Can the Razorbacks emerge from a crowded, competitive SEC West?
Entering the 2015 season the Arkansas Razorbacks are back on the college football map after two dormant seasons left in the dust of former head coach Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle accident. The 2012 and ‘13 seasons were forgettable but an about-face took place in 2014 under second-year head coach Bret Bielema, leading to high expectations this year.
Bielema’s brand of “Big Boy Football” started coming together in the form of a 7-6 season that included a 3-1 run in November, which included back-to-back shutouts of LSU (17-0) and Ole Miss (30-0). Further validation came at the end of December in the form of a 31-7 bowl game win over former Southwest Conference rival Texas.
Athlon Sports ranked Arkansas No. 16 in its preseason Top 25, snuggled between SEC West foe LSU and Oklahoma. Expectations are really high for the Hogs but before Arkansas can take that big leap forward from bowl team to College Football Playoff participant, they must clear a few big hurdles first. The good news is the Razorbacks have a few tricks up their sleeves that could make them a potential Playoff candidate.
Three Reasons Why Arkansas Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Offensive Line
The Razorbacks arguably have one of if not the best offensive lines in college football. Four starters return, highlighted by preseason All-SEC picks left tackle Denver Kirkland, right tackle Dan Skipper, and left guard Sebastian Tretola. Senior starter Mitch Smothers returns at center with Frank Ragnow expected to start at left guard. Ragnow got a lot of action in 2014, appearing in nine games and taking part in more than 200 snaps, which should prepare him to handle starter minutes this season.
Backing up the mantra of best of the best, everyone knew the Razorbacks were going to run the ball last year and that they did, finishing 24th in the nation with 218 yards rushing per game. And when Arkansas did pass the line did its job, giving up just 14 sacks all season, the fewest in the SEC.
2. New Offensive Coordinator
Under Bielema the Hogs will run the ball but what was missing last season was an effective passing attack. Enter new offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Enos has built a reputation as an offensive mind and as a great quarterbacks coach. The addition of the former Central Michigan head coach’s offensive scheme coupled with Bielema’s desire to run the ball should spread out defenses, likewise creating better passing windows and even bigger running lanes for the tailbacks.
If Enos can push a little more production out of third-year senior starting quarterback Brandon Allen, this could be the difference-maker that pushes Arkansas into the Playoff picture.
3. Running Backs
Even if the play under center by Allen does not improve from 2,285 yards passing to something closer to 3,000, the Hogs always have one of the best running back tandems in the nation with senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins to fall back on. Both players rushed for over 1,100 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground last year.
The one thing missing from Arkansas’ offense the last two years under former coordinator Jim Chaney was the tailbacks’ use as pass catchers. Look for Enos to utilize his preseason All-SEC running backs in the passing game, helping keep defenses honest, spread out and guessing.
Arkansas' 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rank
|Sept. 12||vs. Toledo*||75||9-4|
|Sept. 19||Texas Tech||48||6-6|
|Sept. 26||vs. Texas A&M^||20||7-5|
|Oct. 3||at Tennessee||22||8-4|
|Oct. 10||at Alabama||2||12-1|
|Oct. 31||UT Martin||—||—|
|Nov. 7||at Ole Miss||11||9-3|
|Nov. 14||at LSU||15||8-4|
|Nov. 21||Mississippi State||21||7-5|
*Little Rock, Ark.; ^Arlington, Texas
Three Reasons Why Arkansas Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
Arkansas is one of a handful of teams in the nation that many are expecting to make some noise when the season kicks off in September. The trouble for Arkansas is two of the other squads that fall into this category are SEC teams and the Razorbacks play both — at Tennessee and home versus Mississippi State.
If preseason rankings count for anything Arkansas has a neutral-site matchup against No. 20 Texas A&M, travel in back-to-back games to play No. 22 Tennessee and No. 2 Alabama, and then come home after a bye week to host No. 4 Auburn. The last month of the season includes back-to-back road trips to No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 15 LSU, followed by home games against No. 21 Mississippi State and two-time SEC East champion Missouri. Just brutal.
The argument could be made that Arkansas must win all four non-conference games (UTEP, Toledo, Texas Tech and Tennessee-Martin) just to be in contention for a bowl game. Arkansas may catch Tennessee at the right time if that is possible. The Volunteers come off a road game against Florida then host Georgia, and travel to Alabama and Kentucky after seeing the Hogs. The contest against Tennessee could be a big opportunity to sneak away with the SEC road win Bielema has yet to capture since taking over the helm in Fayetteville.
If the Hogs fly away from Knoxville with a win and split against Alabama and Auburn, watch out. Under Bielema, the Hogs start playing better in the second half of the season. With an incentive of winning the SEC West and a shot at possibly making it into the Playoff, this team could start believing and become an even more dangerous team to face.
The reality is seven games against ranked teams and only three SEC home games makes this task daunting for any FBS program. Toss in a SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against preseason favorite No. 10 Georgia or seeing Tennessee a second time and the road to the Playoff becomes a nighttime, barefoot trek over the Ozark Mountains without a headlamp.
2. Question Marks in the Passing Game
Enos can be the world’s best mastermind at drawing up plays but if he cannot find a playmaker in the passing game to get the ball to downfield every Arkansas game will be a true grind for the offensive line and running backs. The good news is help could be on the roster… well, maybe.
Arkansas has one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation in junior Hunter Henry. He is a big asset to be sure, but to clear the eight- or nine-men in the box sets seen all last year a wide receiver has to step forward. Senior wideout Keon Hatcher is the easy pick to have a solid year. He pulled down 43 passes for 558 yards with six touchdowns but has an uncanny knack of making the routine plays look tough and the impossible look simple.
The unknown options are many, including redshirt freshman JoJo Robinson, JUCO transfer Dominique Reed, sophomore Kendrick Edwards, and true freshman La’Michael Pettway. Each appears to have the talent to make a difference in the Hogs’ passing game, but will it materialize on the field? Of the three only Edwards has FBS experience, and that covered four receptions with one score in 11 games as a true freshman. Right now the potential for greatness is there but until an impact is made by one or more of the receivers it’s all just chatter.
3. Special Teams Play
There was very little that was special about Arkansas’ special teams play last season top to bottom. A missed PAT arguably cost the Hogs a win against Alabama (14-13) and the punt game regressed, only averaging 40.1 yards per attempt. Only one touchdown was scored on special teams and that was by explosive sophomore running back Korliss Marshall, who is no longer on the team.
The reality is Arkansas was solid in the third phase of the game last year, hitting 52 of 54 PATs but one of the two misses was huge. A reliable placekicker did not emerge last season, so there was little confidence emanating from the fanbase that a field goal from 45 yards or shorter was a “gimme.” Adam McFain hit 7-of-10, while John Henseon hit 2-of-4 and was responsible for the two missed PATs. McFain is expected to win the job after connection on 4-of-6 from 30-39 yards and made one of his two attempts between 40-49, that coming from 49 yards out. Incoming freshman punter Blake Johnson is expected to infuse some life into the kicking game.
For the Hogs to win on the road in the SEC a dynamic punt returner must be found to help give favorable field position every now and again. D.J. Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards, a nice 11.0 yards per return average with a long of 63. Opponents punted 66 times and the Hogs attempted to return just 22 of those, meaning that’s a lot of fair catches or missed opportunities to try and advance the ball. A couple more return attempts in 2015 coupled with a Joe Adams-type return of 40-plus yards could mean valuable field position and help this team eke out a game or two that could have gone the other way. The questions remains though, who can the Hogs call on to be that dynamic playmaker?
In 2014 Robb Smith turned the defense around from the No. 76 unit in the nation to No. 10. The loss of NFL Draft picks linebacker Martrell Spaight, defensive end Trey Flowers, and defensive tackle Darius Philon, will be tough to overcome but the talent is on the roster for another Top 25-worthy defense. If Smith can keep the defense hungry and reactionary, mixed with a strong ball-controlled, clock-eating ground game, and a few more successful downfield passes that will make Arkansas one of the most well-rounded teams in the nation.
The schedule is difficult with four road games against Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU. On the optimistic end Arkansas could go 10-2. A mid-level projection is nine or eight wins, which is not good enough to make the Playoff.
Finishing 10-2 with a SEC Championship Game victory (11-2), should be good enough for a Playoff berth. If Ohio State, TCU or Baylor, USC, and Florida State all come to the finish line with a mix of undefeated records or one loss that could be enough to dash the Hogs’ dreams, depending on how the Playoff selection committee takes into consideration strength of schedule.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 16
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 8-4
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8.5
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 8.5
— 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.