Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: The Path Back to the Top 25 Lies in Defensive Line Play

Arkansas was not in the final top 25 polls, but the Razorbacks will return soon. The path to the polls lies in development of the defensive line. Bret Bielema understands and has the Hogs pointed in the right direction.

The final college football polls are out. They clearly reflect why a committee is a better way to pick the final four teams of the College Football Playoffs.

Yes, both polls have Alabama and Clemson as the top two finishers. And both dropped Oklahoma and Michigan State to fifth and sixth, respectively. Stanford and Ohio State both moved ahead of the losers in the playoff field.

In case you are wondering, Arkansas didn't crack the rankings by either the Associated Press (writers and sports writers) or the USA Today Coaches. The Razorbacks, who won six of seven to end the year, finished 30th in the AP and 33rd in the Coaches, if they were extended to others receiving votes.

That's probably what they deserved, after losing to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M in September. Never mind that the Hogs were an injury-riddled team during that stretch.

For the second straight year, the Hogs ended as probably the team no one wanted to play. Kansas State drew a red-hot team that rolled to a 45-23 victory in the Liberty Bowl.

I detest the polls. They hardly ever reflect head-to-head results during the season. They are about the last couple of weeks, more than what happened in the season. Michigan State beat Ohio State. Ohio State does not deserve to pass the Spartans because of the post-season loss to Alabama.

And, I can't help but feel for Iowa. The Hawkeyes went from one play away from being in the College Football Playoffs to a No. 9 finish in the AP after a bad loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Who thought the Hawkeyes would have anything in the tank after the heartbreaking loss to Michigan State in the Big 10 title game?

Back to the Hogs, they may be the best team that didn't make the rankings. If you look at ESPN's Football Power Index, you'd say it was either Arkansas or Southern Cal. The 8-5 Hogs were No. 14 in the final index based on wins on the road over No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 16 LSU and No. 22 Tennessee. The tough reality -- and that's reflected in the FPI -- is that the Hogs were three or four plays away from 11-2. Toledo, Texas A&M and Misssissippi State could have been UA wins.

Southern Cal (8-6) finished 12th in ESPN's FPI. I get that everyone believes USC is talented. But I don't see a lot of worth in its eight victories. The best was against No. 20 UCLA.

The FPI had Ole Miss at No. 4, LSU at No. 8 and Tennessee at No. 9. Arkansas led No. 1 Alabama late in the third quarter before losing, 27-14.

It's clear that middle of the season thoughts on the SEC being down are wrong. In fact, they were way wrong. Yes, there were some head shakers, including the way Florida struggled against non-conference foes while winning the East. And, there was the Ole Miss loss to Memphis. Arkansas did not help the conference with losses to Toledo and Texas Tech.

But it's clear that Arkansas was not the same team at the start of the season as it adjusted to offensive coordinator Dan Enos and the new play caller tried to figure out what to do after losing most of the top skilled players that he had in spring and fall camp. The FPI seems to understand all of that, while the pollsters don't.

The SEC finished with a 9-2 record in postseason play. Obviously, Alabama created the most headlines for the league by beating Michigan State, 38-0, and Clemson, 45-40.

The two SEC losses in bowl games were easy to predict. Texas A&M lost to Louisville, 27-20, in the Music City Bowl after its top two quarterbacks quit the team just a couple of weeks before the game. Still, the Aggies were driving for a potential tying score in the closing seconds. Florida, steamrolled in the SEC title game, had nothing left in a 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

Most of the other SEC bowl wins were beat downs and gave the Hogs something to brag about after the Liberty Bowl. Well, the trend was obvious BEFORE the Liberty Bowl.

At the press conference the day before the game with the two head coaches, K-State's Bill Snyder tried to downplay the importance of bowl games for conference bragging rights. He said the game was just K-State versus Arkansas, not Big 12 against SEC. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema would have none of that. He said it was clear that everyone pays attention.

“Last year when we played in the Texas Bowl, we were very much aware that we were playing for conference pride,” he said. “We knew we were one of the few that had won from the SEC West and it was important.”

Then, he delivered the best lines of the week in the post-game press conference when he suggested everyone else should try a good dose of SEC West before the doubt the strength of the conference.

“We lose to each other,” Bieema said. “Come play all seven of us in a year and see what you think then. It's mind blowing that people can't grasp that concept.”

The pollsters could not. They went more heavily with the SEC East than the West at season's end. West teams Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU are the top three in the polls, but then there is Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. I think it's clear that Arkansas and Mississippi State were both better than any of those East teams.

Just think of it this way, do you think Texas A&M and Auburn – the last place teams in the West – are better than East bottom feeders Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina? The answer lies in the fact that all seven west teams played in bowls.

The good news is that the national talking heads that pooh poohed the SEC for most of the season will cut that crap out this postseason. Many were saying that the SEC was in a downward cycle that wasn't going to be turned around anytime soon.

I see just the opposite. I don't see any conference replacing the SEC as the nation's strongest. I can tell you why, too. It lies in the defensive line, the same thing that's been the reason for the SEC dominance for more than a decade.

I think the SEC defensive lines are far superior to what the rest of the country has and it's not going to stop. Arkansas is getting better there. McTelvin Agim, Austin Capps and Briston Guidry are the bell cows in the next Arkansas class. They look like studs.

I can tell you another thing that will keep the Big 12 from catching the SEC. I think the wave of spread offenses in Texas high school football – and I'm talking about your guys Kliff Kingsbury – has had an effect on the Big 12. Texas is not producing great defensive tackles right now and it has something to do with the proliferation of spread teams there.

I don't exactly know all of the reasons why it's happened, but it's clear that neither Texas or Texas A&M have a great defensive tackle. How that can happen? I don't know, but it has and it's been like that for quite some time. I don't remember another time in history when it has been that way.

This is to point to Florida State and now Clemson as teams that have followed the SEC model and gotten great defensive linemen. Most pointed to the quarterback play as the reason Florida State won a national title, but it was just as much because the Seminoles were good up front on defense. Certainly, Clemson is great in the defensive front, too.

It's the key to victory for the SEC. And, it's not going to stop anytime soon. I think Bielema understands the importance of defensive line play and it's as big a reason that he's going to have success. It is not a coincidence that the Arkansas winning streak after the bye week coincided with the emergence of Deatrich Wise as a pass rusher. Wise ended up with eight sacks, all in SEC games. Most were down the stretch.

I think it will be the strength of the Arkansas football team over the next several seasons. There was a missing element this season, the pass rush. I expect that to improve next year, most notably because of the speed off the edge with Agim, the phenom end from Hope. He's got exactly what sparkled for Alabama and Clemson in a fun national title game.

Speed in the defensive front is the SEC calling card. That's the ticket to get the Hogs back in these polls. And, it is the reason the former all-star nose tackle is the right man for the Arkansas job.


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