Popular SEC darkhorses for 2016: Arkansas and Tennessee
Looking ahead to 2016, the SEC could see a changing of the guard in at least one of its divisions and perhaps both due to the rise of two programs — Arkansas and Tennessee.
Both finished 2015 on hot streaks. Each could be a darkhorse selection for the SEC Championship. But both were in similar positions after the 2014 season.
Here’s a look at what could help and hurt their runs next season.
2015 season: 8-5 (5-3)
Bowl result: Defeated Kansas State 45-23 in the Liberty Bowl
Why the hype?
- Nine returning starters on defense — Very few fans realized that Arkansas had a top-notch defense against the run. The Razorbacks allowed 119.6 rushing yards per game, 16th in the country. They had trouble stopping the pass — they were 121st in passing yards allowed per game. Nine returning starters should improve the pass defense. Arkansas also has three four-star commits on defense coming in its recruiting class.
- Another top recruiting class — The Razorbacks have top talent in their recruiting class. Four-star Devwah Whaley is the fourth-best running back in the class, according to 247 Sports. The Razorbacks also have four-star OG Jake Heinrich committed. Both will help replace departed starters.
- More favorable schedule — In 2015, Arkansas faced Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU on the road, but still won two of those three games. Next season, the Razorbacks will play host to those teams. They will also play Florida at home and Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The toughest road game will actually be at Texas Christian.
On second thought … : The Razorbacks got off to a terribly slow start this season, and they could get out of the blocks slowly again after losing five key offensive starters. Arkansas is losing QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins, TE Henry Hunter, LG Sebastian Tretola and C Mitch Smothers.
2014 season: 9-4 (5-3)
Bowl result: Defeated Northwestern 45-6 in Outback Bowl
Why the hype?
- The emergence of Joshua Dobbs — The junior quarterback continued to develop in his first full year of starting. He passed for 2,291 yards, 15 TDs and just five interceptions. He also rushed for a career-high 671 yards and 12 TDs. His 26 scores were most by a quarterback in the SEC East.
- Impact juniors – Although the Volunteers improved this season, the roster was still a little too young and inexperienced to win early in the season. Heading into next year, Tennessee will have the majority of its best players back with valuable experience. Leading rusher Jalen Hurd, second leading receiver Josh Malone, leading sacker Derek Barnett, and interceptions leader Todd Kelly will be juniors.
- Learned how to win – After blowing a 13-point lead to Florida in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and then losing to Arkansas the following week, Tennessee learned how to win. The Volunteers won seven of their final eight games, which included a 38-31 comeback victory over Georgia. Tennessee’s only loss was a 19-14 defeat at Alabama.
On second thought … : Tennessee isn’t getting many immediate impact players in its 2016 recruiting class. The Vols have the 10th-ranked recruiting class in the SEC, according to 247 Sports. Although the Tennessee roster looks better now, perhaps Florida or Georgia will have freshmen ready to contribute immediately. The Gators and Bulldogs are in the top six in conference recruiting rankings.