Arkansas had been enjoying a steady rise since the arrival of coach Bret Bielema in 2013, going from 3-9 to 7-6 to 8-5 in his first three seasons.
However, the Razorbacks took a small step back this past year and dropped to 7-6. Maybe most alarming, their SEC record flip-flopped from 5-3 in 2015 to 3-5 in 2016. It’s time to wonder if Bielema has gone as far as he can with this program.
In all fairness, not only is this the best conference in America, but the West is undoubtedly the most competitive division in the college game. Bielema inherited a 4-8 squad that was still reeling from the Bobby Petrino fiasco, so there’s no question he’s done a good job. But he hasn’t done a great job yet, and it remains to be seen if he can get over the hump.
Fortunately, Bielema will have a senior quarterback this season in Austin Allen. He seems to possess what’s necessary to possibly lead a breakout campaign in Fayetteville.
2016 Projection: 6-6 (3-5)
Actual Record: 7-5* (3-5)
* doesn’t include bowl game
The aforementioned Bielema is probably the most fun-loving coach in the league, although an affable personality doesn’t have much of an effect on the win-loss column.
Off the field, Bielema is the right face for any university. He lights up a room full of deep-pocketed boosters. He’s media-friendly and always has a story to tell. His kids graduate, are active in the community and tend to stay out of trouble.
That only gets you so far in the SEC, though. The fact remains that the Hogs were more relevant nationally with Petrino — a world-class snake oil salesman — at the controls. He won 21 games and took this team to the Sugar and Cotton Bowls his last two seasons. Bielema, on the other hand, hasn’t made it to the month of January.
His comedic charm has started to get a bit stale with more demanding Arkansas fans. While Bielema isn’t on the hot seat, it’s mildly warm at this point.
Allen was one of the biggest question marks in the SEC a year ago. This season, he’s arguably the purest of passers in the entire conference.
He led the league with 3,430 yards passing and had multiple touchdown tosses in each of his first seven starts, including a four-game stretch in which he wasn’t intercepted. However, Allen was picked off 13 times in his final eight outings.
Not only was he subjected to a ridiculous amount of punishment — his offensive line didn’t play well more often than not — but he admitted last month at Media Days that he tried to pull too many rabbits out of his hat. If Allen stays within the framework of the offense and doesn’t look for plays that simply aren’t there, he can cut down on his mistakes and avoid costly turnovers.
Additionally, he has to get rid of the ball on time. Even if his protection left much to be desired, Allen oftentimes made matters worse by failing to fire sooner.
Strengths & Weaknesses
This is Arkansas we’re talking about, so it all starts up front. Graduated left tackle Dan Skipper was a tad overrated, so there’s hope that Colton Jackson is a better fit on Allen’s blind side.
Rawleigh Williams III was outstanding on the ground in 2016, but he was forced to walk away from football following another scary situation with his neck in the spring game. That being said, Devwah Whaley might even be more gifted as his replacement.
Allen’s receiving corps must be rebuilt, as Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Dominique Reed, Cody Hollister and Jeremy Sprinkle were all seniors and out of eligibility. Jared Cornelius is the presumptive primary option now. On the other side of the ball, a switch in scheme from the 4-3 to the 3-4 could help a defensive unit that was average at best across the board a year ago.
Big names like Brooks Ellis, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. are gone off the D. It’s time for new stars like cornerback Ryan Pulley and a healthy Dre Greenlaw at linebacker to emerge.
Week 1: vs. Florida A&M (W)*
Alabama coach Nick Saban wants to get rid of cupcake games like this one, but the Razorbacks will be quite happy to lay a big number on the Rattlers in their season opener.
Week 2: vs. TCU (W)
The SEC has done a better job at recruiting the Lone Star State than the Texas schools lately, so the Horned Frogs aren’t as talented as they were a few seasons ago.
Week 3: bye
Week 4: vs. Texas A&M (W)**
The Hogs have one of the most stable signal caller rooms in the land. That’s not the case for A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. Not by a long shot. Advantage Bielema.
Week 5: vs. New Mexico State (W)
The Aggies faced a pair of SEC opponents last season and surrendered a total of 114 points. Allen and Co. should have a field day.
Week 6: at South Carolina (W)
An interesting crossover matchup in the conference between a couple of up-and-coming teams, expect fireworks aplenty through the air in this one at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Week 7: at Alabama (L)
The Crimson Tide are still the standard by which other programs are measured in this league. Arkansas isn’t ready to compete on their level just yet.
Week 8: vs. Auburn (W)
If the Razorbacks are going to make a run at ‘Bama in the West, then they have to hold serve at home in divisional play. Knocking off the Tigers would be a huge victory.
Week 9: at Ole Miss (L)
These two clubs have participated in some wild ones the last two years. With nothing to really play for in 2016, the Rebels are dangerous and unpredictable foes.
Week 10: vs. Coastal Carolina (W)
The Hogs get themselves right again with a relatively easy win over a directional school. The Chanticleers are in the middle of a transition to the FBS level.
Week 11: at LSU (L)
Bayou Bengals tailback Derrius Guice put up a staggering 252 yards against Arkansas this past season. That game was in the supposedly friendly confines of Razorback Stadium, too.
Week 12: vs. Mississippi State (W)
Another scrappy team looking to ruffle some feathers in the West, the Bulldogs are tough to stop when QB Nick Fitzgerald gets rolling. Allen will have to outscore him.
Week 13: vs. Missouri (W)
Even if the Battle Line Rivalry feels a bit forced, the Razorbacks can’t afford to take Mizzou and its high-flying offense lightly.
* at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock
** at AT&T Stadium in Arlington
2017 Projection: 9-3 (5-3)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC West
I’m high on the Hogs this season, mostly due to my confidence in Allen building off last year’s success with his right arm.
He may not have the physical tools of, say, Jacob Eason at Georgia, but while Eason wants to throw every pass through a brick wall, Allen has an enviable sense of touch and timing. He’s tough as nails in the pocket, as well. Any O-line appreciates that.
Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. Allen’s presence alone will help develop some of the younger pass catchers, plus it wouldn’t surprise me if Whaley turns into a 1,500-yard back. But Arkansas lost at the line of scrimmage in 2016. For the first time in Bielema’s tenure, this program allowed more sacks on offense than it recorded on defense.
On special teams, a senior kicker and punter have to be replaced. The return game could also use a shot in the arm.