Arkansas Is Coming In The SEC West

The Arkansas Razorbacks closed last college football season as the team on the rise in the SEC West. After going through a miserable 2012 season under John L. Smith, followed by twelve straight conference losses to begin Bret Bielama’s tenure, the Hogs got rolling down the stretch.

They shut out LSU & Ole Miss, got bowl-eligible and then hammered Texas, one of the few bright spots in a bowl season where the SEC West generally imploded. Now it’s time to ask if the Razorbacks are ready to move past simple bowl eligibility and into real contention in the SEC West.

I say yes. Bielama’s imprint on this program clearly showed at the end of last season. I’m a Wisconsin fan and was well-acquainted with the head coach’s ability to implement a physical attack and in a college football culture dominated the spread, the air-raid and any other number of fast-break strategies, the Hogs were a welcome throwback to authentic football.

They produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Both are back this season, as are three starters on the offensive line, including projected All-SEC guard Sebastian Tretola. They have a quarterback who knows his role and takes care of the football. Brandon Allen threw just five interceptions last year. Forcing tempo against the Hogs is just not that easy.

Arkansas’ defense made big strides at the end of last season and its ability to continue that improvement is where the ultimate success of 2015 will really be decided. They return six starters, which is the positive. The negative is that two of those that were lost, defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon, were playmakers up front. The Razorbacks need someone to establish they can disrupt blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.

All of the above is the reason I expect Arkansas to not only improve on its 6-6 regular season record from last year, but to take a substantial step forward. Las Vegas shares my sentiments and has set the Over/Under for the Hogs at 8. I’m taking the over and saying they will go 9-3.

Arkansas plays the usual SEC non-conference fare, which is to say it’s an automatic three wins and one game (Texas Tech) that’s marginal. The Hogs should sweep these four, then go 5-3 in conference play.

If you think that’s too bullish, keep in mind that Mississippi State is likely to take a step back. Is it asking a lot to suggest that Arkansas is now better than Ole Miss or Texas A&M? Or that the Hogs could win a home game with Missouri—whom they nearly beat on the road last year when the Tigers were playing for an SEC East title. That leaves just one more win to get, among the Alabama-Auburn-LSU power trio in this division, along with a road date at Tennessee.

In reality, Arkansas’ results probably won’t break down this neatly. The good news is that Alabama-Auburn-LSU all have question marks, the Hogs have demonstrated an ability to compete with them and can definitely win a head-to-head battle. The bad news is that football is a game of attrition and I think Bielama may need to pile on more recruiting classes to get the depth necessary to avoid an upset.

But somehow, some way, I think this balances out to a 5-3 conference finish, putting Arkansas in probably the Capital One Bowl at worst, and maybe even sneaking into the New Year’s Six.

The Hogs haven’t played in a major bowl game since 2010, when they went to the Sugar with Ryan Mallet at quarterback. That was the only big-time bowl they’ve reached since joining the SEC in 1992. But their time is coming.