014 SEC Championship Game: Auburn 42, Georgia 28

 

So, come December, will I deserve to be filleted and seared for my choice? Who do you have winning the entire conference this year?

 

 The above is based on an article in the September, 2014 issue of 

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Tying Brandon Allen, Chris Weinke & Zack Greinke to the Big Funny

weinke 1weinke2

Click on 53:44 mark of below podcast now. Ask questions later.

 

On Saturday, Brandon Allen completed 18 of 31 attempts for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In helping  his unranked Hogs hang with No. 6 Auburn through the third quarter, the Arkansas quarterback played an even stronger game his numbers indicate. His receivers dropped a few easy ones, including a touchdown, and the interception came after his arm was hit as a  result of a breakdown in protection, not bad decision making.

Overall, despite the Razorbacks’ defensive breakdowns in the second half of a 45-21 road loss, Hog fans can be excited about the progress Allen has shown bouncing back from an injury-riddled stretch in the middle of last season. His confidence was at an all-time high, his footwork and accuracy demonstrably improved.

Some of the credit here can go to Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy award winner who tutored Allen over the course of a few days earlier this summer in Florida. “I had a lot of problems with my balance in the pocket,” Allen told Razorback Nation. “Making a lot of off balanced throws and things that were hurting my accuracy. So we did a lot of balance work. A lot of bag work. A lot of foot drills.”

Weinke should also receive some credit for his name’s part in the one of the funniest sports skits you will hear in the latter part of this summer. The aural glory starts below, at the 53:19 mark of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast. The skit’s premise exhibits solid humor fundamentals by matching the normally humdrum world of sports award show introductions with an unexpectedly Seussian-cum-Clockwork-Orange type twist.

The outcome: the most imaginative concatenations of the names “Mookie Wilson,” “Melky Cabrera,” ” “Zack Greinke, “Mark Lemke,” and “Pokey Reese” I’ve heard.

But the “key” to making the conceit really work was balance. It was too baseball-heavy, and needed a well-known name from America’s most popular sport injected into this particular Greinke/Mookie/Melky/Lemke/Pokey milieu to push it to the next level.

So, thank you, Chris Weinke. From lovers of Hog football and comedic consonance everywhere.

(You’re pretty cool, too, Dokie Williams)


Concussion Concerns & The End of Youth Football in Texas & Arkansas

heads up

Can this program save youth football?

Those seeking a glimpse into a possible future for youth football may not have to travel far. Just over an hour south of Texarkana, in the east Texas town of Marshall, a school board approved the cutting of seventh grade tackle football in February amid widespread and growing concern for the sport’s physical dangers — specifically, the potential for injuries from concussions.

“I’m surprised, in some ways, because you know how it is in a one-high-school town where football is everything,” Marc Smith, superintendent of the Marshall Independent School District, told The New York Times. “I anticipated a little more resistance and concern, but the safety factor really resonated with our parents.”

Certainly nobody in Arkansas is going to ban junior high tackle football any time soon. Don’t expect it to happen in east Texas, either, although flag football is a more popular alternative there. People in both areas are too passionate about the sport to seek such wholesale changes in the coming years.

Many Arkansans are also passionate parents, and they are every bit as concerned for their sons’ health as their Texan counterparts.

Enough damning evidence about brain injury has accumulated to begin rattling the most influential football-affiliated institutions and society at large. Concussions inevitably spring to the forefront of conversations involving player safety in sports. None other than President Obama himself convened a summit on youth concussions in late May, declaring: “We have got to change a society that says you suck it up.” In advance of the event, NCAA and NFL officials announced pledges totaling $55 million to go toward the study of youth sports and brain injury.

There has also been pushback from players. In 2011, Derek Owens, a former University of Central Arkansas player, was one of four student-athlete plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming the NCAA had been negligent in addressing and treating its student-athletes’ brain injuries — the first such suit filed against the NCAA. Since then at least 61 ex-college athletes have sued the NCAA, encompassing nine other class-action concussion lawsuits, according to a February 2014 article in The Birmingham News. Owens’ suit w consolidated with others and in late July the NCAA reached a preliminary settlement that includes provisions for a $70 million medical monitoring fund and a new national protocol for players’ head injuries sustained during games and practices.

In addition, nearly 5,000 former pro players — including Dan Marino and Little Rock native Keith Jackson — have kept the issue a high profile one by joining (or withdrawing from the suit, as Marino did in early June) various concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL.

Former UofA Razorback Ronnie Hammers.

Photograph courtesy Arkansas Money & Politics

Former UofA Razorback Ronnie Hammers (70).

Former Razorback Ronnie Hammers, a Marshall native, was an all-conference football player for the University of Arkansas in the late 1960s. He isn’t suing anyone — he said he’s not experienced any neurological problems other than occasionally memory lapses, which may not be football related — but he said hardly anybody knew about the long-term dangers of concussions when he was a player.

“I played on the offensive line and back in my day, that’s all you did,  fire off and hit somebody,” said Hammers. “Your head was getting hit every snap of the play, not just when somebody got tackled.”

Hammers runs a remodeling and roofing company in Marshall, and regularly makes it up to Fayetteville to hobnob with other former Razorbacks at reunions. He rarely discusses the concussion issue in that crowd, but he and the others may good-naturedly joke about it if someone shows signs of forgetfulness. They note how much attitudes have changed when it comes to violent hits on the field.

“The big saying back then was, ‘Well, you just got your bell rung. You’ll be all right here in a minute.’”

Hammers said if given the chance to choose all over again, he’d still play football. But he’d hope his grandson plays a safer sport, like golf.

The Defense is an Offense

No Arkansas authorities contacted for this story had heard discussion about eliminating tackle football for younger players, as the Marshall Independent School District has done, but all pointed to less-drastic changes that have made the sport safer. This upcoming season will be the third year in which high school coaches are required to take concussion training. Last year, the state’s first concussion protocol law passed. The law, whose primary sponsor was state Sen. David Sanders, requires all players suspected of having a concussion to be taken out of the game, to return only with a licensed professional’s approval.

Bigger school districts, like Little Rock School District (LRSD), are investing more money into athletes’ safety. Last season, for the first time, each LRSD junior high and high school game had a MEMS unit present. Most of the time, an athletic trainer or medical intern was also present. As of early June, the district was working toward making a licensed medical professional’s presence mandatory for all games.

At the same time, the state’s governing body for high school athletics — the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) — is mulling changes include limiting the number and frequency of collisions players endure on a weekly basis, said Joey Walters, deputy executive director of the AAA. On Wednesday, August 6, the AAA’s governing body was considering a proposal to limit full contact to three times a week (including games) at its annual meeting.

Money from the NFL is starting to trickle into local football, too. The nation’s richest league has donated millions of dollars to an instructional program taught through USA Football, its youth league umbrella group. The core idea is to spread the gospel of proper tackling, hydration and proper equipment fitting through a combination of online curricula and full-day, in-person training sessions. Coaches return from the Heads Up program clinics to teach other coaches, who in turn teach players. So far, about 2,800 youth teams nationwide — including five in Arkansas — have signed up.

Read the rest of this entry »


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