In the run-up to Texas A&M vs. Arkansas on Saturday, speculation about Kevin Sumlin vs. Bret Bielema for the hottest seat in the SEC West is contrived.
Sure, both have been embarrassed this season — Sumlin when his Aggies lost to UCLA after leading by 34 in the third quarter and Bielema when his Razorbacks were thoroughly outdone at home by TCU — but Sumlin is No. 1, no matter what happens in Arlington.
His job security is precarious at best; even an abysmal record this season is unlikely to prevent Bielema from beginning his sixth year at Arkansas in mid-December.
The UCLA loss was the last straw for the multitudes disappointed in recent seasons that shared a fast start, and so-so finish. For example, the Aggies began the last three years a combined 16-0, were 7-13 the rest of the way, and never finished the regular season better than 8-4.
In contrast, most believed the Razorbacks were making progress under Bielema until last year. Even then, many UA fans cited sizeable halftime leads vs. Missouri and Virginia Tech and reasoned Arkansas should have been 9-4 instead of 7-6.
Sumlin has been in the crosshairs for some time.
“ … He has to do better than he has done in the past,” A&M athletics director Scott Woodward said in May.
UCLA 45, A&M 44 was barely final when A&M regent Tony Buzbee of Houston called for Sumlin’s firing, saying the Aggies were more talented than the Bruins and that Sumlin was outcoached.
On the other hand, UA athletics director Jeff Long has expressed confidence in Bielema time and again and no one with clout has taken to social media to disagree.
However, with a bye week and no immediate opponent to discuss, the 28-7 loss to TCU was rehashed ad nauseam by fans and media, resulting in some wild speculation. The Horned Frogs’ victory was no surprise, but infuriated many because the Razorbacks failed in the fourth quarter, a problem coaches and players promised to fix after last year.
Most who bailed from the Arkansas bandwagon will return if the Razorbacks defeat the Aggies for the first time under Bielema on Saturday and two weeks of preparation should result in improved performance.
Plus, A&M redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, winner of a three-way competition at quarterback, is out after ankle surgery. The Aggies led UCLA 41-10 when Starkel was injured. He was replaced by pure freshman Kellen Mond, who played sparingly in the first half, and was 2-of-14 in the second half.
Exacerbating Sumlin’s situation, A&M has since struggled with teams in the same conferences as Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas.
Last week, A&M helped Louisiana-Lafayette to a 21-14 halftime lead.
Among other things, Mond’s ill-advised pass was intercepted at the A&M 12 and led to a touchdown, a possession that began at the Lafayette 17 ended with a botched fake field goal, the lead player on punt coverage watched the ball roll into the end zone, and the Aggies failed to defend the pass when Lafayette was out of timeouts just before halftime and could not risk a running play.
The week before, fifth-year senior Jake Hubenak relieved Mond and led the Aggies to 10 points in the final 7 ½ minutes to break a 14-14 tie with Southland Conference member Nicholls. Hubenak sat out last week with a shoulder injury. Whether Mond or Hubenak starts, Arkansas’ Austin Allen’s experience is preferred.
Meanwhile, the TCU loss revived some questions and raised others, including:
—What’s with Brian Wallace, a 10-game starter last year at right tackle, and four-star recruit Jalen Merrick? Bielema said Monday that Wallace has practiced better recently, but that the starting lineup is unchanged.
—How to make more use of running back Chase Hayden, who had 14 carries in the opener and two attempts vs. TCU, and tight ends Cheyenne O’Grady and Jeremy Patton? Easy. Call the appropriate plays.
Despite lingering doubts, Arkansas is the pick over A&M.
Sports Columnist Harry King can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org