Bret Bielema and Arkansas were about one minute away from redefining an otherwise disappointing season.
But even though their upset bid against LSU fell short, the heart shown by the Razorbacks brings hope for their future—and the future of their first-year head coach.
Losers of eight straight and fresh off a heartbreaking overtime loss to Mississippi State, it would've been easy for the Hogs to pack it in for the season and fold on the road to the heavily favored Tigers.
"No one in our locker room was surprised at halftime I can tell you that. It says a lot to how they see this team and the future" Bielema— Razorback Nation (@RazNation) November 29, 2013
Arkansas battled back and forth with LSU early then took a 17-14 lead just before halftime. Midway through the third, the Tigers fought back, as running back Jeremy Hill broke away for a 52-yard touchdown, landing a haymaker to the underdog Hogs.
But still, Bielema's team battled. Quarterback Brandon Allen hooked up with freshman tight end Hunter Henry—one of several young contributors for UA—for his second touchdown reception of the game.
That score gave Arkansas the lead that it would hold until the final two minutes.
It looked like the Hogs would hold on and post a marquee win to close the season, particularly after the fourth-quarter injury to starting LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Their hopes looked even better when punter Sam Irwin-Hill pinned the Tigers to their own one-yard line before their final drive.
However, filling in for Mettenberger, freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings led an intrepid 99-yard scoring drive, capped with a beautiful deep ball to Travin Dural for the game-winning score, giving LSU a 31-27 win.
By the end of the action in Death Valley, LSU's talent won out.
But even in the defeat, Arkansas showed that it has what it takes to hang with the SEC's best. More importantly, Bielema showed that he can motivate a team to compete against tough league foes, even amid a season lost.
Early in the year, when Arkansas was being clobbered by South Carolina and Alabama by a combined score of 104-7 in consecutive games, Bielema looked like he had no place in the conference.
But after the 'Bama-USC fiascos, Arkansas took a bye week and made a marked improvement.
Bielema: I can see so much improvement out of our young guys. Recruiting is going well.— WholeHogSports (@wholehogsports) November 29, 2013
The best teams in college football are the ones that are able to show visible improvement from August to December. While a 3-9 record doesn't show it, that is exactly what Arkansas was able to do this season.
The Hogs were within 11 points of Auburn in the fourth quarter, lost to Ole Miss by just 10 points, took Mississippi State to overtime and nearly upset LSU.
While Bielema likely wouldn't admit to any moral victories, all four of those could count as psychological wins for the future.
Bret Bielema: I'm numb, frustrated. I wanted to get a good feeling going into the offseason….I wanted to see those seniors celebrate.— WholeHogSports (@wholehogsports) November 29, 2013
Season 1 in Fayetteville might not have gone as planned for Bielema, but he showed that he has a blueprint set that will lead to sustained success.
Recruiting has gone well—Arkansas boasts two of the SEC's best freshmen in Henry and running back Alex Collins. Development will come as Bielema's tenure rolls along.
And if he can continue to lead his Hogs to improve over the course of future seasons, they'll be back competing for SEC titles before you can say "karma."