By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Much like Auburn coach Gus Malzahn saving his job with a fortunate, 18-13 win over LSU coach Les Miles in the 2016 Fire Bowl last season at Auburn, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin may have done the same on Saturday with a thrilling, come-from-behind, 50-43 overtime win over Arkansas in Arlington, Texas.
Bielema may be and perhaps should be in more trouble than Sumlin.
He was a very successful coach at Wisconsin, posting a 32-8 record (.800 winning percentage) with an 18-6 mark .(75) in the Big Ten from 2009-11 with two conference titles and Rose Bowls followed by a third conference championship and Rose Bowl berth despite an 8-5 and 4-4 record in 2012. He has never been able to come close to such success at Arkansas, and he is in his fifth year.
Bielema’s loss Saturday dropped him to a below average 26-28 overall (.481) and a miserable 10-23 in the SEC (.303). Now, he did inherit a wreck – literally and figuratively – after the 2012 season from interim coach John L. Smith, who followed the Bobby Petrino bombshell motorcycle wreck with the blonde. This was one time where Arkansas actually beat Alabama and its sordid, Sports Illustrated strip joint mini-series with former coach Mike Price in 2003.
Bielema was 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in his first season in 2013 and was given a pass. He showed gradual improvement in 2014 by finishing 7-6 and 2-6 as he won two of his last three league games, blanking No. 20 LSU, 17-0, and No. 8 Ole Miss, 30-0, before a watershed, 31-7 postseason win over former Southwest Conference rival Texas, even though that was in the third tier Texas Bowl. He had turned the corner.
But not really. The 2015 season opened with a nice, 48-13 win over the school that was the last stop of Price, who was exiled to college football’s Siberia at Texas-El-Intecepted-Paso from 2004-12. Then his team was upset by Holy Toledo, 16-12, and four losses in five games ensued. But he finished strong at 6-1, including a 31-14 destruction of Miles and LSU at home that nearly got Miles fired and another third tier postseason win at the Liberty Bowl. Now, he had really turned the corner.
He appeared to be rolling in 2016 with a 5-2 start and a No. 17 ranking after a 34-30 win over Ole Miss, which was his best opening at Arkansas. Then he went to Auburn and was embarrassed, 56-3. He ended up losing three of his last four to tumble to 7-6 and 3-5, continuing his third degree of separation bowl tour throughout the country at something called the Belk Bowl.
Through his first four seasons, his best is 8-5 and 5-3.
In 2008, Petrino inherited a much better situation from Houston Nutt, who found out that one can have great cellular reception right at kickoff even in Fayetteville, but things were not that much better for Petrino than what Bielema walked into. Nutt had two losing seasons and an 8-5 campaign with a 9-15 mark in the SEC over three of his last four seasons. Yet, in just his third season after that, Petrino was a player – on the field that is. He was 10-3 and 6-2 in 2010 and 11-2 and 6-2 in 2011 with real bowl appearances at the Cotton and Sugar.
So it can be done. You can win in Fayetteville. Nutt had four seasons of nine wins or more from 1998 through 2006 with four major bowl appearances and two in the SEC Championship Game. But it hasn’t looked like Bielema is going to get past pretty good.
In 2016, which was his fourth season and a time for real improvement, Bielema’s 7-6 and 3-5 finish was worse than it looked. There were five losses by double digits, including four by three touchdowns or more. And there was another three-touchdown loss this season, 28-7 to TCU.
Arkansas (1-2, 0-1 SEC), which has New Mexico State Saturday and a trip to South Carolina over the next two weeks, is looking a lot like 5-7 or 6-6.
Bielema obviously knows he is likely on the hot seat. He was the epitome of sudden death immediately after the overtime loss. He just stood there on the sidelines looking at the field several minutes after Texas A&M senior captain defensive back Armani Watts intercepted a pass in the end zone to end the game in a flash. The Aggies had just scored on the first possession of overtime for the sixth lead change of an instant classic that featured 34 points in the fourth quarter alone.
“It’s unbelievable,” an emotional Bielema said after what was his third OT loss to A&M in four years. “It’s just gut wrenching. We’re getting tested in some tough ways. It’s hard. You put a lot into it.”
At this point, his voice cracked.
“Kids put a lot into it. Getting a lot of negativity, and I wish I could do something for them,” he said as his voice cracked again.
“But I know this,” he said, composing himself. “We’re going to be all right. The kids are resilient as hell. It’ll be fun when we get it. Our breaks will come. They’re going to come. I know it’s painful to live through. And I know it’s hard as fans, and the loved ones and the kids involved. But it’s coming.”
Sumlin, meanwhile, is back on his feet after blowing a 34-point lead at UCLA in the third quarter to lose the opener 45-44. The Aggies (3-1, 1-0 SEC), who host South Carolina Saturday, still have a long way to go to finish better than 8-5 and maybe save Sumlin, who has been going 8-5 like Sean Payton has been going 7-9 – three straight.
Sumlin has not recovered from post-Johnny Manziel, but he’s doing better than Bielema. In his sixth season, he is 47-22 and 22-19 in the SEC, but with the same back water bowls as Bielema. He has had his issues, and A&M athletic director Scott Woodward, a Baton Rouge native, has already said that another 8-5 is not going to do it. But his teams have been more competitive than Bielema’s. Three of A&M’s five losses last season came by a touchdown or less.
On Saturday, Sumlin won one of those.
“So with any team, close games that you’re able to win, they help you,” Sumlin said. “I mean, it helps the feeling in the locker room. Because of their effort, because of their belief in each other, really, nothing else matters.”
At least, now Sumlin has a chance. But so does Bielema.
Amazingly, because of how mediocre the SEC looks after Alabama and Georgia, both could do enough to survive as pedestrians.
GUILBEAU POLL: ALABAMA (4-0, 1-0 SEC). Won at Vanderbilt, 59-0. 2. GEORGIA (4-0, 1-0). Beat No. 17 Mississippi State, 31-3. 3. FLORIDA (2-1, 2-0). Won at Kentucky, 28-27. 4. AUBURN (3-1, 1-0). Beat Missouri, 51-13. 5. KENTUCKY (3-1, 1-1) Lost to No. 20 Florida, 28-27. 6. MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-1, 1-1). Lost at No. 11 Georgia, 31-3. 7. TEXAS A&M (3-1, 1-0). Beat Arkansas, 50-43 in overtime. 8. LSU (3-1, 0-1). Beat Syracuse, 35-26. 9. VANDERBILT (3-1, 0-1). Lost to No. 1 Alabama, 59-0. 10. TENNESSEE (3-1, 0-1). Beat Massachusetts, 17-13. 11. OLE MISS (2-1, 0-0). Open. 12. SOUTH CAROLINA (3-1, 1-1). Beat Louisiana Tech, 17-16. 13. ARKANSAS (1-2, 0-1). Lost to Texas A&M, 50-43 in overtime. 14. MISSOURI (1-3, 0-2). Lost to No. 15 Auburn, 51-13.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We allowed too much penetration. Danny (Etling) was under duress the whole night. Without watching the film, I’d say that the Syracuse defensive line won.”
—LSU coach Ed Orgeron, whose offensive line plays several defensive lines the rest of this season who have better defensive lines than Syracuse.