2014 CFN Preview - Arkansas Razorbacks

Posted Jun 8, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Are the Hogs on the verge of blowing up? Is the turnaround coming? (Getty Images)

Arkansas Razorbacks

Preview 2014

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Head coach: Bret Bielema
2nd year: 3-9
9th year overall: 71-33
Returning Lettermen
Off: 21, Def. 20. ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 20
Ten Best Hog Players
1. RB Alex Collins, Soph.
2. DE Trey Flowers, Sr.
3. RB Jonathan Williams, Jr.
4. SS Alan Turner, Sr.
5. TE Hunter Henry, Soph.
6. LB Braylon Mitchell, Sr.
7. OT Brey Cook, Sr.
8. OG Dan Skipper, Soph.
9. RB Korliss Marshall, Soph.
10. QB Brandon Allen, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 at Auburn
Sep. 6 Nicholls State
Sep. 13 at Texas Tech
Sep. 20 Northern Illinois
Sep. 27 Texas A&M (in Arl.)
Oct. 11 Alabama
Oct. 18 Georgia
Oct. 25 UAB
Nov. 1 at Miss State
Nov. 15 LSU
Nov. 22 Ole Miss
Nov. 29 at Missouri

Considering what happened last year in the SEC, with Missouri rising up from out of nowhere and Auburn going from miserable to within one late stop of winning a national title, and with Texas A&M stunning everyone with its ascension in 2012, it's possible. It's possible to win in the SEC and be a major player in a hurry. Arkansas did it before, and now it might be on the verge of doing it again.

Ironically, considering head coach Bret Bielema's disdain for the spread and all things hurry-up, Arkansas might really be more like Auburn than it seems, at least in terms of rising up and reloading in a hurry.

Auburn had an odd 3-9 season in 2012 when nothing worked quite right, suffering a few close calls that could've easily have turned a three-win season into something respectable. Gus Malzahn came in, installed a brilliant rushing attack, no one could stop it, and boom went the dynamite.

Bielema already has a year under his belt at Arkansas, but coming from a 3-9 campaign, he has the running game growing and the pieces being put together up front to potentially be devastating on the ground. Known for keeping the foot on the gas when his Wisconsin teams got things rolling, and with his final win for Bucky a 70-31 beatdown of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship, it's possible that he knows what it takes to make the Hogs Auburn-like in the rebound.

Like 2012 Auburn, 2013 Arkansas came extremely close to being a winner. The tumble started after gagging away a winnable game at Rutgers in a 28-24 loss, and the Hogs fought well in a close call against Texas A&M and in late battles with Mississippi State and LSU. Four games were decided by a touchdown or less – all losses – and if three of those had gone the other way, the narrative would've been far different coming into the season. A 6-6 Hog team would've been considered an up-and-comer and not a possible last place option in the loaded SEC West.

But Arkansas has a legacy of winning in the SEC, getting the running game going under Houston Nutt in a fun 2006 season – finished up by losing to Bielema's Badgers in the Capital One Bowl – and Bobby Petrino made the program BCS good before his fall. Now it's up to Bielema to take what he knows how to do and make Arkansas the big, bad bully that no one in the South wants to deal with.

It's still taking a little time going from the Petrino style to the true ground-and-pound that Bielema prefers, but he has a loaded backfield with three terrific runners in Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, and his line is starting to come together with some huge young road graders growing into their jobs.

A defensive coach by nature, Bielema might not have the D in place that he'd like, and he has lots of work to do to find the right combination in the secondary and secure a rebuilt line, but There were improvements as the season went on and now there's more depth and more athleticism to play around with.

But even if it all comes together, and even if Arkansas really is this year's Auburn, that doesn't necessarily guarantee anything in a division with Alabama, LSU, a tremendous Ole Miss team, a deep Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Auburn, too.

If nothing else, Arkansas is going to have even more of an attitude, and it'll be the team everyone will have to gear up for – there won't be any finesse to deal with.

Bielema doesn't believe in any excuses, and he always thinks his teams can beat anyone. He'll get the chance this year with an improved team, and this time, he might be right.

What to watch for on offense:
Even more running. Bielema's Badgers could always throw the ball a bit, but they became amazing when the ground game was crushing and killing everything in its path. The Hog passing game has to be more efficient and effective to keep SEC defensive back sevens from loading up against the run, but this year, the Hogs should be able to establish their will a bit more with the experience and size up front to pave the way for the three-headed monster of Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall. To put it into perspective, Arkansas ran the ball 474 times last season for 2,504 yards and 14 touchdowns. The 2012 Badgers ran 635 times for 3,309 yards and 38 touchdowns, going over the 3,000 mark for the third straight season. Expect Arkansas to look more like Badgerball.

What to watch for on defense: It's time to start making things happen. The Arkansas defense was okay, and it got better as the season went on, but it wasn't disruptive enough. The offense needed some help from time to time, especially in key close games, and it didn't get it. Turnover margin was a problem overall with the defense going long stretches without coming up with a takeaway. The pass rush was solid, and being physical wasn't an issue, but the Hogs generated just one turnover over a five-game midseason stretch.

Big things needed to happen against South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn, and they didn't. The D came up with two takeaways in each of the final three games, and while the easier competition had something to do with it, the Hogs battled better against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU when the mistakes were forced and the turnover margin was even. During that ugly five-game run, Arkansas was -12.

The team will be far better if… the Hogs do all the little things right. Arkansas doesn't have the talent to beat the better SEC teams without being nearly perfect. Why did Wisconsin rock under Bielema's watch? Running game – the Hogs are putting together a terrific one. Don't commit penalties – Arkansas was 12th in the nation sinning just four times a game. Own the time of possession – not bad, keeping it 30:26 a game. Passing efficiency – here's the problem. There's on Russell Wilson or even a Scott Tolzien for a team that finished 109th in the nation in passing efficiency. Dominate turnover margin – this was a big issue, going in the minus in seven of the 12 games and finishing a -9 overall.

The Schedule: How juicy is it that noted spread offense hater Bret Bielema gets to start out the season at Auburn? Nicholls State is the only true break over the first half of the season, having to deal with a road date at Texas Tech, a neutral-site game in Arlington against Texas A&M, and with Alabama and Georgia to face all before the end of October?

It's not like things get any better, going off to face a nasty Mississippi State team on the road to start out November, and finishing up with LSU, Ole Miss and at Missouri. However, there's only one true road game between September 13 and November 29, and the non-conference schedule really isn't that bad as long as they can get by Texas Tech.

Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Alex Collins … or junior RB Jonathan Williams. Flip a coin and you probably have the better of the two backs. They both can play, they both can handle the workload, and they can both combine to give Arkansas one of the SEC's best 1-2 punches. They might not have the talent of Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and Auburn might end up getting more out of its backs, but it'll be harder to find a tandem more meaningful than Collins and Williams, who combined for close to 2,000 yards with each scoring four times.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Trey Flowers. Needing to step up big with Chris Smith gone from the other side and Robert Thomas and Byran Jones also done on the inside, the team's leading returning pass rusher will be keyed on right away with the pressure on to get behind the line on a regular basis. There's promise with Deatrich Wise looking like a potential star and other young players ready to take over, but it's Flowers who'll be the star to work around.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Brandon Allen. It's sink-or-swim with the returning starter who had a few great moments, but struggled overall completing fewer than 50% of his passes and not showing any consistency. With last year's top backup options moving to other spots – A.J. Derby is now a tight end after seeing a little time under center – Allen has to hit the open passes and stretch the field enough to open things up for the running game. Defenses have to respect the pass far more than they did last year.

The season will be a success if ... the Hogs get to a bowl game and beat at least one big-time West team along the way. With Nicholls State, Northern Illinois and UAB on the slate, Arkansas will be guaranteed to win at least three games, but it's going to take some work to get at least three more victories. The second half of the season should be interesting with most of the big games at home, but overall, Arkansas has to improve enough to start making more noise in the division. A home win over Alabama, Georgia, and/or LSU would be nice.

Key game: August 30 at Auburn. Even if Arkansas doesn't win the season opener, a great performance might show that this really is a different team and a different season. Want to be one of the big boys? What better way to show it than to beat up the defending SEC champion. Win this, and with the toughest true conference road games remaining at Mississippi State and Missouri, it'll be time to hope to do something truly big.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Sacks: Arkansas 28 – Opponents 8
- Second Half Scoring: Opponents 187 – Arkansas 117
- Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 24.2 yards – Arkansas 21.1 yards

- 2014 Arkansas Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players