State of the Hogs: Mr. SEC

The bands may play often when Arkansas faces Texas A&M. Tony Barnhart, Mr. SEC, likes where Arkansas is headed under Bret Bielema, but knows it will take time to build a great offensive line. Barnhart was the speaker at the Northwest Arkansas TD Club.

Tony Barnhart's presentation Wednesday to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club was a lot of national playoff talk with a nice sprinkle of SEC parity. When it was time to go, Barnhart hadn't gotten to what's going on at Arkansas.

Luckily, there was a question and answer session for the media with Mr. SEC, the longtime columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now a regular with the SEC Network. It was his best stuff.

Barnhart spends a lot of time in the studio on game day, but he did attend Texas A&M's 52-28 victory over South Carolina. Among his comments that day, the Gamecocks didn't get much pressure on A&M sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill.

That didn't work out too well for USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Hill completed 44 of 60 for 511 yards. The Gamecocks had one sack, three QB hurries and two pass breakups.

“My jaw dropped when I saw the efficiency of the A&M offense,” Barnhart said. “But South Carolina didn't get any pressure. A&M has so much speed at the skill positions, it's going to be tough without pressure.”

Barnhart didn't see Ward try anything much outside the base defensive scheme.

“South Carolina rushed three and dropped eight,” he said. “You've got to make Kenny uncomfortable. You can't allow him to just roam around and make plays like it's target practice. You've got to force some throws because he's too good. He'll eat you up.”

That's my thoughts exactly. Most veteran defensive coordinators will say, blitz the young ones and defend against the veterans. Once they show they can handle blitzes, maybe you back out.

It's not like Barnhart was surprised the Aggies were still good on offense without Johnny Manziel.

“You look at Kevin Sumlin's background, he's moved the ball,” Barnhart said. “That's regardless of the quarterback.”

That doesn't mean the Hogs can't win. Barnhart gives the Hogs a chance because of Bret Bielema's style of play. He thinks Bielema's approach of relying on a running game and building a strong offensive line is a nice knuckleball for some in the SEC.

Barnhart has said before it can be futile to try to out-Alabama Alabama. But maybe that's the way to go at some of the hurry-up spread offenses.

“There are so many going no-huddle, it's hard to beat them that way if they are getting exciting athletes,” he said. “You look at A&M and Auburn, maybe it's best to counter punch the way Bret is going at it. You go maximum pressure, run the ball and limit the possessions.

“I like what Bret's doing. He needs more time. It takes more than what he's had to build your best offensive line. Most coaches I've talked to tell me that your offensive lines are going to be best if you can redshirt them and then play them as fourth-year juniors. He hasn't had time to do that, but he has shown in that game at Texas Tech what his style is all about.

“Tech isn't as good as A&M, but if Arkansas can limit the offensive possessions in this game, it has a shot.”

Still, Barnhart sees fireworks. As they always say when offensive games loom, both bands are going to play often.

“I would set the over/under at 85,” Barnhart said. “A&M's defense is average at best. Arkansas plays the right style to go against that (A&M) offense.”

Barnhart said the Hogs “absolutely” moved the needle upward around the country with the way they pounded Tech. He said his personal expectations were that they would be better after a visit with Bielema, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterback Brandon Allen in the spring.

“I've been a little surprised at the margin of victory in the last three games,” he said. “But after that visit in the spring, all three of them told me they would be more efficient on offense.”

It's clear that the Bielema formula working, but Barnhart said there needs to be patience.

“Clearly, you see the identity now,” he said. “It's just going to get better with more time as you build this offensive line. If you didn't want to wait, you shouldn't hire him. Jeff Long understands that.”

There were some interesting takeaways from his presentation, most notably a look back at what last year's playoffs would have been with four teams. Barnhart thinks the semifinals would have been Auburn against No. 1 Florida State against No. 4 Alabama at the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Auburn against No. 3 Michigan State at the Rose. He said it would have produced an Alabama-Auburn rematch.

Barnhart's top four right now: Auburn, Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. He dropped FSU from No. 2 after the close shave against Clemson. Oklahoma is No. 5 and most likely to make it in after Auburn and Alabama play.

Auburn is better now than last year, he said. But, the parity is so great in the SEC that even the Tigers may be left with multiple losses.

“The schedule is just too brutal,” he said. “I talked to Dan Mullen at Mississippi State in August. He said this may be his best team, but they may finish fifth in the West. You can be improved and not win more games.”

The brutal part is when it becomes big boy after big boy for three or four straight weeks.

“That's what every new coach in the SEC always says, it's the cumulative effect of playing all of those games,” Barnhart said. “You've played several tough games in a row, then you get to Georgia and Todd Gurley and all of their running backs.”

Right now, it's about finding a way to pressure Kenny Hill and keeping the Aggie band from striking up another marching song.

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