Previewing Arkansas: How bad were the Razorbacks last year? And how good can they be this year?
Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write:
Arkansas football represents everything I love about SEC football.
I can’t believe I just said that. I guess I didn’t mean it completely. Arkansas football represents everything I love about SEC football…except for recent winning (and the Razorbacks aren’t too far removed from that!).
Seriously. consider the last 19 months of Razorback football:
- January 6, 2012: Arkansas defeats Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl to finish the season 11-2.
- April 3, 2012: Arkansas Head Coach Bobby Petrino crashes his motorcycle.
- April 6, 2012: Petrino reveals that a staffer he hired who just happens to be young and blonde was also with him on the motorcycle. Oh also, he was sleeping with her.
- April 10, 2012: It is discovered that Petrino threw $20k at the former All-SEC Volleyballer before she was hired. He’s fired. Athletic Director Jeff Long is hailed as an American hero for getting rid of a scumbag who lied to him repeatedly and destroyed his family (and another).
- April 23, 2012: John L. Smith is announced as the next head coach of Arkansas.
- September 1, 2012: Arkansas opens the season ranked 10th in the county (per the AP) and the Razorbacks defeat Jacksonville State at home.
- September 6, 2012: John L. Smith files bankruptcy.
- September 8, 2012: Arkansas, now ranked 8th in the country, loses to Louisiana-Monroe in overtime.
- September 9, 2012: Arkansas falls out of the top 25. The ‘Backs don’t return.
- September 15-November 23: Arkansas goes 3-7 over the final 10 games of the season.
- November 24, 2012: Arkansas announces that John L. Smith will not be back.
- December 1, 2012: Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema leads the Badgers to an impressive 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game as his squad earns a trip to a third straight Rose Bowl.
- December 4, 2012: Bielema is announced as the next head coach of Arkansas.
- February 6, 2013: Arkansas comes out of nowhere to sign a recruiting class just outside of the top-25 (27th per Rivals.com). Bielema, a defensive mind, wrangles in the nation’s 4th best tight end (Hunter Henry) 8th best offensive guard (Reeve Koehler), 13th best offensive tackle (Denver Kirkland) and somehow steals the nation’s 13th best running back away from Florida (Alex Collins).
That’s the kind of a ride you only find in the SEC. Am I right, Jessica Dorrell?
And the coup of all this is that Arkansas self-imploded on the wheels of a motorcycle and then walked by a puppy store on the way home and said, “Daddy, I want that one!” pointed to Bret Bielema and stole the Big 10 coach who won 74% of his games, posted four seasons of 10+ wins (in 7 years) and took the Badgers to three-straight BCS Bowls. That only happens in the SEC.
And the SEC is the only conference in America that legitimizes this narrative as well…
Arkansas wasn’t that bad last year.
The Razorbacks finished the season 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. But you can make a heck of a case for early-season turmoil and poor coaching being the cause for the early-season setback to Louisiana-Monroe.
Top-10 expectations should have gone out the window the second Petrino’s bike went off the road, but somehow they stuck around. Top-25 anticipation should have disippated with John L. Smith’s hiring. Case in point: here’s his résumé over the last few years:
- 2007-2008: Broadcasting
- 2009-2011: Special Teams, Arkansas
- 2012: Head Coach, Weber State (FCS)
- 2012: Head Coach, Arkansas
- 2013: Head Coach, Fort Lewis College (Division II)
Smith never even coached a game at Weber State and bolted for Arkansas. I don’t blame him as that opportunity was well-beyond what he deserved. His destination this year probably indicates that. Smith was in over his head. The team was in distress. A loss like LA-Monroe was hilarious, but sadly appropriate.
Arkansas’ other seven losses came to:
- Alabama: the National Champion
- Rutgers: ranked for 7 weeks immediately following win against Arkansas, finished 9-4
- Texas A&M: only team to beat Alabama, finished season ranked fifth, 11-2 overall
- Ole Miss: a 3-point loss
- South Carolina: finished the season ranked in the top-8, 11-2 overall
- Mississippi State: finished 8-5, opened the season with a 7-game winning streak, was in the top-25 for eight weeks
- LSU: finished the season 10-3, spent most of the season in the top-10
Even if Petrino had been back, losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, South Carolina and LSU would have been tolerable (but disappointing). Losses to top-10 teams happen a lot, because teams ranked in the top-10 tend to win a lot. It just happens.
It’s hard to shake a fist at losses to Rutgers and Mississippi State either, given the fact that those two teams were ranked more often than not.
Only the Ole Miss loss is a true black eye (and of course, Louisiana-Monroe).
I can say a lot of things about how Arkansas lost those games (and they wouldn’t be nice things), but truly extenuating circumstance involved in 2012. Arkansas played terribly. They lost a ton of fames. But the core of the team was not that bad.
The big question for Arkansas moving forward is the quarterback position. Brandon Allen will be called upon to replace Tyler Wilson, and if last year’s performance is any indication he has a lot of improving to do. Allen, the nation’s 5th best Pro Style QB in the 2011 class according to Rivals, only threw 49 passes but threw more picks (3) than TDs (1), hit on just 42.9% of his throws and generated just 3.80 yards per attempt. Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson (1100 yards, 10 TD combined last season) are gone and the offensive line is always a concern, but the QB position must be serviceable for the Razorbacks. And Allen was not serviceable in his limited action last season.
If you’re looking for an emerging star on this offense, you have to start with freshman tailback Alex Collins. He could start on day one. He should be able to make plays. In the passing game I like Mekale McKay a whole lot. He’s 6-6 with decent speed and is learning to really go get the football. He put up respectable numbers as a freshman (21 catches, 317 yards, 2 TDs) while finishing second on the team in receiving behind Cobi Hamilton (90 catches).
The defense was not terrible last year, but it should be improved by Bielema’s defensive mind. And, this should be the strength of this team. Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Bryan Johnson and Robert Thomas combined for 36 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks from the defensive line last year. They’re all back and Smith and Flowers could threaten any All-SEC ballot you find.
The Razorbacks will need a lot out of that front unit as the linebacking crew is incredibly undersized. Fortunately, everyone is back in the defensive backfield.
Arkansas will open 3-0 following wins against LA-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss and I think they match their win total for 2012 on September 21 at Rutgers. I can’t confidently expect the ‘Backs to upset Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama or LSU…but I wouldn’t be flabbergasted to see Bielema’s boys beat up one of those teams and pound them into submission in an ugly upset win. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason why Arkansas can’t defeat two of their three remaining opponents: Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State (the Mississippi schools seem like the easiest targets).
At the end of the day 6-6 feels right.
That’s all I got/