This is Part 2 of Jim Harris’ Razorback football preview. Read Part 1 here.
The second half of the season brings another College Football Playoffs contender, LSU, to Fayetteville immediately after a war with Alabama in Baton Rouge. The Tigers will be mindful of the last two encounters with the Hogs, in which they lost by 17 points in apparent lay-down fashion. (Last year’s 31-14 Tigers loss in front of the home fans nearly cost Les Miles his job, in spite of his 80-plus winning percentage and 2007 national title at LSU.)
Florida, returning to Fayetteville, is not the Florida of Urban Meyer’s heyday, and former coach Will Muschamp’s poor recruiting in his last couple of seasons may hobble second-year coach Jim McElwain; the Gators fell apart as 2015 wound down. Also, Ole Miss ventures into Fayetteville with an NCAA investigation hanging over its head, a tougher schedule greeting the Rebels in the season’s early weeks, and memories of that 30-0 shellacking two years ago.
All the Razorbacks would have to do is somehow pull off three SEC road wins, something that might have been thought impossible before last year, when they did exactly that down the stretch, even if it required the Hunter Henry heave at Oxford for one victory. Auburn seems like it could be either really good or really bad and ready for a new head coach when the Hogs go to Auburn. All the Razorbacks have to do is finally beat Mississippi State after suddenly not being able to – four straight losses to a team that couldn’t win in Arkansas in forever just three years back. Missouri’s struggling program, which needs two good recruiting classes to turn around, serves again as the day-after-Thanksgiving dinner in Columbia.
Start looking at the schedule with it broken down that way, and assuming no serious injuries to the key components (a bold assumption to be sure), and something special starts to seem do-able in Coach Bret Bielema’s fourth go-round in the SEC. Improving to eight regular season wins from six in 2014 and seven last year seems like a fair assessment, though we’re also beginning to sense fans are now eager to relive Bobby Petrino’s third and fourth seasons all over again (21-5 during that run, a high-water mark for Arkansas since joining the SEC in 1992).
The coaching staff seems, finally, to have all the pieces that one can point to and say, “We ought to be able to out-scheme our foes.” That was a trademark of the Arkansas program from 1958 to 1989, of which, sad to say, a large percentage of Hog fans now aren’t even aware. Bielema added another brainy cog to Robb Smith’s defensive staff in Paul Rhoads for the defensive backfield – but Rhoads and his secondary will benefit most from a much-improved pass rush and better linebacker coverage to vastly turn around last year’s deplorable aerial statistics.
Dan Enos made believers of everyone with his work with Brandon Allen and the offense last year, but just as Smith’s defensive numbers went south in some areas because of graduation after 2014’s success, one would expect a little of the same for Enos’ fortunes this fall. Running back Alex Collins was seriously good, folks. Tight end Hunter Henry was almost automatic in big plays. Back in the good ol’ days, before money really mattered, they’d both be back for their senior years. Departed tackle Denver Kirkland should’ve been back rather than going undrafted.
Maybe all that offensive line shuffling so deep into August is finally the telltale reason that heralded line coach Sam Pittman knew it was time to bolt for Georgia late last year. It’s put a spotlight on his replacement, Kurt Anderson, who was a coaching star on an interim basis last year for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. His charge is to somehow turn a mismatch of mostly guards and centers into a quality SEC line. Fortunately, he has a lot to work with in senior tackle Dan Skipper and junior center/guard Frank Ragnow, both whom have played a lot since they were freshmen.
Who will step up to make the big third-down catches that was Henry’s domain remains to be seen. But Arkansas has gone, in two years, from having what was considered the worst receiving corps in the SEC to one of the best and most experienced. Rawleigh Williams III seems to be fine from his neck issue, and freshman Devwah Whaley has shown every indication he could be a first-year breakout star at running back.
Austin Allen always seemed the cooler-under-pressure of the two Allen brothers in high school, somehow making championship-winning plays happen even if his passes didn’t always spiral as pretty as Brandon’s. He also has the ability to stretch the field better with his deep throws. But this isn’t high school, and Brandon Allen grew to become outstanding after an unsteady two years and four games of last season.
The defense must improve. Rhoads simply can’t allow Bielema, who likes to remind everyone that he was once a DC too, to make the secondary defend so cautiously anymore against those spread offenses that like to dink-and-dunk the Hogs to death, covering 90 yards in one minute, especially with the game on the line. Finally, there is more talent at linebacker and across the defensive front, along with a year’s experience for nine returning starters. This means something in player reaction and not being fooled as much.
The most concerning matter is that the parts haven’t changed in the place-kicking game. The day Arkansas actually wins a game on the foot of its place-kicker, instead of blowing another one with Bielema watching with that familiar stunned look, will be the day the program really has taken the next step to respectability.
This will be the 41st year that Jim Harris has covered the Razorbacks. He is a member of the HogZone Team on KTHV Channel 11. He was in college when he started his sports-writing career at the Pine Bluff Commercial; in 1988, he went to the Arkansas Gazette, where he worked until the end. His day job is managing editor for the Communications Division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.