Arkansas football: 5 bold predictions for the 2018 season
Arkansas opens its 2018 season Saturday against Eastern Illinois inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The inaugural season under Chad Morris comes following a 4-8 campaign that led to Bret Bielema’s firing last November.
The Hogs are expected to look quite different under Morris. The offense shifts from a pro-style approach to an up-tempo plan executed almost exclusively from the shotgun. Veteran SEC defensive coordinator John Chavis has taken on the task of rebuilding what has been a poor unit the past two seasons. He has altered the scheme significantly and moved some key players to a different position in an effort to get the best 11 defenders on the field.
All the changes have made Arkansas one of the more unpredictable teams in the SEC this season. Regardless, it’s always fun to make some bold preseason predictions. Here are five of those for Arkansas’ 2018 season.
1. Arkansas gets back to bowl game
Morris has a perfect opportunity to get Arkansas back to a bowl game in his first season following the Hogs’ one-year hiatus from postseason play in 2017. This season appears to be the least-intimidating schedule Morris will face competing in the SEC West. Arkansas doesn’t have a nonconference Power 5 opponent (thanks, Michigan). The Hogs also have just four true road games and will play five consecutive home games in the middle of the season. Arkansas should be favored to beat Eastern Illinois, Colorado State, North Texas, Tulsa and Vanderbilt. Expect the Hogs to add one more victory outside of those five and make a bowl appearance.
2. Quarterback uncertainty won’t go away
Morris recently named Cole Kelley the Hogs’ starting quarterback. The quarterback competition isn’t exactly over, though. Ty Storey, who has been Kelley’s primary competition in the race, will also play Week 1. Additionally, Morris plans to play true freshmen Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones at some point before deciding whether either will redshirt. Clearly, little is settled at quarterback beyond Kelley taking the first snap against Eastern Illinois. With Morris wanting to get as many as four players snaps this season, the uncertainty at the position is here to stay.
3. Ryan Pulley makes postseason all-SEC
Arkansas cornerback Ryan Pulley isn’t on any of the coaches’ preseason all-conference teams. Assuming he remains healthy, don’t expect that to be the case in the postseason. Pulley missed all but one game last season with an injury. He was quietly one of the top cornerbacks in the conference as a sophomore. During this preseason, he appears to have returned that form from two seasons ago and then some. He may be an afterthought now, but expect him to quickly prove he’s an all-conference talent this fall.
4. Offensive line will be major weakness
Arkansas’ offensive line has been one of the worst in the SEC each of the past two seasons. The new scheme should help alleviate some pressure up front, but it’s no certainty the group will be any better. That’s especially true now that injuries have mounted. Projected starting left tackle Colton Jackson had back surgery and is expected to miss several games. Redshirt freshman Dalton Wagner, Jackson’s potential replacement, recently had an appendectomy. Jalen Merrick is yet to practice due to headache concerns, Deion Malone will miss the entire season with a knee injury and Dylan Hays battled ailments all preseason. This group wasn’t likely to be a strength even if fully healthy. Now, the offensive line will surely once again be one of the worst position groups on the team.
5. The pass rush returns
It wasn’t long ago Arkansas consistently ranked among the best pass-rushing teams in the SEC. From 2009-2013, the Hogs finished in the top half of the conference with at least 28 sacks each of those five seasons. Arkansas has averaged just 22 sacks per season in the four years since. Chavis values pressuring the quarterback above all else. With Randy Ramsey leading the way at end, these Hogs can produce a 30-sack season.