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2014 College Football Preview: Arkansas Razorbacks

2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8 in SEC)

Head Coach: Bret Bielema (second season at Arkansas, 71-33 overall)

Last Bowl Game: 2012 Cotton Bowl: beat Kansas State 29-16

Stadium: Donald W Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, AR (capacity = 72,000)

2013 Home Record: 3-4 (including 1-1 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock)

Spring Game Highlights:

Schedule:

8/30 at Auburn (2013 result: lost 35-17)

9/6 vs Nicholls State

9/13 at Texas Tech

9/20 vs NIU

9/27 vs Texas A&M, at Arlington, TX (2013 result: lost 45-33)

10/11 vs Alabama (2013 result: lost 52-0)

10/18 vs Georgia

10/25 vs UAB

11/1 at Mississippi State (2013 result: lost 24-17 in OT)

11/15 vs LSU (2013 result: lost 31-27)

11/22 vs Ole Miss (2013 result: lost 34-24)

11/29 at Missouri

Statistical Snapshot:

2013 Statistics Link

Stats to Fear: lost 23 turnovers in 2013 (2nd to last in SEC); gained just 14 turnovers in 2013 (last in SEC); only SEC school not to have 10 or more passes of 30 yards or more in 2013

Stats to Cheer: 2.33 sacks per game (3rd in SEC); allowed only 8 sacks in 2013 (1st in SEC)

Personnel:

Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 8, Special Teams: 1

Key Losses: C Travis Swanson, OT David Hurd, WR Javontee Herndon, LB Jarrett Lake, S Eric Bennett, DE Chris Smith, DL Robert Thomas

Key Defensive Returnees: DB Alan Turner (97 total tackles), LB Braylon Mitchell (77 total tackles), DB Tevin Mitchel (47 total tackles), DL Darius Philon (46 total tackles, 3 sacks), DL Trey Flowers (44 total tackles, 5 sacks)

Key Offensive Returnees: QB Brandon Allen (49.6% completions, 13 TD, 10 INT), RB Alex Collins (1026 yds rush, 5.4 ypc, 4 TD), RB Jonathan Williams (900 yds rush, 6.0 ypc, 4 TD), TE Hunter Henry (28 rec, 4 TD), WR Keon Hatcher (27 rec)

Top 2013 Recruits: DT Bijhon Jackson, OT Brian Wallace, ATH Jojo Robinson, OT Frank Ragnow, QB Rafe Peavey (Early Enrollee), OT Jovan Pruitt

Verdict:

As expected, the Razorbacks struggled in year one under Bret Bielema. With the strength of the SEC West, the big question is if year two will be much better.

Brandon Allen returns at quarterback but as a sophomore he struggled mightily. Can a full off-season help him put a poor 2013 behind him and help him heal so that he is 100% when the Razorbacks hit the field in 2014? Allen has to be more consistent and staying healthy will be a big factor in whether the Hogs passing game can provide some balance for their burgeoning running game.

Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams both return at running back and that gives the Hogs one of the best backfields in a league that is full of great backfields. The Razorbacks will have to replace two very good starters on the offensive line but Bielema has signed nine offensive linemen over the last two years (here’s a in-depth look at the Hogs OL).

Hunter Henry is one of the top tight ends in the league but Allen needs for a WR to step up and become the top target. Gone are the days of Razorback WRs making plays all over the field, but someone needs to be the go-to-guy.

On defense, the Razorbacks finished 12th in the SEC in scoring defense (30.8 ppg) and 9th in yards allowed (413 ypg). They allowed opponents to score TDs on 64% of red zone trips (11th in SEC) and they allowed opponents to convert on 43.4% of third downs (13th in SEC, only Kentucky was worse).

As you can see, there is a lot of opportunity and there is a new staff that has been brought in to try and fix this side of the football. This will be no small task as only once in the last seven years has Arkansas finished in the top half of the conference in yards allowed and during that same time period they have never placed in the top half of the conference in points allowed. Can the culture be changed? The defense is a bit of a mystery right now for Arkansas and could make or break the season for them, especially since the offense isn’t likely to produce any major fireworks.

Overall, the Razorbacks will be better in year two under Bielema but the question is…how much better? The offense will be improved but can they provide more consistency and balance? That will come down to Allen and the offensive line. How will the defense respond under a new coaching staff? Can they tighten up on third down and in the red zone and create some turnovers?

Arkansas’s schedule is not an easy one but it does provide a few gaps for hope as the only back-to-back bruisers come with Alabama and Georgia (on Oct 11th and 18th) and both of those are home games. The Hogs will start off week one on the SEC Network against Auburn and that’s a likely loss. From there it’s three out of conference games against Nicholls State, Texas Tech and NIU (who will be replacing Jordan Lynch). If Arkansas wants to show improvement under Bielema, those are the three games that should be highlighted on the schedule. If they can start 3-1 then a bowl is possible with A&M (still with lots of question marks), UAB, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Mizzou on the schedule.

Right now, I see Arkansas as a team that will win from 4 to 6 games. The big key is the early games against Texas Tech and NIU. Both are very winnable but both are also very lose-able. Win both and Bielema could have the Hogs headed to a bowl ahead of schedule, lose both and this will be a long season. Another key is to learn how to win on the road. In 2013, they went 0-5 on the road (including three games by 10 points or less). This years road SEC schedule is Auburn, A&M (at Arlington), Mississippi State and Missouri.

Note: final predictions for all SEC teams will be made in August in my conference preview.

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