Arkansas lost its first game of the Bret Bielema era on Saturday, blowing a 24-7 lead on the road at Rutgers before falling by the score of 28-24.
On the surface, a game like this may not appear to have enough data from which to make bold declarations. After all, there were plenty of mild caveats.
Starting quarterback Brandon Allen was deemed inactive before kickoff, putting the game in the hands of AJ Derby, whose college career up to that point had consisted of six pass attempts.
And Rutgers isn't exactly a pushover. The Scarlet Knights took Fresno State to overtime in Fresno earlier this year, and now the Bulldogs look like a BCS spoiler.
Perhaps this loss doesn't portend doom in the Razorbacks' future?
Never mind. Yeah it does.
Regardless of quarterback play, any team that needs to draw moral victories against Rutgers cannot hang in America's best conference. That doesn't necessarily make Arkansas a bad team—because it isn't.
It just means it's in for a world of upcoming hurt.
The Razorbacks don't just play in the SEC, after all; they play the SEC's hardest schedule. Saturday's loss is followed in rapid succession with games vs. Texas A&M, at Florida, vs. South Carolina and at Alabama. The two remaining road games after that are at Ole Miss and LSU.
Arkansas might have looked good for most of the Rutgers game, but the thoroughness with which it sputtered at the end spoke volumes. And it wasn't just that it choked, but how it choked that was so indicting.
There was nothing fluky about the way Rutgers marched down the field for its final two touchdowns. The Scarlet Knights genuinely looked like the better team.
Not too much can be drawn from the performance of the Arkansas offense on Saturday, even if the previously prolific running game struggled. Without Allen in the lineup, Rutgers was able to stack the box and dare the Razorbacks to pass.
If and when he comes back, there should be a little more room to run.
But a defense that can't stop a quarterback like the Scarlet Knights' Gary Nova (and a special teams that allows a momentum-changing punt return touchdown) is not a unit that can hang in the SEC. Ten years ago, it might have stood a chance. But in 2013, the year of the Southeastern offense, it's pretty hard to fathom.
Rutgers picked Arkansas' defense apart when the game mattered most on Saturday. If the Razorbacks let Nova look like John Elway, how astronomically hopeless will it look against Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron? How will it get a fourth-quarter stop against Connor Shaw and Zach Mettenberger?
How will it contain Bo Wallace, or even Auburn's Nick Marshall?
Bret Bielema has this program on the right track, and the current iteration of the team might be able to surprise some opponents and hang for four quarters in certain games. When a team can run the ball like Arkansas—especially at home—it always stands a chance of controlling the clock.
But the defense showed against Rutgers that expectations need to be tempered. This is still a work in progress. Say what you will about SEC talent, but Bielema's Wisconsin teams would never have allowed this comeback to happen. His footprint was embedded on the DNA of the Badgers defense.
He hasn't had enough time to imprint that attitude on his new program.
This expose was bound to happen sooner or later. Even if Arkansas had held on against Rutgers, it probably would have been (and still will be) exposed by Johnny Football and Texas A&M next week. And with the schedule ahead, even after a 4-0 start, making the postseason might have been a pipe dream.
Now it's just a bigger one.
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