At 6-6, foundation laid for bright future at Arkansas
Mark my words: the Arkansas team that began the season is not the team that’s finishing the season.
After a 3-4 start — and another winless start in conference play — the Razorbacks finished 3-2, but it’s a telling 3-2. The switch flipped on Nov. 1 with a 17-10 loss to Mississippi State, and during the ensuing three weeks, Arkansas played a bruising style of football highlighted by the first consecutive shutouts of SEC opponents since the Razorbacks joined the conference in 1992.
In year two under Bret Bielema, many expected marginal improvement over last year’s 3-9 season. However, not many expected bowl eligibility, nor did they expect the way Arkansas dominated some of its conference opponents down the stretch.
Bielema has resurrected a program, and has positioned it to be a legitimate contender in the SEC West.
Arkansas returns a wealth of experience in 2015, but also loses some valuable pieces. The Razorbacks return 10 players on offense that saw consistent playing time, or started most games. That amount of game experience didn’t exist last season upon’s Bielema arrival in Fayetteville, and will be invaluable entering 2015 as Bielema looks to replace numerous seniors.
Not only did the Hogs gain game experience, but they also earned the experience of winning games. During its next three games following the aforementioned loss to then-No. 1 Mississippi State, Arkansas demolished UAB, and shut out both LSU and Ole Miss. The experience of winning games is akin to a fever, once you have it, it’s really hard to shake.
Bielema’s team enters bowl preparation, and 2015 as a team that has learned how to win football games, and that means a lot in the maturity of a team and the building of a program.
While Arkansas took a huge step forward in 2014, depth held it back to a certain degree. The Razorbacks were burned late in close losses, thanks in part to a lack of depth behind the starting 11 on both sides of the football.
The Hogs currently have the 20th-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports. Bielema has 17 verbal commitments, highlighted by talent on the defensive front and at the skill positions on offense. If Arkansas can haul in a solid class in February and develop some of that talent, it will go a long way in creating depth behind the starting 22, and give the Razorbacks more chances to be in games late.
As we’ve learned in 2014, the SEC West is competitive, teams we don’t expect to compete can end up being in the conversation for the division title. Arkansas’ plus-three win improvement is better than almost anyone expected, however Bielema and company need to improve on that mark in year three.
The Hogs are considered an early dark horse to contend in the vaunted, yet oft-crowded Western Division, will a young team be able to live up to those expectations?