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1. An anniversary and an awkward path forward
Fifty years ago, Arkansas escaped life as second fiddle.
Frank Broyles had engineered four top-10 finishes in his six seasons in Fayettevile and had brought his Razorbacks to two Sugar Bowls, a Cotton Bowl, and a Gator Bowl. But with five losses to Texas in six years, they had established a ceiling a little bit lower than they would have preferred. But consecutive wins over Oklahoma State, Tulsa, TCU, and Baylor got them to eighth in the country, and a 14-13 upset of No. 1 Texas in Austin gave them a nitro boost in the polls. They shut out five consecutive opponents to finish the regular season undefeated, won the SWC, and knocked off No. 7 Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl.
And while the AP gave its national title to 10-0 Alabama before the bowls, the Tide lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl, and Broyles' unbeaten Hogs claimed a national title via the Football Writers Association of America, the Helms Athletic Foundation, and others.
Arkansas is justifiably observing the 50th anniversary of this title team, as evidenced by the cover of this year's media guide (PDF). But the dedication to past success will also serve to shine a dim light on the present, on what could have been and what almost was.
Since 1964, Arkansas has experienced plenty of success: four more top-10 finishes under Frank Broyles, three under Lou Holtz, a run of nine- and 10-win seasons under Ken Hatfield. But for most of the 1990s and 2000s, they lived life with potential but little to show for it. Danny Ford and Jack Crowe combined for one winning season in eight years. Houston Nutt brought success (eight bowls in 10 years after two in the previous eight) but never quite enough of it.
Bobby Petrino came to town and changed everything; from 2009-11, the Hogs won eight games, then 10, then 11. In 2011, they landed their first top-5 finish since Holtz's first season in Fayetteville (1977). The future was bright, and the Hogs began 2012 in the top 10 ... with John L. Smith leading the way. Petrino's famous motorcycle wreck and mistress cover-up got him sent out of town, along with most of the Hogs' elite hopes. After winning at least eight games for three straight years, Arkansas has won a combined seven since Petrino left.
(This F/+ progression chart is like the graphical personification of a motorcycle wreck and mistress cover-up.)
After the disastrous "Let's hire John L. for one year and see what happens" plan, athletic director Jeff Long pulled off what was, on paper, a great hire: he nabbed Bret Bielema from Wisconsin just after Bielema had secured the Badgers' third consecutive Rose Bowl bid. He is an accomplished coach with a strong identity -- even if he needs to probably stop talking about tempo and health risks -- and he may eventually find success in Fayetteville.
But it's hard to figure out how that's going to happen soon. Granted, every losing program can find hope after Auburn and Missouri went from a combined 2-14 in conference to 14-2 in a single year. But they were each doing something different and unique, especially on offense. Arkansas is running variations of Alabama's offense and LSU's defense, only without the mountain of four- and five-star talent. His first Hogs team could run the ball quite well but couldn't really do anything else; what might year two have in store?
In 1964, Arkansas bounced back from a five-win season to achieve heights it had never before reached. Can the Hogs pull off even half of that turnaround in 2014?
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 87|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||UL-Lafayette||86||34-14||W||42.1 - 20.0||W|
|7-Sep||Samford||N/A||31-21||W||30.1 - 33.3||L|
|14-Sep||Southern Miss||120||24-3||W||21.6 - 25.8||L|
|21-Sep||at Rutgers||91||24-28||L||19.7 - 23.7||L|
|28-Sep||Texas A&M||23||33-45||L||33.1 - 28.4||W||3.1|
|5-Oct||at Florida||48||10-30||L||16.5 - 33.8||L||-4.8|
|12-Oct||South Carolina||10||7-52||L||30.9 - 32.1||L||-4.4|
|19-Oct||at Alabama||2||0-52||L||23.4 - 39.0||L||-6.7|
|2-Nov||Auburn||4||17-35||L||23.8 - 27.7||L||-6.7|
|9-Nov||at Ole Miss||28||24-34||L||30.7 - 34.6||L||-8.4|
|23-Nov||Mississippi State||33||17-24||L||30.5 - 39.4||L||-6.7|
|29-Nov||at LSU||17||27-31||L||38.4 - 29.2||W||-4.6|
|Points Per Game||20.7||107||30.8||89|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.4||68||30.6||90|
2. Things fell apart in Piscataway (they always do)
It came against shaky competition, but Arkansas looked legitimately solid out of the gates. They averaged 7.1 yards per play against Louisiana-Lafayette and allowed 4.4 or fewer yards per play in each of the first three games.
The good vibes continued for a while during the Hogs' September 21 trip to Piscataway. Arkansas took a 24-7 lead midway through the third quarter against Rutgers ... and then things went awry. Rutgers scored 21 unanswered points for a comeback win, and after a decent showing against Texas A&M, the Razorbacks pretty much fell apart.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Arkansas 29.3, Opponent 26.2 (plus-3.1)
- Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 35.0, Arkansas 23.6 (minus-11.4)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Opponent 32.7, Arkansas 30.9 (minus-1.8)
Against Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, Brandon Allen completed 28 of 78 passes (35.9 percent) for 285 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. Even against good defense, that's incredibly bad. Meanwhile, the defense that had shown promise early in the year? It disappeared. Over the last eight games, only one team averaged fewer than 6.0 yards per play (Florida, which really doesn't count), and only two averaged under 6.7. Good offenses had a field day (Alabama and Auburn: 7.7 per play), and sketchy offenses found their groove (Mississippi State: 7.1).
The offense rallied late, finding itself on the ground against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and LSU, and the defense was just decent enough to allow the Hogs to be competitive. But while there was technically a rebound, it was from bad to below average. That alone doesn't inspire tons of confidence for 2014.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.9%||66||Succ. Rt. +||103.0||48|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.3||76||Def. FP+||100.4||55|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.0||86||Redzone S&P+||108.0||32|
|Q1 Rk||44||1st Down Rk||86|
|Q2 Rk||77||2nd Down Rk||19|
|Q3 Rk||34||3rd Down Rk||49|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Brandon Allen||6'3, 216||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||128||258||1552||13||10||49.6%||7||2.6%||5.6|
|AJ Derby||6'5, 240||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||19||36||178||1||1||52.8%||1||2.7%||4.6|
|Austin Allen||6'1, 215||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Damon Mitchell||6'2, 205||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Rafe Peavey||6'2, 205||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Alex Collins||RB||5'11, 216||So.||4 stars (5.9)||190||1026||4||5.4||5.0||42.1%|
|Jonathan Williams||RB||6'2, 223||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||150||900||4||6.0||6.0||41.3%|
|Brandon Allen||QB||6'3, 216||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||22||92||1||4.2||2.4||40.9%|
|Korliss Marshall||RB||6'0, 203||So.||3 stars (5.5)||17||146||0||8.6||7.4||58.8%|
|Keon Hatcher||WR||6'2, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||11||140||0||12.7||6.5||100.0%|
|Kody Walker||FB||6'2, 246||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||6||32||0||5.3||3.6||50.0%|
|AJ Derby||TE||6'5, 246||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||5||11||0||2.2||3.8||20.0%|
|Denzell Evans||RB||6'0, 222||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Juan Day||RB||6'2, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
3. The run game is where it needs to be
Bielema's hire of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was intriguing. We know Bielema wants to run the ball as frequently as possible, but the pass concepts Chaney employed under Derek Dooley at Tennessee were quite effective; the Vols kept things simple and fast, maintaining low sack rates (thanks in part to smart throwaways) and strong vertical capability. Combine Bielema's run strength with some vertical passing, and you've got yourself quite an offense.
Arkansas had half of that in 2013. The run game was solid and got stronger late in the year; the line created paths, and a pair of big, young backs (Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams) both took advantage of blocking and showed some explosiveness in the open field. With Collins and Williams back, along with six players with starting experience, there's every reason to believe Arkansas will have a top-20 run game. Collins and Williams combined for nearly 30 carries and 160 yards per game, and converted halfback Kody Walker should be able to do a reasonable Kiero Small impression at fullback. The Hogs have size, experience, and solid speed.
This is good. But sometimes you have to pass.
|Keon Hatcher||WR||6'2, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||51||27||346||52.9%||18.8%||34.9%||6.8||-17||8.3||48.4|
|Hunter Henry||TE||6'6, 251||So.||4 stars (5.9)||49||28||409||57.1%||18.1%||62.5%||8.3||48||9.0||57.3|
|Alex Collins||RB||5'11, 216||So.||4 stars (5.9)||14||11||63||78.6%||5.2%||22.2%||4.5||-58||9.6||8.8|
|Demetrius Wilson (2012)||WR||6'3, 186||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||9||117||69.2%||3.0%||53.8%||9.0||N/A||8.9||21.8|
|Eric Hawkins||WR||6'0, 180||So.||3 stars (5.5)||10||3||32||30.0%||3.7%||0.0%||3.2||-25||2.0||4.5|
|Jeremy Sprinkle||TE||6'6, 237||So.||3 stars (5.5)||10||4||68||40.0%||3.7%||70.0%||6.8||5||7.0||9.5|
|Jonathan Williams||RB||6'2, 223||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||9||7||72||77.8%||3.3%||22.2%||8.0||-5||8.9||10.1|
|D'Arthur Cowan||WR||6'3, 186||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||7||4||26||57.1%||2.6%||28.6%||3.7||-26||5.3||3.6|
|Mitchell Loewen||TE||6'4, 269||Jr.||NR||4||2||29||50.0%||1.5%||75.0%||7.3||1||6.7||4.1|
|AJ Derby||TE||6'5, 246||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Cody Hollister||WR||6'4, 208||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Jojo Robinson||WR||6'0, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
4. Run doesn't matter without pass
In theory, everything works together. Having a strength that opponents need to address -- in this case, a powerful run game -- means opponents can't exploit your weaknesses quite as well. But despite both a relentless focus on the run and reasonable success with it, Arkansas couldn't even pretend to throw the ball in 2013.
Even in the final three games, when the run clicked pretty well, Brandon Allen raised his completion rate to 60 percent but averaged just 10.3 yards per completion. There was no play-action deep threat, and despite a solid season from freshman tight end Hunter Henry, there wasn't much in the way of efficiency either. This was just a bad passing game.
That bad passing game is less experienced in 2014 thanks to the losses of receivers Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton and bailout option Kiero Small. Granted, those three players combined to average a woeful 6.1 yards per target, which is imminently replaceable, but while there won't be a dropoff, there's no immediate reason to assume a step forward either. Quarterback A.J. Derby has evidently moved to tight end, and senior Demetrius Wilson rejoins the rotation after missing 2012, but aside from Henry, it's difficult to see who is supposed to lead any sort of resurgence in the passing game.
|Travis Swanson||C||50||All-American, 2nd All-SEC|
|Brey Cook||RT||6'7, 328||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||17|
|Dan Skipper||LT||6'10, 315||So.||3 stars (5.7)||8|
|Denver Kirkland||RG||6'5, 348||So.||4 stars (5.8)||8|
|Mitch Smothers||LG||6'4, 313||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||8|
|Grady Ollison||RT||6'5, 309||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||5|
|Luke Charpentier||C||6'4, 320||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||1|
|Austin Beck||LT||6'7, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Marcus Danenhauer||RG||6'5, 316||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Cordale Boyd||C||6'3, 298||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Reeve Koehler||LG||6'4, 340||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Sebastian Tretola||OT||6'5, 315||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Brian Wallace||OT||6'6, 315||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Frank Ragnow||OT||6'6, 292||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
5. The line should be fine
You lose two players who have combined for six seasons' worth of starts, including an All-American center, and you have reason to fear a dropoff. But between solid recruiting -- of the 13 linemen listed above, nine were either four-star recruits or high-three-stars -- and the solid track records of Bielema, Chaney, and line coach Sam Pittman, I can't make myself worry about this unit.
The Hogs will have size (average of the six returning players with starting experience: 6'6, 322, which doesn't take into account 340-pound, four-star redshirt freshman Reeve Koehler), potential, and strong coaching. They'll open holes for Collins and Williams and, though possibly for naught, protect Allen. The line is the least of Arkansas' worries.
(Well, running back is the least of the worries, but you know what I'm saying.)
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.3%||111||Succ. Rt. +||94.3||78|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||26.1||118||Off. FP+||95.4||109|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.4||88||Redzone S&P+||97.0||70|
|Q1 Rk||47||1st Down Rk||52|
|Q2 Rk||70||2nd Down Rk||86|
|Q3 Rk||61||3rd Down Rk||49|
6. A drastic tumble
Put up or shut up
Put up or shut up
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith was Rutgers' defensive coordinator at a time when Rutgers' defense was pretty awesome. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon may not have been a great head coach, but his bona fides as a defensive assistant are strong. Defensive backs coach Clay Jennings is a Gary Patterson acolyte.
Bielema overhauled his defensive staff for 2014, and on paper, the hires are impressive. But on paper, the hire of Bielema himself was impressive, and that alone didn't result in immediate improvement. This new unit takes over a defense that was inefficient overall (particularly against the run) and ineffective in the red zone.
When you're referring to the Petrino years as your defensive heyday, things have taken a pretty sharp turn for the worst. Arkansas reached 19th in Def. F/+ in 2010 and remained in the top 50 in 2011 (45th), but the Hogs stumbled again to 72nd in 2012, then 94th last year. A decent September performance kept them out of the triple digits in the rankings, but this was a bad defense.
It was also to some degree a young defense. Tackle Darius Philon, linebacker Brooks Ellis, and cornerback Jared Collins were all regulars as freshmen, and in the back seven, three of the top four tacklers at linebacker and all but one defensive back return. Between the coaching upgrade and the experience, improvement is almost guaranteed. But it's a long way up from 94th.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Trey Flowers||DE||6'4, 267||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||34.5||5.5%||13.5||5.0||1||2||3||0|
|Darius Philon||DT||6'3, 283||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||33.5||5.3%||9.0||3.0||0||0||2||0|
|DeMarcus Hodge||DT||6'1, 343||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||11||20.0||3.2%||2.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Deatrich Wise Jr.||DE||6'6, 267||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||11.5||1.8%||3.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Lewis||DE||6'5, 256||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||8.5||1.4%||2.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|JaMichael Winston||DE||6'5, 264||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||3.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||1||0||1||0|
|Taiwan Johnson||DT||6'3, 263||So.||3 stars (5.7)||3||2.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Horace Arkadie||DT||6'4, 312||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Bijhon Jackson||DT||6'2, 334||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)|
7. That's a lot of sophomores
Despite the loss of leader Chris Smith, it's hard to worry too much about the Arkansas pass rush. Trey Flowers is back, and sophomore end Deatrich Wise Jr. showed potential as a passing-downs missile in his freshman year. But this line got pushed around drastically by run blocking and must now replace two of its top three tackles.
Newcomers and the sophomore class will dictate Arkansas' fate in run defense. Flowers and Philon are back, but the next three returning ends are all sophomores (Wise, Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston), as is reserve tackle Taiwan Johnson. JUCO transfer Horace Arkadie and enormous four-star freshman Bijhon Jackson, meanwhile, have almost no choice but to contribute early.
It won't be hard to improve on Arkansas' numbers against the run, but there's no guarantee it will happen. Lots of inexperience here.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Braylon Mitchell||SLB||6'3, 231||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||54.0||8.6%||2.0||1.0||0||3||1||0|
|Brooks Ellis||WLB||6'2, 237||So.||3 stars (5.7)||12||22.5||3.6%||2.0||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Martrell Spaight||MLB||6'0, 228||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||9||18.0||2.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Otha Peters||WLB||6'2, 226||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||7||7.0||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||2||0||0|
|Daunte Carr||SLB||6'3, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||10||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Alex Brignoni||MLB||6'1, 206||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Josh Williams||LB||6'2, 240||So.||NR|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alan Turner||SS||6'0, 201||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||66.5||10.6%||0.5||0||2||5||0||0|
|Tevin Mitchel||CB||6'0, 188||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||11||38.0||6.1%||3||0||1||5||0||0|
|Rohan Gaines||FS||5'11, 186||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||10||25.5||4.1%||1||0||0||1||0||1|
|Jared Collins||CB||6'0, 171||So.||3 stars (5.6)||11||20.0||3.2%||1||0||1||2||1||0|
|Will Hines||CB||6'1, 191||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||7||17.0||2.7%||0||0||1||4||0||0|
|Carroll Washington||CB||6'0, 180||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||13.5||2.1%||1||0||0||2||0||0|
|D.J. Dean||CB||5'10, 198||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||7.0||1.1%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Davyon McKinney||CB||6'3, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||3.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kelvin Fisher Jr.||FS||5'11, 193||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Tiquention Coleman||SS||5'10, 196||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|De'Andre Coley||FS||6'1, 191||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Henre' Toliver||CB||6'1, 192||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
8. A potentially stout secondary
Clay Jennings probably has the easiest job of the new assistants. He's used to working with deep secondaries in Fort Worth, and Arkansas' defensive backfield is easily the deepest unit on the D.
Thanks in part to injuries (of the seven DBs with at least 10.0 tackles in 2013, only two played in all 12 games), this unit got experience and mostly survived. Or at least, it wasn't as detrimental to the cause as the run defense.
Safety Alan Turner helped to contribute to solid big-play prevention numbers, and while the cornerbacks rotation was constantly shuffled ... again, the pass defense numbers weren't awful. (Just ignore this play.) Experience should make it a strong unit this fall.
|Sam Irwin-Hill||6'3, 201||Sr.||46||44.3||1||8||20||60.9%|
|John Henson||5'11, 171||Sr.||1-1||0-1||0.0%||0-0||N/A|
|Korliss Marshall||KR||6'0, 203||So.||19||22.2||0|
|Keon Hatcher||KR||6'2, 210||Jr.||9||22.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||83|
|Field Goal Efficiency||10|
|Punt Return Efficiency||101|
|Kick Return Efficiency||116|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||8|
9. Wanted: field position help
In Zach Hocker, Arkansas had a great place-kicker and kickoffs guy. Granted, on the one-third of his kickoffs that weren't touchbacks, opponents tended to break off strong returns, but that's not necessarily his fault. Hocker's gone, which is a problem, but the return game is still the biggest issue. The Hogs needed serious field position help from special teams, and they really didn't get any.
This special teams unit ranked 83rd last year and now must replace easily its best asset (Hocker). That doesn't inspire confidence.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|13-Sep||at Texas Tech||46|
|27-Sep||at Texas A&M||11|
|1-Nov||at Mississippi State||26|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||10.6% (31)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||27|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / -3.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (7, 7)|
10. Spinning the scheduling Wheel of Destiny
Okay, so Arkansas will be able to run the ball and perhaps defend the pass. They'll probably still struggle to throw or defend the run, and special teams will probably still be more detriment than benefit. Still, after falling to 87th in the F/+ rankings, it isn't crazy to assume this team can crawl back toward the 60s or 70s, thanks to both team experience and a potentially impressive new defensive coaching staff. The 50s aren't out of the question if a new receiving option emerges or newcomers carry their (significant) weight at defensive tackle.
Hooray, improvement! Boo, schedule. Arkansas plays five road games in 2014 -- four against teams projected in the top 30 and one that should probably be projected a little higher than 46th (Texas Tech). Four of their seven home games are against projected top-25 teams.
In other words, improving into the 50s would make the Hogs potentially better than three of their 12 opponents.
So basically, this is one of those improvement-on-paper years; the Hogs will be hard-pressed to improve too much on last year's three wins. If they get to four, they'll have matched in three combined years what they won in Petrino's final season, and I think they'll get there. Their strengths will be strong enough to pull at least one upset. But ... tell me the path to five wins, or six. It's hard to do.
In theory, if Arkansas keeps making solid hires and keeps building experience overall, there will be a breakthrough. While the SEC West might be brutal overall, the Hogs should still be able to expect a seven- or eight-win season in the coming years. After all, just ask Auburn, Missouri, or even Mississippi State how quickly fortunes can change. But any talk of a breakthrough will have to wait until 2015. At least there's an anniversary to celebrate...