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Inopportune Penalties Only Adding to Arkansas Razorbacks' Woes in 2015

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Multiple things can be true about a given subject at the same time without anyone person necessarily being wrong. For example, one thing that is true regarding the Arkansas Razorbacks to date is they have underperformed per expectations laid out there by the national media, the fan base, and the coaching staff. The Hogs are 1-3 on the season after starting with a preseason ranking of No. 18 in the AP poll.

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The other part that could be true about the Razorbacks' 1-3 start is unusual trouble with the referees making game- and season-changing calls against Arkansas.

While this is more a rhetorical rationalization of one of the problems affecting Arkansas, the underlying tone is something is up but what? The Razorbacks are not the worst penalized team in the nation but tied for 92nd with Cincinnati, UCLA, TCU, Western Kentucky, Marshall and New Mexico. In four games these seven teams have each been flagged 31 times or an average of 7.75 per game.

The 31 total flags thrown has turned into a loss of 289 penalty yards for Arkansas, which ranks them 105 out of 127 FBS teams. Could the other 22 teams have a legitimate gripe as well? Perhaps, and Texas Longhorn fans may have something to complain about in this respect, but this article is about Arkansas and how the refs appear to be targeting the Razorbacks.

Most announcers and opposing college football coaches have always been quick to say that the Arkansas players have been well coached under head coach Bret Bielema. This does not mean that the players are not without fault but the players typically know their assignments and do not cheat or make boneheaded plays to beat themselves… most of them.

In 2014, Arkansas was penalized 68 times in 13 games for a total of 581 yards. Their opposition was penalized 77 times for 638 yards, a difference of nine penalties and 57 total yards.

Through four games in 2015, Arkansas has been penalized 31 times for 289 yards while the opposition has been penalized 21 times for 153 yards, a difference of 10 penalties covering 136 yards. At this rate Arkansas will have drawn 93 penalties by season’s end.

Another way to look at this, Arkansas is costing itself an average of 72.2 penalty yards per game while the opposition is only being docked 38.2 yards. At an average of 72.2 yards per game, at this pace, Arkansas will have given up 866.4 penalty yards in 12 games, or the length of eight football fields, by season's end.

Has Arkansas fallen into disarray among the coaching ranks with a younger team, or is something else at play?

One thing official stat keepers do not tally is touchdowns called back due to penalties or drive-ending flags that kill potential scores. Against Toledo the Hogs had two touchdowns called back with each one technically being a penalty, but neither one would have affected the outcome of the play if the ref would have kept his laundry on his hip. The Hogs would lose to the Rockets 16-12. Toledo was called for eight penalties totaling 55 yards to the Hogs' nine for 85 yards.

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In Week 3, Arkansas lost to Texas Tech 35-24. The amount of penalties called was not disparaging with the Red Raiders being flagged four times for 31 yards and the Hogs five times for 43, but yet another Arkansas touchdown was called back. Another penalty called in the Texas Tech game during the fourth quarter moved Arkansas from the Red Raiders’ 5-yard line to the 20, making a third-and-two to third-and-17. Brandon Allen would throw an incomplete pass and kicker Cole Hedlund would miss a 37-yard field goal attempt, seemingly costing the Hogs a chance to tie the game or cut into the lead (score was 35-24 at the time).

Against No. 4 Texas A&M in Week 4, the Aggies were dinged seven times for 52 yards while Arkansas was hit for 11 penalties for 93 yards. The Razorbacks'[ second possession against A&M ended favorably but not after back-to-back penalties were called, moving Arkansas from the Aggies’ 34-yard line to the 49. Allen ended up connecting with Drew Morgan for a 17-yard touchdown, negating the penalties.

On Arkansas’ next possession, the Hogs were pushed back from the Aggies’ 38-yard line to the 48 after a 10-yard penalty. Facing a first-and-30, the Hogs chip away to a third-and-13, but get another five-yard penalty. On fourth-and-seven, Allen throws a pick from the Aggies’ 35-yard line. Texas A&M will have two of their four penalties called at this time following the interception moving the Aggies back to the 7-yard line.

The following Arkansas possession, the Hogs get the ball on their 25-yard line and within five plays reached the Aggies’ 41-yard line before getting a 10-yard penalty. Allen would get sacked on a second-and-15, losing five more yards. Before the half, the refs essentially negated a 45-yard D.J. Dean punt return that could have resulted in a field goal attempt from the Aggies’ 19-yard line with one second left before half.

The calls got so out of hand even the ESPN commentators openly denounced many of the penalties. On the other side of the coin, there is nothing a ref can do about right tackle Dan Skipper’s repeated flinching before the snap of the ball.

Another way penalties go are the ones not called. When Christian Kirk scored on a 44-yard pass play in the second quarter No. 4 (Damion Ratley) for the Aggies blocked an Arkansas player in the back well before Kirk got to the end zone… penalty not called by the refs, touchdown stands.

The old expression goes that on every football play a flag theoretically can be tossed, for some reason the flags being tossed just seem to be going against Arkansas and all around the time the Razorbacks are about to score or have scored.

It could be argued that the called-back touchdowns against Toledo and Texas Tech dramatically change the course of the season for Arkansas from a 3-1 team to a 1-3 squad. Did the Hogs play well enough to win both games? Yes. Were they deserving based on preseason expectations of winning the games? Debatable but they could still be a Top 25-ranked team, even with the Texas A&M loss, and on track for a bowl bid. Now the Hogs must go 5-3 the rest of the way just to finish 6-6. The task can be done but seems somewhat improbable with road trips to Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU and Tennessee as well as games against Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri remaining.

The foolish thought was that when former SEC referees Penn Wagers and Matt Moore retired over the summer some of this impartial flag tossing would go back on the up-and-up. Last season Wagers cost Arkansas one last shot at upsetting Alabama letting the play clock run early and failing to give Bielema a called timeout before the Crimson Tide’s game-winning touchdown.

The calls got so bad in the SEC that even former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira wrote a column on it in 2014 stating the conference was losing integrity and credibility due to the officiating.

Again, multiple things can be correct all at the same time. Arkansas could have been railed in its last three losses and Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M can all be worthy of having won the game without anything being taken away from all parties involved. Maybe the refs are calling a clean game and this specific perspective has been skewed based on the timing and severity of the penalties. Then again, all things can be true at the same time with each person forming their own opinion. 

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.