Bret Bielema dropped one-liners on SEC media day like Lil B drops mixtapes: Often and with plenty of humor. But even Bielema’s bravado and light spirit can’t distract from the simple fact that his Arkansas Razorbacks retain one of the least talented rosters in the SEC.
After last season’s disappointingly sluggish start that saw the Razorbacks go 1-3, the Hogs flipped the script and won seven of their final nine games—including impressive road wins over Ole Miss and LSU.
However, essential offensive playmakers who catalyzed that turnaround—as well as the beefiest and most brutal offensive line in all of college football—bolted to the NFL. Despite a boatload of veterans returning on the defensive side of the ball, will Arkansas win enough games to keep Bielema off the hot seat?
The Hogs have nine starters returning on defense. They aren’t the most talented or physically imposing group—and they do have depth issues at linebacker—but there’s plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball. In the SEC, that means a lot, especially in a conference with numerous question marks at quarterback. However, it’s important to note that the returning starters were part of a defense last season that gave up at least 28 points in a contest six times. This includes games where they allowed 46 points to Auburn, 52 to Ole Miss and 51 to Mississippi State.
Offensively, Arkansas has plenty of talent and versatility at the wide receiver position. Keon Hatcher missed the majority of last season due to a foot injury. While Hatcher did receive another operation on his foot after spring practice, if he returns to the field in 2016, he’ll join Dominique Reed and Drew Morgan, who caught a combined 91 passes for 1,378 yards and 16 scores in 2015.
Inexperience at quarterback could spell disaster for the Hogs in 2016. Austin Allen—the little brother of last year’s starter Brandon Allen—provides plenty of optimism for the Arkansas faithful, but his overall inexperience and inconsistent performance in the spring will force Bielema to closely monitor the situation. Allen does have plenty of weapons to throw to, but is that enough?
Even more disheartening for the Hogs is the massive uncertainty in the backfield. Alex Collins was a stud last season, rushing for 1,643 yards and 20 touchdowns. But he and Jonathan Williams are gone to the pros, leaving Arkansas with a pair of injury-riddled backs in Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams. While Allen will reap the benefits of a talented receiving core, the offense in Fayetteville might become too one-dimensional for him to handle.
Players to Watch
WR Jared Cornelius, Jr. – Cornelius suffered a horrific arm injury early last season, but returned in a matter of weeks and provided a number of explosive plays for the Hogs on offense and special teams. While his stats aren’t overly impressive, the Hogs must discover ways to get Cornelius the ball. With Hatcher’s foot continuing to present issues, Cornelius will receive extra opportunities at wide receiver, but should also be the beneficiary of jet sweeps and be a commanding presence as a returner.
DE Deatrich Wise, Sr. – Wise enters the 2016 season fresh off a dominant performance in the spring and an impressive 2015 campaign. He led the SEC in sacks during conference play last season with eight and recorded 4.5 of those sacks against ranked opponents, good for second in the SEC. If the veteran defensive unit the Hogs field this season wants to improve upon a lackluster 2015, it all starts with Wise anchoring the defensive line.
Sept. 10 at TCU – In only the second game of the season, Allen and the Hogs face one of their biggest challenges. While the Horned Frogs are in complete rebuilding mode on offense, defensive guru Gary Patterson fields eight returning starters on defense, posing an incredible early career challenge for Allen. While Allen does receive the benefit of playing three cupcake teams early into his career, much will be made of how he performs against TCU in only his second start.
Oct. 15 vs Ole Miss – The Hogs stunned Ole Miss last year in triple overtime thanks to one of the most miraculous plays anyone will ever see. This season, both Arkansas and the Rebels face challenges with replacing key starters, but there is a clear talent gap between the team in Oxford and the team in Fayetteville. If Bielema wants to continue revamping the Hogs program, he’ll need another marquee win over a program like Ole Miss.
7-5 (3-5 SEC)
Losses: at Texas A&M, vs Alabama, vs Ole Miss, vs Florida and vs LSU
Edited by Jordan Dajani
Featured image courtesy of Tammy Anthony Baker