If Arkansas is to ever make a run at a SEC West title, 2016 would be the year to do it. The Razorbacks have a lot going for them heading into the season with nine starters back on defense, a very favorable schedule, and their side of the SEC figures to be down this year. The trouble for the Hogs is the unknown on offense.
Arkansas pulled together an 8-5 season in 2015 after stumbling hard out of the blocks at 1-3. The Hogs buckled down through the heart of their SEC schedule, ending the year on a high note with a 45-23 trouncing of Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
On offense, quarterback Brandon Allen is gone replaced by younger brother Austin, as is leading rusher Alex Collins with Kody Walker, Rawleigh Williams and incoming freshman Devwah Whaley in a battle to fill his big shoes. Another key piece of last year’s offense that has departed is Mackey Award-winning tight end Hunter Henry. The one good thing for second-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos is the cupboard is not bare at tight end or wide receiver. So if Allen can come in and get the ball to his weapons, the Razorbacks should be able to move the ball and score some points.
The defense was a Jekyll and Hyde affair with one part being stout (run defense finished 12th in the nation) with the other being anything but (pass defense finished No. 117). Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads has been brought on to help mold the secondary into shape. If Arkansas is to have a season to remember, the pass defense must improve and quickly. The good news for defensive coordinator Robb Smith is that plenty of experience returns in those nine starters.
Here is a look at Arkansas 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Oct. 1 vs. Alcorn State
The Braves may get a distracted Arkansas team in early October. Arkansas has lost back-to-back games to Texas A&M in overtime, so one can expect another nail-biting finish leading into this game, and the Hogs get Alabama the following week. The Braves were 9-4 in 2015 but were quickly shown the door against their lone FBS opponent, Georgia Tech, losing 69-6 in their season opener.
11. Sept. 17 vs. Texas State
The Bobcats suffered through a 3-9 (2-6 Sun Belt) showing in 2015 and have just four starters back on offense and four back on defense. Texas State could be a much-needed game to get the ship back on course if all does not go well in Fort Worth against the Horned Frogs the week prior.
10. Sept. 3 vs. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs were 9-4 a year ago, but lost quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon to the NFL. Louisiana Tech likes to use four wide receivers, making this season opener a good barometer for Arkansas’ beleaguered pass defense in preparation for the likes of TCU, Texas A&M and Auburn. The Bulldogs only have two key starters returning on defense, so the Hogs should be able to make some noise on offense too.
9. Nov. 25 at Missouri
First-year head coach Barry Odom will have his hands full in 2016 trying to revive Missouri’s offense. The line returns just one starter to protect sophomore quarterback Drew Lock, who needs to take a step or two forward this season. The running game should get a boost from true freshmen Nate Strong and Damrea Crockett but can the line get a push up front?
Missouri’s defense was very good a year ago, finishing sixth overall in FBS. The Tigers’ front line is stout and led by Charles Harris, Josh Augusta and Walter Brady. If Missouri can produce some offense, expect the Tigers to hang closer than the 28-3 beating they took in Fayetteville last season.
8. Sept. 10 at TCU
Athlon Sports has the Horned Frogs ranked No. 18, which on paper may seem a bit odd. TCU may put up a pile of points on its Big 12 competition because that is what the Horned Frogs have been able to do lately, but the offense returns just one starter as the potent passing combination of Trevone Boykin to Josh Doctson is no longer around. Quarterback Kenny Hill beat the Hogs when he was with Texas A&M in 2014, but he may not get the starting spot if Foster Sawyer has anything to say about the matter.
TCU should be solid on defense with eight starters back, but that unit was fairly average in 2015 against the run, something Arkansas will look to exploit if possible.
7. Oct. 22 at Auburn
The Tigers limped to a 7-6 mark in 2015 but still almost beat Arkansas in Fayetteville before losing 54-46 in overtime. Former running back Peyton Barber ran over Arkansas’ defense for 120 yards on 37 carries with four scores. Sean White, who is in a battle with Jeremy Johnson for the starting spot under center, was good enough to keep the chains moving, hitting 19 of 32 passes for 254 yards.
Auburn welcomes Arkansas at the right time, after consecutive games against Alabama and Ole Miss. The Hogs have a bye the following week before Florida and may be eyeing a week off to rest and heal before four more SEC games to end the regular season.
6. Nov. 19 at Mississippi State
How good can Mississippi State be with quarterback Dak Prescott now in the NFL? Each year Mississippi State is essentially picked last in the SEC West, and each year the Bulldogs rise above expectations. Nick Fitzgerald appears to be the heir apparent in the pocket. Like Prescott he can run, which has caused trouble for Arkansas defenses in the past.
On defense, the Bulldogs are moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment, which could work in Arkansas’ favor. The Hogs had trouble moving MSU’s defensive front a year ago. MSU has five key starters back on defense and five on offense. Everything teeters on quarterback play for the Bulldogs.
5. Sept. 24 vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
No matter the records or amount of returning starters either Arkansas or Texas A&M has on their rosters when they square off, the game is sure to be exciting. The Aggies went 8-5 in 2015 but lost both starting quarterbacks to transfer. Former Oklahoma starting quarterback Trevor Knight has been given the nod to start the season in the pocket for A&M. How will he hold up against a SEC schedule?
The Aggies will be tough on defense again and will have arguably one of the best wide receivers corps in the nation. Just another tough game for the Hogs.
4. Nov. 5 vs. Florida
Arkansas rotates off Tennessee from the East for Florida, which may be a blessing. The Gators lost a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, especially on defense to the NFL. For the sixth year in a row, Florida will have a new starting quarterback. The Gators return three along their offensive line and have running backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite back after solid freshmen seasons.
The defense may be salty again but will miss cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, safety Keanu Neal and lineman Jonathan Bullard.
Florida could be struggling by the time Arkansas welcomes the defending SEC East champions to Fayetteville. The Gators’ schedule is difficult with road games to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, home games against LSU and Missouri, a neutral site game against Georgia, then to Arkansas before going back to the Swamp to greet South Carolina.
3. Oct. 15 vs. Ole Miss
Arkansas escaped Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium thanks to the “Henry heave” to running back Alex Collins on a 4th-and-20 play for a game-saving first down. The Rebels will be very young on offense but have senior quarterback Chad Kelly and his conference-leading 4,042 yards and 31 touchdown passes back.
Brandon Allen exploited Ole Miss’ defense for 442 yards and six scores without a pick. It is tough to assume Austin Allen will be able to do the same. With three starting defensive backs returning, the Rebels’ pass defense should improve. Coming right after the showdown against Alabama makes this a really difficult game for Arkansas.
2. Oct. 8 vs. Alabama
Between Bobby Petrino, John L. Smith and Bret Bielema, the Hogs are closing in on a decade of losing to Alabama. The last time the Hogs bested the Crimson Tide was a 24-23 win in 2006. If Arkansas could pick a year to beat Alabama, this would be it.
Alabama has six starters back on offense and will be replacing three up front, its quarterback and running back. The Crimson Tide’s secondary is very solid but the front seven might be tested in 2016.
Arkansas has its cupcake game against Alcorn State the week before Alabama comes to town. The Hogs could be 5-0 looking for legitimacy at this point or 3-2 looking to turn things around against the best college football program in the nation. Maybe Bama will be looking ahead to another critical conference road game (at Tennessee the following week)?
1. Nov. 12 vs. LSU
Tough to pick anything against Alabama not being the No. 1 game, but LSU could be the team to beat in 2016. Brandon Harris’ play at quarterback will be under the microscope but with seven other starters back on offense, including Heisman Trophy contender Leonard Fournette, and 10 back on defense, the Tigers look like one of the nation’s best this season.
LSU heads to Arkansas after what could be tough back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Alabama. The Hogs have beaten LSU the last two seasons with both games coming after the Tigers fell to Alabama. That part of the schedule is in place again this fall so If Alabama wears down LSU again, Arkansas could pull out its third win in a row over the Bayou Bengals.
— 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.