The case for Arkansas to win the SEC West
Count ESPN College GameDay analyst Kirk Herbstreit as an Arkansas believer.
Last Friday, Herbstreit was asked on Twitter whether he’s picking Alabama or Auburn in the SEC West for 2015. And although his decision isn’t set in stone, Herbstreit admitted that he’s ‘leaning towards Arkansas’ in college football’s toughest division.
Leaning towards Arkansas? Is he crazy?
In fact, Herbstreit and I share a similar mindset about the Hogs: this program can make that step in 2015.
Full disclosure: I have Auburn winning the SEC Championship in 2015, but to say Arkansas doesn’t have a chance is certainly wrong.
But how big of a chance do the Hogs truly have? It’s slim, and the margin of error may be even slimmer.
I, for one, love what Bret Bielema is doing in Fayetteville. After having tremendous success at Wisconsin, he’s been the SEC’s outsider for the last two seasons, but he’s finally putting together the collection of players and building the program he’s wanted and doing it his way.
The Hogs return the best one-two punch at running back, with two 1,000-yard rushers Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
What’s not to love?
Here are three reasons why the Hogs can represent the West in Atlanta:
Veteran quarterback: Just look around the SEC for a moment, and you’ll notice inexperienced faces at quarterback saturate the storylines. West powers Alabama and LSU have quarterback questions. So does Ole Miss. Look, Brandon Allen doesn’t have to be Jeremy Johnson or Dak Prescott. He can be more like AJ McCarron, who was a facilitator of the offense. Sometimes it takes quarterbacks longer to flip the switch; Allen’s now a senior entering his final season. With Arkansas’ offense, Allen needs to complete a high percentage of his passes and not lose football games. Yes, he’ll have to make some throws down the field. That’s part of being a quarterback. It would benefit Allen if Keon Hatcher and JUCO transfer Dominique Reed develop into reliable downfield threats. We know the tight ends will be a major part of the passing game, too.
Although he still has to prove it, Allen could develop into the SEC’s best pro-style quarterback in 2015. If Allen can hit the 2,800-yard mark, complete 65-plus percent of his passes, throw 30 touchdowns and remain at five INTs like 2014, the Hogs could be in for a special season. Allen finished with 2,285 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and five INTs; however, the one glaring correction he’ll have to make is increasing his completion percentage, which finished right at 56 percent. That has to improve if this team wants to be in the race come November.
Perhaps the addition of new offensive coordinator Dan Enos will help jumpstart Allen and the passing game.
SEC West could experience a down year: The SEC West took a step back last season. I think we saw that during the bowl games. Some are predicting — even Paul Finebaum — that the SEC could be down more than we think and could struggle to land a team in the College Football Playoff. That bodes well for Arkansas. Parity could be the theme this season, and winning close football games will be a must. There’s not one team that stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Arkansas is a team that very much helps define the parity in the West.
Veterans learn how to win close games: Jumping back to the above point, Arkansas still has to prove they can win close football games. In four of Arkansas’ 2014 losses, the Hogs lost by a touchdown or less. You could make an argument why Arkansas should have beaten Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri last season. It didn’t happen, and my main concern about this team is whether they have learned or will learn to win close football games.
The biggest obstacle this team has to overcome is the schedule itself, playing both LSU and Alabama on the road, and that in and of itself creates such a challenge to overcome. The Hogs also travel to Tennessee and Ole Miss, too.
I don’t expect the defense to be as good as last season, which means the offense and the passing game must make a bigger step forward.
It will take many things going right for Arkansas to win the West, but isn’t that football? It takes championship teams catching multiple breaks during any given season.