Opponent: Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Year's Record: 3-9
Coach: Bret Bielema
Game 3: September 13th
1. Tough to Cheer for Bielema: Head coach Bret Bielema makes it tough to root for the Razorbacks. Generally speaking, I grew up really enjoying watching Arkansas, largely because they were in the Southwest Conference and I have early childhood memories of strong running backs running (like Barry Foster) over opponents and Steve Atwater laying big hits on opponents. The problem for Bielema is that he opens his mouth and quickly inserts his foot and it becomes problematic. From alleging that a faster offense means more injuries (without any sort of data to back it up) to his most recent remarks about how the SEC is just the best. It's hard to root for a guy like him. I know your pain Arkansas fans as Texas Tech employed Tommy Tuberville for a brief time. We get that it's hard to enjoy your team when your coach is not a lot of fun.
2. Change in Philosophy. As you might imagine, Bielema is trying to change more than just culture at Arkansas as he's trying to bring a pro-style offense to Fayetteville. That sort of process takes time. Or maybe I would argue that it takes more time to get in tune with a pro-style of offense rather than a spread offense where it's really just quarterback driven. A pro-style offense is more complicated than that where it does seem like it takes more complicated parts. A certain type of offensive line and a certain type of quarterback.
3. Collins is Terrific. Alex Collins is just fantastic as a runner. He was the freshman of the year in the SEC in 2013 and he ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman, while Jonathan Williams ran for 900 yards. Bielema wants to run the ball and this will be Texas Tech's biggest test of the early part of the year. I'm guessing that there will be a very large offensive line that will look to see exactly if Texas Tech's new defensive line is actually worth anything. Collins and Williams will be a significant test.
4. Middle of the Road. The defense was better than the offense last year, but the defense wasn't any great shakes. An overall ranking of 76 in total defense, with the rush and pass defenses pretty much close to that overall ranking. The best part about the Arkansas team was the rushing offense, and as mentioned above, it was actually really good, 21st overall. The real improvement of the team will rest largely on the improvement of QB Brandon Allen. Only about 6 yards per attempt and 13 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions isn't anything great. If Allen can improve, then I think that makes life easier on pretty much everyone involved.
5. Just How Close. Of Arkansas' losses in the SEC, they were whipped by Alabama, but the loss to Texas A&M was only by 8 points, the loss to Mississippi St. was by 7, LSU was by 4 and Ole Miss by 10. It wasn't sterling, but the losses were by a score or so and I'm sure that they are thinking that they were close on a few of those winds.
Q&A With Arkansas Fight:
Much thanks to Doc Harper from Arkansas Fight for taking the time to answer questions.
1. What are your expectations for 2014?
I expect Arkansas to be better, but the mystery is how much better. They should be improved at most positions, and the best players the Hogs lost (we had 4 NFL Draft picks) weren't at life-or-death spots. The young players from last season gained experience and should be better.
But, you know, when you go 0-8, saying you're going to be better doesn't really mean a whole lot. I tell Arkansas fans to cling to the fact that the Hogs were in position against Rutgers, LSU, and Mississippi State last year in which you're supposed to win 90% of the time, but the Razorbacks blew it each time. Just a little bit of improvement will win those types of games this year.
I think everybody sees the 3-9, 0-8 from last year and thinks how awful the team was. And it was a terrible year with very little to celebrate, but the Hogs were competitive in all but a couple of games, especially toward the end of the year. They didn't quit like they did in the John L Smith season in 2012, so that's reason for some sort of optimism.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Razorbacks?
Strengths will be running backs, tight ends, and defensive line. Weaknesses will be linebackers (probably), overall depth, and possibly (but hopefully not) quarterback play. Brandon Allen is the starter as of now, and he's been inconsistent at best. He did hurt his shoulder in the third game last season and some think that's why he didn't play very well most of the season after that. He did okay in the spring, but the first half of the spring game was terrible. He was good in the second half.
But all the hype this year is for the running backs. Arkansas has three really good ones and Bielema is working toward building his trademark massive offensive lines like he had in Wisconsin. The Razorbacks have a some really good young linemen that fit his mold but the depth isn't there yet.
3. Who are two of the best players to watch on offense and defense for Arkansas?
Offense: RB Jonathan Williams and TE Hunter Henry
Defense: DE Trey Flowers and DT Darius Philon
Williams is the best (as of now) among Arkansas' group of running backs. He's the oldest of the group as a junior, and is a good combo of power and speed. He's also probably the best of the three at catching passes out of the backfield. Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall will split the carries with him, but I expect Williams to get the bulk of the carries - especially early in the season.
Henry is a sophomore coming off an SEC All-Freshman season. He's going to have pretty big expectations this year.
Flowers could have gone to the NFL after last season. But he came back to Fayetteville and has already been named preseason All-SEC 1st team in a couple of places. Philon will be there with him on the defensive line. He was really coming on strong late last season and had a great spring.
BONUS: It's year two of Bret Bielema, would love to know your general, even meandering, thoughts on Bielema at Arkansas thus far.
It's complicated. I don't think 3-9 is an accurate reflection of what he'll eventually be doing at Arkansas, but I'm not sure what that ceiling may be. I could see it being very high and I can see it being very low. I'm really anxious to see how this program continues to evolve this season.
During the struggles last season, many people say he never had to rebuild a program like this. I think it's more accurate to say he never had to completely take over a new program all on his own. I think he's much more comfortable now that he's more familiar with everything and everybody, and I hope that translates to more success on the field.
But it's hard to defend a lot of his off-the-field things that cause people around the country to make fun of him or generally hate him. I like to say that ever since the motorcycle accident, Arkansas has been known more for punch lines than victories, and that's something that has to change for the program to be successful again.
That stuff, at least some of it, would be easier to tolerate if the team was winning, but they're not yet, so it gets old pretty quickly.
From the Spring:
"I thought our guys made some nice strides," Coach Bielema said. "I thought our guys really improved and we capitalized on our 15 practices. Obviously, you always want to be better, but I couldn't be happier with the progress, especially with some of our players that didn't play a lot last year and the way they came along and came out of it relatively injury free. We're excited about the coming summer and the transition where the NCAA is going to allow us to meet with our players. I think that's a real benefit for a program like ours that is trying to come up from the bottom and get to a place in the SEC that we're comfortable being in."
The Red-White Spring Game attendance is tied for 16th-most in the country this season, and Coach Bielema has felt the support from Razorback fans all over the state as he continues to build the program.
"I saw that there were a lot of people that showed up to our game and gave great support to the program," Coach Bielema said. "I could not be more excited about where we are going. I have been to Razorback clubs all over the state, and people attending those things are very positive. Everybody wants to win and there is an obvious urgency to do that. I'm excited because we know that we are a better team than we were a year ago today."