The Arkansas Razorbacks enter the 2017 season ready to push Bret Bielema into the upper echelon of SEC head coaches. Over the past three seasons, Bielema has guided the Razorbacks to a 22-17 mark with key SEC wins against Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Florida serving as proof his team can play with any conference opponent. But for the Hogs to take the next step forward as SEC West title contenders, victories against Texas A&M and Alabama are needed along with avoiding second-half collapses on the field.
The wild ride the Hogs (7-6, 3-5 SEC) took Razorback Nation on in 2016 could have produced more wins had Arkansas not coughed up halftime leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl or let a 17-17 tie against Texas A&M turn into a 45-24 rout by the Aggies.
A total of 12 starters are back as the Razorbacks look to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2011. To do so, a rebuilding defense must do a better job stopping the run after giving up 205.5 rushing yards per game (10th in SEC, 94th in FBS) last season. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads is making the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base in hopes of having better success against the dual-threat quarterbacks that seem to currently litter the SEC.
The offense is headlined by quarterback Austin Allen, who could push for All-SEC honors in his second season in coordinator Dan Enos’ system. The supporting cast is largely unproven, as running back Rawleigh Williams was forced to retire from football during the spring because of a second neck injury, and Allen also is without five of his top six receivers from 2016.
Schedule-wise, Arkansas catches a few breaks, but otherwise must navigate a difficult SEC slate highlighted by road games at Alabama and LSU. Here is a breakdown of the Razorbacks’ toughest games this fall based on game location, recent history and matchup.
12. Aug. 31 vs. Florida A&M
This matchup harkens back to the days of creampuff FCS openers for top Division I teams. But Arkansas needs this game in more ways than one. Florida A&M is coming off a 4-7 season, including a 70-3 opening loss to Miami. The Razorbacks can use this game to fine tune their 3-4 defense while quarterback Austin Allen can work on building chemistry with his new pass catchers.
11. Nov. 4 vs. Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers were once the pride of the FCS, posting a 10-2 record in 2016, but are making the move to FBS as a member of the Sun Belt. On paper, this game may be a matchup of two teams in the same subdivision, but Coastal Carolina will be no match for Arkansas. With just three starters back on offense and five on defense, Year 1 in the FBS figures to be a tough adjustment for the Chanticleers.
10. Sept. 30 vs. New Mexico State
Here’s another home game against an overmatched team from the Sun Belt, at least on paper. The Aggies went 3-9 in 2016 but return seven starters on offense and nine on defense. If New Mexico State pushes Arizona State in its season opener, you better believe Arkansas’ coaching staff will take notice.
9. Nov. 18 vs. Mississippi State
Both Arkansas and Mississippi State could limp into this one battered and bruised. The Hogs return home from a visit to Baton Rouge while the Bulldogs hit the road after hosting Alabama. There are no gimme games on Arkansas’ schedule after closing out non-conference play with New Mexico State, but at least the Razorbacks get this one at home. Mississippi State will be dangerous with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald running the offense, but just four starters are back on defense.
8. Oct. 28 at Ole Miss
Arkansas has won three in a row against the Rebels, with the last two coming by a combined five points. Ole Miss’ defense seemed to fall apart after facing the Razorbacks last season, as the Rebels finished 111th in FBS in yards allowed per game (461.3). Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson is a great talent capable of carrying Ole Miss in 2017. Points should be a plenty in this one.
7. Nov. 24 vs. Missouri
Arkansas let this one get away in 2016 with the Tigers scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half. This series has been back and forth with the home team claiming victories. If the trend continues, notch one for the Hogs. A note of caution, Missouri could be one of the surprise teams in 2017 with 10 starters back on an offense that finished first in the SEC and 13th nationally in yards per game. But it’s the Tigers’ defense that is a question mark. The Tigers defense, with only three starters back, has lots of room for improvement after giving up nearly 480 yards per game (118th in FBS) last season.
6. Oct. 7 at South Carolina
Traditionally, Arkansas has a knack for picking up SEC East teams on its schedule as said program is on the rise; the Gamecocks fit the mold. A quick glance at South Carolina’s 6-7 record in 2016 shows a team that may have been outmatched but played very tough throughout the year with the exception of a 56-7 loss to eventual national champion Clemson. With 10 starters back on offense and six returning on defense, the Gamecocks could be a surprise team this fall.
5. Oct. 21 vs. Auburn
Since 2008, Arkansas has a winning record against Auburn at 5-4. Last season, the Tigers embarrassed the Hogs 56-3 in Jordan-Hare Stadium behind an SEC-record 543 rushing yards. If Arkansas gets up for one game this year, expect it to be this one. It’s a tough draw for the Hogs coming on the heels of playing at Alabama, but a win could propel them as they enter the second half of their schedule.
4. Sept. 23 vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
The Aggies have been the proverbial pain in the backside for Arkansas over the past five years. The big difference in last year’s matchup was an inability to stop Texas A&M on the ground as quarterback Trevor Knight (10 carries, 168 yards) and running back Trayveon Williams (12, 153) both gashed the Razorbacks. Knight is gone along with nine other starters, but Texas A&M continues to recruit well. The Aggies’ offense will be difficult to slow down yet again, even with a new quarterback running the show. The good news for the Hogs is that they will have an extra week to prepare for this rivalry game in AT&T Stadium.
3. Sept. 9 vs. TCU
Beating TCU 41-38 in double overtime last season was a big non-conference road win for the Hogs. The Horned Frogs have nine starters back on offense and seven on defense, making this a tough assignment for Arkansas on either side of the ball. This will be the first true test for the Razorbacks’ new 3-4 defense and also serve as a good indication of the potential of the offense.
2. Nov. 11 at LSU
LSU recruits as well as any other team in the nation, so talent is never an issue. The Tigers will be good, but just how good? Most of the attention will be focused on the offense with Matt Canada getting the big bucks to join Ed Orgeron’s staff as coordinator. The schedule benefits Arkansas with LSU having just played at Alabama and games against Tennessee (road) and Ole Miss (home) looming. Meanwhile the Razorbacks host Coastal Carolina before making the trip to Baton Rouge.
1. Oct. 14 at Alabama
The last time Arkansas beat Alabama was in 2006. The last time Arkansas came close to beating the Crimson Tide was in 2014, a 14-13 loss. Even following another mass exodus of talent to the NFL, Alabama is expected to win a fourth straight SEC title and be back in the College Football Playoff. The Hogs head to Tuscaloosa to do the improbable after facing South Carolina on the road and ahead of hosting Auburn.
— 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 has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.