Big Picture: How Arkansas became SEC West's most dangerous team

BY Bruce Feldman • November 24, 2014

What was the worst team in the SEC West one month ago is now punishing league heavyweights, making for one of the more stunning in-season 180s in recent memory by a college program. The Arkansas Razorbacks, who had lost 17 straight SEC games, have now shut out consecutive top-20 opponents from the sport's toughest division and become bowl eligible by beating No. 8 Ole Miss in Week 13 after going 3-9 in 2013.

One of the keys to the metamorphosis in Fayetteville has been a relatively under-the-radar offseason hire Bret Bielema made when he named former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach Robb Smith as the Hogs’ new defensive coordinator.

It was no secret the Arkansas D in 2013 had been a big mess, surrendering numerous big plays, and simply wasn't a coordinated unit. The Razorbacks ranked No. 81 in plays allowed of 50 yards or longer, No. 102 in yards per play allowed (6.09) and No. 76 in total D.

After the debacle that was Bielema's first season at Arkansas, much of the talk was how suspect the defensive personnel was and about how dismal Bobby Petrino's final couple recruiting classes had been. Enter Smith, who brought with him his quarter-quarter-half D and a premium on tackling fundamentals based on a system his old boss Greg Schiano had devised almost a decade ago at Rutgers. After allowing 45 points in the opener at Auburn, the Hogs started to show progress. In mid-October, they held Alabama to just 2.1 yards per carry and only 227 total yards in a 14-13 Crimson Tide win. Smith, though, says the moment he feels the Hogs turned the corner was earlier this month in a 17-10 loss at No. 1 Miss. State.

"We got back from the Miss. State game and there was a sense, 'It's time,'" Smith said. "We tackled the best we had tackled and we communicated really well. We really only had one communication problem, and that had led to a touchdown."

Smith's sense was spot on. Since then, they've outscored their opponents -- LSU and Ole Miss -- 47-0. But the defensive transformation had been in the works before the wins started to come. Even more impressively, in their last 12 quarters in the SEC, facing three teams that were ranked, the Hogs have allowed just one touchdown.

On the season, the Hogs are now No. 24 in total defense. They are also No. 1 in the nation in fourth-down D, allowing only two conversions in 16 attempts. Last season they ranked No. 106, allowing conversations on nine of 14 tries.

Smith, who was a grad assistant at Iowa when Bielema also was on the Hawkeyes staff, learned a lot from long-time DC Norm Parker, although the scheme has been tweaked quite a bit since then due to the influx of all the spread football they're facing these days.

"The biggest thing for us has been the buy-in to Coach B's overall philosophy," Smith told FOX Sports Sunday afternoon. Bielema, who won or shared three Big Ten titles while coaching Wisconsin, has brought a bruising style of football from Madison that relies on a punishing ground attack. It also was rooted in a run-stuffing defense, which is where Smith comes in. Shutting down the run is Smith's primary emphasis, but beyond that he was determined to eliminate big plays.

That required three mandates: improved communication on the field among all 11 defenders, shoring up the tackles and keeping the ball in front of them. The latest piece that Smith had been looking for showed up this weekend when the Hogs created six Ole Miss turnovers.

It's also worth noting that Smith brought a new system to Arkansas alone, not even coming with a GA, so he had to implement it to every Hogs player and every coach, something that can be really tricky to pull off.

Arkansas has two impact players on its D-line: defensive end Trey Flowers -- who has 12.5 TFLs, four sacks and eight QB hurries -- and DT Darius Philon, a slightly undersized but very athletic three-technique with 10.5 TFLs and three recovered fumbles. Linebacker Martrell Spaight, a 6-foot-2, 231-pound senior, has been the biggest revelation, though. After starting only two games last season, the former JC standout has blossomed in Smith's scheme, piling up 108 tackles -- 46 more than anyone else on the defense -- to go with eight TFLs, two forced fumbles and one INT.

Smith compares Spaight to Lavonte David, the undersized former Nebraska player who blossomed into an All-Pro in 2013 in Tampa in this system. Spaight is a little bigger and not quite as fast, but he’s a dynamic talent and very instinctive too. "He's an excellent blitzer who can also do a good job of covering down on the slot receiver and getting his hands on him and re-routing," Smith said.

Smith's old boss in the NFL and at Rutgers, Schiano isn't at all surprised at the impact the coach has had in the SEC.

"He's very attentive to details and he's passionate about what he's doing," said Schiano, the former Rutgers head coach. In 2012, Smith was Rutgers’ DC when the Scarlet Knights allowed just 91 points in seven conference games. They also allowed just 95 rushing yards per game, sixth-fewest in the country.

"He's also really good with kids,” Schiano said. "Both times he worked for me (at Rutgers and in the NFL as the Tampa Bay Bucs LB coach), he really did a great job of both perfecting our scheme and bringing some ideas. He knows how to adjust (the scheme) and how to fix it."

This week Arkansas travels to Mizzou, where the suddenly hot Hogs can play a big role in deciding who wins the SEC East title. 

MY FOX FOUR BALLOT

Here is my latest FOX Four ballot. It was a dud weekend of games, especially in the SEC, but two Pac-12 South schools, UCLA and Arizona, made impressive statements.

1. Florida State: No one else in the Power 5 leagues has managed to avoid stumbling. The Noles keep finding ways to grind out wins and rally from deficits. No, their schedule isn't eye-popping, but they do have wins over two teams ranked in the playoff committee's top 25, which is one more than Bama has.

2. Oregon: Whipping Colorado doesn't get the Ducks a spot here, but they have three double-digit wins over ranked teams and two of them were on the road, including a game where they led UCLA 42-10 in the fourth quarter.

3. Alabama: The Tide have a very impressive win over then-No. 1 Miss. State and will get another chance to impress the committee when a good Auburn team visits this weekend.

4. Baylor: Art Briles' team keeps rolling. The Bears lead the nation in scoring offense (50 ppg), own the head-to-head against TCU and also routed OU in Norman.

5. TCU: The Horned Frogs are coming off the shaky performance at lowly Kansas in Week 12, but they do have four wins over teams that were ranked when they played. One of those came against an Oklahoma State team that has fallen apart, but TCU's 30-7 win over Minnesota (not ranked at the time) is carrying more weight now.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had their hands full with a winless team in Big Ten play (Indiana), which doesn't help when you've already lost once and have a light conference resume. However, they might be able to leap the Big 12 teams if they win out since they'd have a conference title game to survive.

7. Mississippi State: Blowing out a woeful Vandy team probably won't impress many, especially since the best W’s on their resume (LSU, Auburn and A&M) all have struggled of late. Also, with Ole Miss plummeting, having lost three in a row against FBS opponents, the Egg Bowl won't afford them as much of a boost as it looked like it would've a month ago.

8. UCLA: Do the Bruins own LA? After winning a third in a row over archrival USC, UCLA can certainly make the case. Brett Hundley and Co. dominated the Trojans and have now won five consecutive games to position themselves as the top two-loss team out there. If they win out and can upset Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, they might just be able to sneak into the Final Four -- if they can get a little help from either Auburn, Florida or Wisconsin/Minnesota in the Big Ten title game.

9. Georgia: OK, so you don't have much to gain facing Charleston Southern other than padding your stats, but the Dawgs do have three nice wins (Clemson, Mizzou and Auburn) and all three were pretty dominant. Then again, they have two pretty bad losses (6-5 South Carolina and getting blown out by 6-4 Florida).

10. Arizona: The Cats, now 9-2, have the most impressive win of the season -- at Oregon. They also just went on the road to the nation's No. 17 team, Utah, and thumped the Utes by 32. That's a pretty strong road resume, especially when you consider this is one of the youngest teams in the country.

TEXAS’ BIG TWEAK

Texas can make it four in a row and finish the regular season on a very high note, while also playing spoiler, Thursday night by knocking off No. 5 TCU in Austin. In the win streak, Charlie Strong's defense has held opponents to just 12 ppg. Prior to that they were allowing 24.4 ppg. What's changed?

"They've simplified everything," said one Big 12 offensive coordinator. "Before you saw all these different fronts and coverages, and now it looks like they've thrown 80 percent of that (bleep) out. Now, it's basically Cover 3 and Cover 1, and they remembered that they've still got a lot of really good athletes over there."

SEATS HEATING UP ON PELINI, GOLDEN

Some of the head coaching jobs I expect to come open in the next month: Michigan, Tulsa, Indiana and UNLV.

This weekend had a few interesting results that factored into why these jobs may come open: Illinois, Virginia and Iowa State. Nebraska also has gotten interesting after the Huskers lost a second consecutive conference game for the first time in five years, which has made Bo Pelini's seat a lot hotter. Tom Shatel, the excellent long-time columnist in Nebraska, had a good take on the Pelini situation.

"Say this about the Big Ten West: It’s put the Husker program in its place and in perspective,” Shatel wrote. “Wisconsin and Minnesota are marvelously basic, efficient machines that do all the little things right again and again. They play with heart and head. They will not beat themselves. You have to beat them."

My three cents: Pelini's 66-27 record at NU is more than solid and we've heard from his own players how much they like him, but the program doesn't seem to be gaining any momentum. If anything, it's backsliding. Pelini is now 9-16 against top-25 opponents and just 2-8 in his last 10 against ranked teams with seven of those losses by double digits. These results at a place so used to elite football may be too underwhelming to buy him any more time.

A school not on that list facing possible coaching changes is Miami, as the UM fan base and its legion of vocal former Cane players sound like they've had enough of Al Golden. UM showed a lot of positives last week against defending national champion FSU, but then turned around and got mauled on the road against a mediocre UVA team, 30-13. It was UM's fourth road loss this season by double digits and third against an unranked opponent. The performance adds more doubt to whether Golden will ever get UM turned around.

Some more numbers, these from Miami Herald writer Barry Jackson, paint an even more grim picture of Golden: UM has now been outscored 167 to 59 in the second half of its past nine losses, and against teams from the Power 5 conferences, UM is 18-19 under Golden.

That said, I was told a few weeks ago with Miami's administration changing as Donna Shalala moves on, the school didn't want to make any move on Golden this year, especially because it liked how he handled the Nevin Shapiro mess. Would Golden, who sources told me tried hard to get out of UM last winter for the Penn State job, try and move this winter even if he isn't let go by Miami? My hunch is yes, but who knows if he is marketable enough. I figured Virginia was an option, but after getting blown out by the 4-6 Cavaliers, Golden, a former UVA assistant, might be a very tough sell there.

KANSAS LINING UP INTERVIEWS

After a few solid performances, Kansas got blown out again, this time by Oklahoma as Sooner RB Samaje Perine smashed Melvin Gordon's week-old FBS single-game rushing record with 427 yards against the Jayhawks. It certainly won't help interim coach Clint Bowen's chances of keeping the KU job, but I still buy that he's got a decent shot at the gig. Still, I'm told KU brass will begin interviews with some other head coaching candidates after Thanksgiving.

APPALACHIAN STATE MAKING FBS NOISE

Hats off to Scott Satterfield. Earlier this week, he had the distinction of being written up as the lowest-paid FBS head coach in the country at $225,000 a year. The 41-year-old former Appalachian State QB, a former FIU OC who was the QB coach for the Mountaineers when they won three FCS national titles, has produced a nice bounce-back year after a shaky 4-8 debut season in 2013. 

On Saturday, Appalachian State went to ULL and gave the Ragin Cajuns their first loss in the Sun Belt this season in a 35-16 romp. The win was App State's fifth in a row and enabled the Mountaineers to become the first team since FIU in 2010 to beat Sun Belt powers Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette in back-to-back games. Satterfield, who runs a no-huddle, spread attack, was actually the FIU OC when the Golden Panthers pulled off that double too. The win over ULL also means they are guaranteed to finish at .500 or better in their first NCAA Division I FBS season.

The Mountaineers figure to just be getting started. Of their 22 starters, 14 are freshmen and sophomores and they have only one senior starter on each side of the ball, Satterfield told FOXSports.com Sunday night.

"Midway through the season the kids just kept getting better and better," he said. His two budding stars are workhorse running back Marcus Cox, a sophomore, and dual-threat QB Taylor Lamb, a freshman. The 195-pound Cox has run for almost 1,300 yards and 17 TDs, rolling up 724 yards and eight TDs in the past four games. Lamb, the son of Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb, leads the Sun Belt in passer rating. His O-line also is doing a very nice job too, having surrendered only one sack in four games in November.

MY HEISMAN TOP FIVE

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon Ducks

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers

3. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers

4. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State Buckeyes

5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA Bruins

This week's riser is Hundley, who once again carved up archrival USC. In three games against the Trojans, Hundley's team has won all three by a combined 111-62 score and he's 62-of-88 (70.4 percent) with 11 total TDs and just one INT.

The Trojans, who got eaten up last season by Hundley's ability to run and make plays with his legs, tried to spy him and keep him in the box this year but that only enabled him to have his choice of a lot of one-on-one matchups, which he exploited with his arm this time.

"We couldn't ask him to play any better," UCLA OC Noel Mazzone told FOX Sports Sunday night. "Brett's really played so well the last month or so."

Mazzone had a sit-down with the star QB in his office last month, where they discussed Hundley not getting caught up in trying to play like he thinks NFL personnel people want to see him play the position or trying to be perfect. Mazzone's message: Everybody's different. You just gotta be Brett Hundley.

Since then Hundley has had a couple 100-yard rushing games and also picked defenses apart after he's gotten them on their heels. 

"His pocket presence has been spot on," said Mazzone. "He's finding his second and third progressions, and our receivers and O-line are really playing well. I hear people trying to say he's not that accurate. He's completing like 72, 73 percent of his passes.

"I'm really happy for Brett. The kid is a stud and is a great team guy. He understood the issues when the team wasn't playing well and that only made him work that much harder."

Hundley's numbers on the season are also shaping up pretty well. He's got a strong 20-5 TD-INT ratio, is completing 72 percent of his passes (up from 67 percent last year) and has also run for 566 yards and eight more TDs.

ANOTHER RECORD FOR OHIO STATE’S BARRETT

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State's terrific redshirt freshman, tied the Big Ten season record for “touchdowns responsible for” at 42 with the great Drew Brees, who set it back in 1998 at Purdue. Barrett is No. 3 in the nation in QB rating at 171.39. In case you were wondering, Braxton Miller was No. 13 last season at 158.08 behind a more seasoned Buckeye O-line.

Barrett is just the latest QB gem to come out of the state of Texas, joining the ranks of Lone Star state quarterback standouts that includes Brees, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill and Johnny Manziel. In college that group includes Baylor's Bryce Petty, ECU's Shane Carden, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Utah State's Chuckie Keeton.

Barrett told me he grew up rooting for whichever team was hot at the time. His first offer he said came from Texas Tech. He admitted he hoped Texas would've offered, because he had become such a Vince Young fan and every quarterback in Texas wants to get offered by UT. "I didn't get offered," he said last week, adding that UT had targeted Tyrone Swoopes instead. And he's fine with that. "Texas isn't the only school out there."

MORE COOK, PLEASE

Jimbo Fisher is a terrific football coach who has now won 27 games in a row, but I’m thinking it probably wouldn't be a bad thing if the Noles handed the ball to stud freshman RB Dalvin Cook a little more. The Miami native has superb feet and is a big play waiting to happen. He's averaging only 10 carries a game over the Noles’ past four and is getting a robust 7.7 yards per carry. As a team, the rest of the Noles are averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry this season.

STITT SHINES AT MINES

Colorado School of Mines lost its D2 playoff game against Ohio Dominican Saturday, but it was still another impressive season for the Orediggers and head coach Bob Stitt, a guy who figures to get some looks for a few lower-level FBS jobs. Last week, my TV feature on Stitt and Mines aired on FOX Sports 1. You can watch it here.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE 1

Over the past two seasons, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota has a 63-6 TD-INT ratio while running for 18 more TDs.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

Courtesy of ace Mizzou beat writer Dave Matter, Missouri is now 5-0 as a road underdog in the past two years.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

Auburn committed only 23 penalties in its first four games (5.8 per game) of the season. In its last four games, the Tigers have been flagged 36 times for 91 yards per game. Only two other teams in FBS (USC and Cal) have given its opponents more yardage. Last year in four November games, the Tigers were flagged only 19 times for 157 yards.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

UCLA has allowed 32 sacks this season but just eight in its last five games. As LA Daily News reporter Jack Wang notes, that stat coincides exactly with when Conor McDermott took over the starting LT job.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist forFOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.


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