In the SEC, the schedule matters every year. The difference between a night game in Bryant-Denny Stadium or at home could mean the difference between a SEC West title and playing a bowl game before New Year’s Day. Heading into last season, Arkansas was returning five starters on offense and four on defense, but had to navigate the NCAA’s toughest-ranked schedule, which is part of the reason why the Razorbacks went 7-6.
Entering the 2015 season, Arkansas is as loaded as any team in the nation on offense, returning nine starters, not counting 1,100-yard rusher Alex Collins. On defense the Hogs have five starters returning, but did lose defensive end Trey Flowers, linebacker Martrell Spaight, and defensive tackle Darius Philon to the NFL.
If Arkansas has hopes of winning the SEC West Bret Bielema’s team must manage a schedule that includes just three home games in Fayetteville against conference opponents while managing two separate back-to-back road trips. Seven of Arkansas’ 12 regular season games come against teams ranked in Athlon Sports’ preseason Top 25.
Based on home-field advantage vs. being on the road, projected toughness of opponent, and Arkansas’ style of play vs. opponent, the following is a ranking of the Razorbacks’ regular season games from easiest to toughest.
12. Oct. 31 vs. Tennessee-Martin
On All Hallows Eve the scariest thing at play for an established program like Arkansas is to overlook a Skyhawks team that finished 6-6 in 2014.
11. Sept. 5 vs. UTEP
Once the Razorbacks get past any opening drive jitters and find their rhythm, Bielema should be able to rest his starters somewhere in the third quarter.
The Miners finished 7-6 last season, including a 5-3 mark in Conference USA. UTEP has some returning talent on offense that could give Arkansas a good early test with new faces at key positions, namely defensive end and linebacker. If the Hogs can shutdown returning 1,300-yard rusher Aaron Jones that should be a good sign of things to come for Razorback Nation.
10. Sept. 12 vs. Toledo (Little Rock)
The Rockets finished the 2014 season 9-4, going 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference. The strength of the team was Toledo’s ability to run the ball, a great second consecutive test for the Hogs’ front seven in preparation for SEC play. Junior running back Kareem Hunt is arguably one of the best running backs in the nation, certainly the best no one has heard of, coming off a 1,631-yard campaign with 16 touchdowns while averaging 8.0 yards per carry.
9. Sept. 19 vs. Texas Tech
The Hogs manhandled Texas Tech last season in Lubbock, winning 49-28. The Red Raiders have eight starters returning on offense and seven on defense. The bad news for the Razorbacks, four of five starters return along Tech’s offensive line. The good news for the Razorbacks is senior defensive end Pete Robertson is the only Red Raider of note returning along the front seven.
Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, likely featuring Patrick Mahones at quarterback, will be the Hogs’ first test against a very efficient passing attack. Tech finished fifth in the nation in 2014 with 351 passing yards per game.
8. Nov. 21 vs. Mississippi State
This game will likely be a gut check, how-much-gas-is-left-in-the-tank kind of game for the Hogs. Arkansas returns home after games against Ole Miss and LSU to face what right now is an unknown entity in the Bulldogs. Chances are Mississippi State will be on a down note only returning four starters on offense and three on defense, but head coach Dan Mullen did give game experience to his 2015 starters as key backups last fall.
The other thing the Bulldogs may have going their way, other than the return of quarterback Dak Prescott and linebacker Beniquez Brown, is the majority of the players expected to fill the gaps left by graduation are all seniors and juniors.
7. Nov. 28 vs. Missouri
Every college football fan outside of the Mizzou faithful are wondering how much longer head coach Gary Pinkel can keep up the double-digit win seasons. The Hogs had Missouri last year in Columbia before surrendering a fourth-quarter lead, losing 21-14.
The Tigers’ defensive front and wide receiver corps was hit hard by graduation and the NFL draft. Missouri could be fighting to become bowl eligible by the time they come to Fayetteville in late November, making this game a state border dogfight.
6. Sept. 26 vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
Arkansas’ home game against Texas Tech is the perfect tune-up before heading to Arlington to face the Aggies. If the Razorbacks’ secondary is able to hold up against the Air Raid offense expect them to hold their own against Kevin Sumlin’s passing attack.
Texas A&M’s wide receiver corps is arguably the best in the nation with Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Speedy Noil. If Arkansas does not get pressure up front on defense against quarterback Kyle Allen, this not-so-neutral-site game could be a shootout.
5. Nov. 7 at Ole Miss
As is the case with several SEC West teams, Ole Miss could be either pretty good or pretty average. The Rebels’ defense should be top shelf with seven starters back from a unit that finished 13th nationally last season.
Question marks line Mississippi’s offense entering the season from who will win the starting quarterback job, the eligibility of potential first-team All-American left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the health of potential All-American wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, and if head coach Hugh Freeze can find a running game.
4. Oct. 3 at Tennessee
Some history could be made for Bielema in Knoxville in early October. He has yet to win a SEC road game since taking over at Arkansas in 2013. Could the Volunteers be his first victim?
Tennessee returns four starters on the offensive line (three with the loss of senior Marcus Jackson), two being seniors. Junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs could be laying the groundwork for an early Heisman Trophy campaign if Tennessee jumps out of the gate strong. The Volunteers will be tough but still very young.
3. Nov. 14 at LSU
LSU is pushed up these rankings based on location and the fact that Arkansas held the Tigers scoreless last season, winning 17-0, gives this game a revenge factor.
The Tigers always recruit well thus will have great athletic talent on the field but how this team gels going forward is a big question mark. If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can solve the inconsistent play under center and new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele can mold the unit to his liking, LSU will be tough to play regardless of the site… but this team has the feel of a squad in flux.
Head coach Les Miles always has running back sensation Leonard Fournette to fall back on as needed.
2. Oct. 3 at Alabama
This game represents a stretch of three consecutive tough road matchups for Arkansas, starting with Texas A&M in Arlington and a trip to Knoxville, Tenn., sandwiched in between. Luckily the Crimson Tide will be coming off what should be a tough road game against SEC East favorite Georgia before hosting Arkansas.
Alabama will have a terrific front seven on defense, creating an intriguing strength vs. strength matchup because of Arkansas’ run-heavy offense. Bama’s ground game will always be there but who starts under center and how productive will that quarterback be in 2015?
1. Oct. 24 vs. Auburn
When the Razorbacks take the field in 2015 they should fear no team after how they played last season. Arkansas let five games slip away in the second half after being tied or holding a lead coming out of halftime — Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Auburn.
An Arkansas fan could make a logical argument that Auburn got lucky getting the Razorbacks in the 2014 season opener and not somewhere in the second half of the season once the Hogs started putting it all together.
Arkansas gets Auburn after consecutive games against Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Alabama, a daunting stretch for any FBS team. The good news is Arkansas gets a bye the week before Auburn comes to town allowing the Hogs a week to rest and prepare. The Tigers will head to Fayetteville after a road trip to an up-and-coming Kentucky team.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.