This article was originally written by Mickey Gashaw and appeared in The Battalion on September 24, 2015. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
If the last SEC football game that you watched was the “Game of the Century” in 2011, where No. 1 LSU went into Tuscaloosa and defeated No. 2 Alabama by the score of 9-6 in overtime by a game-winning field goal, then flipping on an SEC football game in 2015 would be a remarkable change.
When Texas A&M and Missouri left the familiar confines of the Big 12 for the SEC, many detractors and critics came to the surface. One of the main points of criticism was that the Big 12 was a conference that threw the ball all around the field while the SEC, influenced by teams like LSU and Alabama, held philosophies of pounding the ball and winning games with a suffocating defense.
Although quarterback play was necessary, the successful SEC teams weren’t dependent on their quarterbacks to go out and win the game for them. It was the “game managers” that were desired by SEC coaches, quarterbacks that could make smart decisions with the football and keep the ball away from the other team.
Since neither A&M or Missouri played that style, it was assumed they would struggle in the big bad SEC.
In the three full years that the Aggies and the Tigers have played SEC football, the impact has been extraordinary. From the first (redshirt) freshman winning the Heisman Trophy in Johnny Manziel for Texas A&M, to winning the SEC East the last two seasons for Missouri, there is no denying that these two former Big 12 teams have influenced the style of play to shift in the SEC.
From Auburn hiring offensive-minded Gus Malzahn from Arkansas State to Alabama adding Lane Kiffin to their staff as offensive coordinator, traditional teams are either adding wrinkles to speed up their offenses or completely running the no-huddle spread offense altogether.
There are schools that have still embraced the old guard of running the ball and playing great defense. The Aggies’ opponent this Saturday has been in the news recently concerning its style of play and struggles: Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.
Bielema has been at the forefront of the charge against the spread offense, citing reasons that players in the no-huddle, hurry up offense play the equivalent of five more games than those that don’t. By playing slow, Bielema feels that it will indeed keep the players safe.
In 2013, Bielema suggested an NCAA rule that would slow down the pace of offenses around the country. Although the rule was shut down by the committee, Bielema’s rule proposal could be seen as an attempt to get rid of the spread offense.
Two years later, the Razorbacks began the 2015-2016 in the AP Top 25 for the first time under Bielema’s helm and Hog fans everywhere were expecting them to return as one of the top teams in the SEC.
In his third year with Arkansas, Bielema finally has the personnel he sought on the recruiting trail. With an average offensive line weight of 321.1 pounds, Arkansas has the largest offensive line in the SEC and the capabilities to run opponents into submission like he wants. Yet, somehow, Arkansas is 1-2 on the season.
Arkansas has been a bit depleted by injuries, however. Starting running back Johnathan Williams underwent foot surgery in August and will miss the rest of the season, and receivers Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius are both out for an extended period of time.
But, the Razorbacks are also not built to play from behind. Arkansas likes to keep teams in the 20’s and shorten games with the run. Against Texas Tech last week, head coach Kliff Kingsbury challenged Bielema with his up-tempo philosophy, as his team averaged 76.1 plays per game in 2014. Tech’s late attack and two-possession lead proved too much, as the Razorbacks fell 35-24.
Kingsbury defended his spread attack after the game with his choice words towards Bielema and the ground-and-pound emphasis.
“That’s a program that prides themselves on being physical and the Texas high school coaches convention this summer,” Kingsbury said after the win. “He stood up and said if you don’t play with a fullback we’ll kick your a– and if you throw it 70 times a game we’ll kick your a–. And he just got his a– kicked twice in a row. And probably next week by A&M as well.”
If the Razorbacks dig too deep of a hole this weekend as they did with the Red Raiders, they won’t be able to rely on their comfy run attack. The Aggies are going to be looking to score a lot of points this Saturday to put Arkansas in an uncomfortable position.
The days of 9-6 defensive slugfests are now few and far between. We will have to keep an eye on Bielema and see if his Hogs can succeed in the now spread-minded SEC.