Mathematically speaking, the 3-6 Arkansas Razorbacks still have a chance to make a bowl game this year.
That's hard to believe considering how much the Hogs have struggled in head coach Bret Bielema's first season at the helm of the program. However, Arkansas would have to sweep its final three games left on the slate to go bowling.
The team's remaining schedule includes a trip to the Ole Miss Rebels on Saturday, followed by hosting the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Nov. 23 and a road matchup with the LSU Tigers on Nov. 29.
The chances of Arkansas winning its last three games are slim to none. It would take a remarkable, make that miraculous, turnaround by the whole team. Frankly, if you're expecting the Razorbacks to end 2013 on a three-game winning streak, then you're waiting for—excuse the bad joke—Hogs to grow wings and fly.
At this point, with an 0-5 record in the SEC and current six-game losing streak, the focus for the coaches and fans needs to be on seeing progress from a team that has seemed to regress since starting 3-0.
A good thing to build off of is last weekend's performance against the now-seventh-ranked Auburn Tigers.
Despite losing 35-17, Arkansas showed some resiliency for seemingly the first time all year. The scouting report on the Hogs has been that, if you can put them in a hole early, they will just lay down. Give them credit, the Razorbacks battled back from a 28-3 deficit to cut the lead to 11, but ultimately didn't have enough in the arsenal to topple the Tigers.
Arkansas showed it has some fight left in it and needs to make some tangible progress in the remaining three games. That means the defense cutting down on total yards allowed per game and the offense finding some sort of balance.
The linebacker unit returned no starters coming into the season, but the defensive line returned three and was considered one of the better units on the team, coming in at No. 6 in Scout.com's preseason SEC unit rankings.
It should have been expected that the Hogs would give up some yards on the ground with a ragtag group of linebackers, but not to the extent that the front seven currently has with three upperclassmen on the D-line.
The Razorbacks rank 81st in the FBS in rushing yards per game allowed (178.8) and have given up 862 rushing yards in the last three games (287.3 YPG). Tackling has been a big problem. The Hogs have given up numerous big plays on the ground that should have been stopped near the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers have missed more tackles than any other positional unit, and as a result, opponents are making big plays once they get past the first wave of defenders.
The more the front seven can improve in the final three games, the more that the secondary can as well.
The secondary has been much better in the last two games, allowing just 313 yards. Though you can attribute a lot of it to Alabama and Auburn having great success on the ground, the secondary has cut down greatly on letting receivers get behind it and make game-breaking plays.
Yes, AJ McCarron and Nick Marshall completed a combined 22 of 29 pass attempts, but the secondary only gave up a few large-chunk gains.
If Arkansas can bolster its defense as a whole in the final stretch of the season and get more experience for guys that are the future—such as Darius Philon—it could give the Hogs some much-needed momentum and confidence heading into the offseason. It would also make for some healthy battles in the spring.
However, it's not just the defense that needs to make progress. It's the offense too.
Excluding running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, every player on the offense can stand to make some major improvements—most notably starting quarterback Brandon Allen.
Allen needs to be treating these last three games as an audition for 2014 because his job is in no way safe for the years to come.
What do people do at auditions? They perform to the best of their abilities and leave it all out on the line to get the gig. That's exactly what Allen has to do in these last three games.
If he wants to be the leader of this team now and in the future, he must show progress with his accuracy and decision-making.
Against Auburn, he had another outing during which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes (10-for-22, 45.5 percent) and has a completion percentage of 45.0 on the year. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is also not good at nearly one-to-one (nine touchdowns, seven picks).
Allen has been dealing with a shoulder injury for most of the year, but that excuse has run dry. As they say, it's time to put up or shut up. If he wants to be the quarterback of the future, he's going to have to start by completing over 50 percent of his passes in these next three games.
It can take just one good game to get the ball rolling, so if Allen can make accurate, smart throws and give Arkansas a chance to win at Ole Miss on Saturday, it could greatly boost his confidence and help him close out the season strong.
You better believe Bielema will be evaluating Allen and the quarterback situation heavily over the remainder of the year and into the offseason—especially if Allen doesn't make any progress.
Him not showing improvement would set up a battle between him, little brother and teammate Austin Allen, and 4-star verbal commitment Rafe Peavey for the starting spot next fall.
Allen isn't the only guy auditioning in these last three games, though. Consider this an audition for the entire receiving corps.
The top receiver on the team, Javontee Herndon, will be gone after this season, leaving every spot ripe for the picking. Herndon has 377 yards on 24 catches and is the only wide receiver on the team with over 200 yards on the year.
That's excluding freshman tight end Hunter Henry (18 catches, 328 yards and one touchdown), who has been brilliant with an average of 18.2 yards per catch.
The next-best performer among receivers is Keon Hatcher (15 receptions, 175 yards and two touchdowns). He's the only other wideout with at least 100 yards on the season. The inexperience and lack of playmaking in the wide receiving corps have helped fuel Allen's struggles. Guys are dropping gimme passes and no one is stepping up.
Arkansas needs to see some guys elevate their competitiveness and refine their route running down the home stretch. Whether that be Hatcher, D'Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins or Drew Morgan, if the Razorbacks are to have a chance of closing out the year on a high note, they need other players to step up.
Guys making plays in the passing game would also help progress an already stout backfield featuring Collins and Williams. Hatcher has shown glimpses of being a go-to receiver, but still has to work on consistency.
Surprisingly enough, though, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney told HawgSports.com (subscription required) that the receivers and passing game looked much-improved against Auburn:
I think (the catching was) much improved. There's more consistency in their performance, which is what we're looking for. I think much ado has been made about the wide receivers, but I think throughout the game I thought everybody collectively played better in every aspect of the passing game. We protected better, I thought the quarterback threw the ball a little bit better, and the receivers caught the ball better. It's never one person. It's not a simple flea just to step on and squish and everything's perfect in the passing game. It doesn't work quite like that. It takes a lot.
Bielema is quickly finding out just how tough it is to be consistent in your approach and win in the SEC. Many people thought that the Hogs had a legitimate shot to go bowling this year, but forgot to account for the fact that he is running a power-style offense with a roster recruited to fly around the field.
Sure, it has been somewhat of a disappointment. You'd like to see the Hogs battling for a good bowl or something significant, but that's just not the reality of the situation right now.
With the position Arkansas is in, you have to throw out the win-loss record for these last three games and look for solid progress from the defense, receivers and Allen.
It's the future that matters most in tough times like these. For a young team, making improvements in these next three games would be a huge positive heading into the offseason. If Arkansas can make substantial progress by Saturday, it has the ability to catch Ole Miss off guard and upset the Rebels in Oxford.
That in turn could lead to a win at home over Mississippi State, though the Hogs aren't going to win their last game at LSU.
Finishing the year strong always provides teams with a lot of confidence and momentum going into the spring, spawning competitive, healthy battles that make the team better the next season.
As bad as the year has been, even one win in the final three games would be great for Arkansas. What would be even greater, however, would be seeing young players who are the future of the program show that they are making strides in the right direction.
For more info on the Arkansas Razorbacks, follow Bryan Heater on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
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