HOOVER, Ala. — The Arkansas Razorbacks were continuing their climb up the Southeastern Conference football ladder of respectability last season.
Then came their last two games.
Arkansas had a 9-4 record within its grasp, but a 24-7 halftime lead at Missouri in the regular-season finale gave way to a 28-24 loss, and a 24-0 halftime lead over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl evaporated in a 35-24 defeat. The Razorbacks instead finished 7-6, backtracking from the 8-5 mark of 2015.
"The way last season ended is something that has kind of fueled us this whole offseason," Razorbacks senior quarterback Austin Allen said Monday as SEC media days opened. "We've had a chip on our shoulder, because that was embarrassing having to come off the field after those two games knowing that we let them slip away like that.
"It's almost a little blessing in disguise, because it has (ticked) all of us off. We've been working really hard, because we want to be the team that finishes those fourth-quarter games and be the team that wears other teams down in the fourth quarter."
The Razorbacks have faced an uphill climb since Bret Bielema left the comfort of three straight Rose Bowl trips with Wisconsin to take over a program that briefly thrived under Bobby Petrino but imploded in the spring of 2012, when Petrino lied about an extramarital affair and was fired. The Razorbacks went 4-8 under interim coach John L. Smith that year and suffered a 3-9 debut under Bielema in 2013 that included an 0-8 mark in SEC play.
"Obviously, the end of last season was a unique situation for me," Bielema said. "Even when we went 3-9, I felt at the end of that year that we were getting better and moving in the right direction. Our last two games last year were not highlights, and I knew we had to take a new look at things. We took an internal look at us coaching-wise, and we took an even stronger look at our personnel, which made us drive the decision to change defensively to a 3-4.
"Our kids have been great. They've owned and embraced what we didn't do well at the end of the year and focused on what we can do well."
Bielema once described kneeling in the final stages of a 31-7 win over Texas in the 2014 Texas Bowl as "borderline erotic."
He was asked Monday how a win over Texas A&M would feel. Arkansas has lost all five meetings against the Aggies since they joined the SEC in 2012, with two of the last three games going into overtime.
"I know you guys are all looking for quotes," he said. "I don't think I can go much further than that one. That was in a small-group session and that was before I had a child, so I'll just leave it there."
Sankey's third address
Greg Sankey gave his third media days address as league commissioner, touting the conference's six national champions this past school year, the all-SEC finals in baseball and women's basketball and all 13 softball programs qualifying for NCAA play.
Sankey was asked if the league was any closer to adopting a uniform drug policy.
"We've gone through that discussion three or four times in my almost 15 years here with our schools, including us looking at developing what the framework of that plan may be, but our schools have not, in majority, supported adopting a policy at the conference level," Sankey said. "Part of my expectation is that we will at some point have a conversation because we've had so much turnover in personnel that it's now asked with more frequency in meetings. From a staff standpoint, we're prepared for that conversation, and that may be an agenda item we assign to our student-athlete conduct working group.
"I wouldn't predict when, other than it will be another agenda item at some point is my anticipation, but keep in mind our schools make the determination."
Sankey also was asked if the league ever would have uniform injury reporting but said that conversation has not taken place.
"I understand the basis for the question, but I've not had to take a position other than allowing what we do to continue," he said, "and I suspect that's the feeling of our member universities at this point as well."
LSU for homecoming
The Florida-LSU game had added spice last season when the two athletic departments struggled to reach an agreement after Hurricane Matthew scratched their scheduled meeting in Gainesville and resulted in a relocated contest in Baton Rouge, which the Gators won 16-10.
Florida is hosting the Tigers this season as a result of last year's change in location and recently announced that LSU would be the Gators' homecoming opponent.
"People are going to do what they're going to do," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "Florida is a great rivalry for us. We respect them. Any time we go into The Swamp, it's going to be a battle. We need to prepare. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Jim) McElwain and the job that they do.
"We are going to be ready to play regardless of what it is."
Tide owns watch list
Alabama has a whopping four players — sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, junior running back Bo Scarbrough, junior receiver Calvin Ridley and junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick — on the 85-member watch list for the Maxwell Award given annually to college football's top player.
The Crimson Tide have more representatives than any other program nationally and have had two recent Maxwell winners — running back Derrick Henry in 2015 and quarterback AJ McCarron in 2013.
Odds and ends
SEC Network analyst Booger McFarland said Monday that he expects Tennessee to be "abysmal" this season. Sept. 30 will mark the 50-year anniversary of Kentucky's Nate Northington becoming the first black to play in an SEC varsity football game. The SEC Network every Monday night during the season will air "Thinking Out Loud," which will feature Greg McElroy and Marcus Spears reviewing games of the preceding weekend.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.