LITTLE ROCK — Come Nov. 30, will the progress of Arkansas’ football team be assessed with the same confidence that yielded an unequivocal thumbs up for basketball?
Measured against four years of mediocrity, the basketball accomplishments are in black and white — postseason play and at least 20 wins for the first time since 2008, plus three victories on the road. More than likely, judging Bret Bielema’s second season will be more subjective.
Basketball was in an extended funk prior to Mike Anderson; football is two seasons removed from 11-2 and a Cotton Bowl appearance. Still, there is some common ground for evaluation:
• Postseason participation is an easy yes or no. Basketball flirted with the No. 1 goal, the NCAA Tournament, then settled for the NIT consolation prize. If Arkansas fails to win six and qualify for a bowl, is that an unmitigated disaster? Absolutely not.
• Won-loss record. Basketball had more than a half-dozen gimmes built into the 30-plus game schedule; football has Nicholls State and UAB. The other nonconference opponents are Texas Tech, which averaged 87 snaps per game under Kliff Kingsbury, and Northern Illinois, with six consecutive bowl appearances, including an Orange Bowl. Six opponents from the Western Division of the SEC, plus Missouri and Georgia, complete the gauntlet.
• Road success. Anderson’s first two teams won one road game each year at Auburn. This year, they broke through at Starkville, plus won at Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Ironically, football’s only road victory in the last two years was also at Auburn, against a team weeks away from firing its coach. The bookends to the 2014 football schedule are at Auburn and Missouri, opponents last December in the SEC championship. The Tech game is in Lubbock, the Texas A&M game in Arlington and Mississippi State in Starkville. Circumstances change with injuries and player development and the like, but, at this point, the Razorbacks would be the underdog in all five.
• Being competitive in the SEC. The Razorbacks were 22-42 in basketball from 2009-2012 and 2-14 in football the past two seasons. Basketball was 10-8 in the SEC both last year and this year but cracking .500 in football is at least two years down the road.
In basketball, Arkansas’ talent was comparable to almost every team in the SEC this year. That was not the case in football in 2013 and the talent gap was too wide to be erased with one recruiting class.
In elementary school, teachers used to fill in report cards with S-N-U to denote satisfactory, needs improvement and unsatisfactory. At the end of the 2013 season, the football team’s report card was littered with Ns and Us and an S only for the running game and defensive line. Upgrading the secondary and linebacker play and the passing game from U to S is unlikely, but Ns in those areas would improve the total product. The thing is, with the schedule, the Razorbacks could be decidedly better this year and the improvement might not be reflected in the W-L record.
Trying to assign the Razorbacks a goal that would be both acceptable and doable four weeks prior to the Red-White game and months before freshmen are assimilated into the two-deep is a tall order.
A year ago, the 10-8 record in the SEC and being close to an NIT bid was hailed as progress in basketball. Sitting on five victories with two games left in the 2014 season would be comparable in football.
More than anything, I’m looking for Arkansas to be more competitive. The Razorbacks trailed Alabama 28-0 at the half and Auburn by 25 points in the third quarter.
Alabama averaged 9.5 yards per rush and Arkansas completed 7 of 25 passes in Tuscaloosa. Throwing only when needed, Auburn averaged almost 15 yards per its nine attempts and Arkansas was 4.6 yards per 27 passes.
Those are the sort of numbers that will be the basis for side-by-side comparison.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.