2016 dream/disaster scenarios: Arkansas
It’s a question that keeps Razorbacks coaches, players and fans churning in their beds long into the Arkansas night.
“What kind of season lies ahead for our beloved Hogs?”
Our inner dialog runs the spectrum while staring at the ceiling, ranging from College Football Playoff glory to the despair of another lost season on The Hill.
The 2016 Arkansas season can follow many routes. Here we use some conjecture to figure what polar extremes might be in store for head coach Bret Bielema and his Razorbacks this upcoming year. Think of it as what a 2016 “dream” or “disaster” season will look like for Arkansas.
In our dream scenario, we’re giving the Razorbacks six “Ws” right away in contests they should win. That includes victories over Louisiana Tech, Texas State, Texas A&M, Alcorn State, Auburn and Missouri. Mississippi State needed a blocked field goal to eke out a wild 51-50 win in Fayetteville last year. Without Dak Prescott under center, the Bulldogs fall this year to the Hogs. Bielema’s squad proved it can handle Ole Miss and LSU last season, and will do so again in 2016. That gives the head coach nine wins, the most in his four-year tenure on The Hill.
Which leaves us with contests against Alabama, TCU and Florida as the wild cards. By this point, we’ve used up a lot of good karma, fortune and probably lucky bounces to get Arkansas within one victory of the school’s first double-digit-win season since Bobby Petrino’s final campaign in 2011 (11-2). However, if we’re dreaming big, the Razorbacks down the Gators in Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. TCU on the road in Texas might be a difficult place to walk away from with a win.
Alabama could be ripe for the picking, especially when you consider that Arkansas led the Crimson Tide at the half in last season’s contest in Tuscaloosa and trailed by only an Adam Griffith field goal entering the fourth quarter. This year’s Alabama squad is breaking in new talent at both quarterback and out of the backfield and could be susceptible to what is expected to be a vastly-improved Razorbacks defense.
We’re dreaming, remember. Bielema pulls off one of the biggest upsets in program history, ideally finishing at 11-1 or 10-2. Arkansas celebrates the 10-year anniversary of its last SEC West championship by finally returning to the conference title game.
Plus, if the Hogs knock off all those teams, they’d have to be considered in the running for one of the four College Football Playoff slots.
Several things have to happen for Arkansas to pull off what would be a Herculean feat.
- Austin Allen happens: Austin Allen steps into a starting quarterback role vacated by his older brother and proves the years of tutelage and holding a clipboard while Brandon excelled at both Arkansas and Fayetteville High School ahead of him weren’t for naught. Brandon finished with 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns in his final season on The Hill. Austin will have to emulate those numbers, which is no small task considering Brandon’s output was the fourth-best single-season performance by a Razorback quarterback. Thankfully, Austin not only has the likes of Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, Jared Cornelius and Jeremy Sprinkle returning, but also gets the benefit having 2014 leading receiver Keon Hatcher back in the lineup after a season-ending injury early in 2015.
- Return of the defense: If Arkansas wants any chance of posting 11 wins, the defense will have to be starkly improved. Fortunately, defensive coordinator Robb Smith has the pieces in place to return the Razorbacks to their 2014 form, with the SEC’s second-ranked defense. Arkansas could arguably have one of the best rush defenses in 2016 thanks to a deep defensive line that features Deatrich Wise Jr. (8 sacks, 10.5 TFL) and highly-touted, five-star freshman McTelvin “Sosa” Agim. In our dream scenario, Agim is named a unanimous freshman All-American.
- Running backs: Arkansas was fortunate to have Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams charging out of the backfield the last two years. Now it’s up to Kody Walker, Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley to step up and continue the Razorbacks’ tradition of power runners. While it’ll be difficult for one of them to equal Collins’ 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns, working as a trio, it might be possible. Walker is an experienced senior with 644 career yards and 13 touchdowns. Williams in our dream scenario returns from a neck injury that cost him the second half of the 2015 season to post big numbers, while the Texas product Devwah Whaley lives up to his four-star hype as a true freshman. If all works to fruition, Arkansas could lead the SEC in time of possession for a second consecutive year.
Arkansas fans know all too well that it can all fall apart rather quickly (cough, cough John L. Smith cough, cough).
The Razorbacks’ 2016 schedule is fairly daunting when you step back and look at it. Arkansas will face five teams that finished the 2015 campaign ranked by the Associated Press — albeit all of those contests, save for TCU, is at home.
Bielema’s program has shown signs in the past that they can be stunned by an inferior opponent, most painfully dropping a contest to Toledo last year. Arkansas went 0-2 in its early-season tilts against Texas schools (A&M and Tech) in 2015 and face another early Longhorn State slate in 2016 with matchups against the Horned Frogs and Texas State. In a disaster scenario, the Hogs drop both of those games, mirroring 2015. It’s that or face an embarrassing loss to Alcorn State or Louisiana Tech.
Otherwise, games against Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, as well as a cross-conference matchup against Florida, could all yield losses. Any other defeats after that would spell certain doom for a season that begins with high hopes, possibly leaving Arkansas fighting for a berth in a bowl game.
If it all goes sour for the Razorbacks, it’ll be due to several reasons. Here are a few hypotheticals for a potential Hogs demise.
- Foot injuries: Arkansas might need new shoes or something. Bielema’s team has been besieged by foot injuries in years’ past. Ailing feet kept star running back Jonathan Williams out of the 2015 season. The same went for wide receivers Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister. The epidemic continued into this spring with the broken foot suffered by Kody Walker. The senior is expected to be a big part of the Arkansas running game this year, but his status will remain uncertain likely deep into fall camp. In the disaster scenario, Walker’s foot injury plagues the running back, forcing the relatively inexperienced Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley to fill the void.
- Lots of yards again: Arkansas’ improved defensive front can have a ripple effect on the Hogs’ secondary by allowing teams less time to drop back and pass. The Razorbacks secondary should be stronger in 2016, losing only safety Rohan Gaines. However, the unit needs to get stronger this year after finishing last in the SEC in passing defense. In fact, only 11 teams in the nation allowed more yards via the air than Robb Smith’s secondary. If Smith can’t coral opponents’ passing game, then expect Arkansas to find itself in several more shootouts this season — ones they’re not guaranteed to win two years in a row.
- Running backs and offensive line: If Walker fails to return from the broken foot, Williams doesn’t quite show the same flash after his neck injury and Whaley doesn’t develop as quickly as hoped, Arkansas could be in for a long season out of the backfield. That would only strain a Razorbacks offensive line that will be replacing three starters. If Bielema’s offense can’t establish a running game — which has always been among the coach’s modus operandi — then Austin Allen might find it difficult to drop back and find his talented arsenal of wide receivers.