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SEC Season Preview: Arkansas

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Arkansas Razorbacks.

Head Coach: Bret Bielema – fifth year at Arkansas; 12th year overall (93-50 overall, 10-22 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Dan Enos (third season)

Defensive Coordinator: Paul Rhoads (first season)

2016 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC); lost to Virginia Tech in Belk Bowl

Returning Starters: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

2017 Schedule

Aug. 31 – FLORIDA A&M (Little Rock) (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 9 – TCU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Sept. 23 – vs. Texas A&M (Arlington)
Sept. 30 – NEW MEXICO STATE

Oct. 7 – at South Carolina
Oct. 14 – at Alabama
Oct. 21– AUBURN
Oct. 28 – at Ole Miss

Nov. 4 – COASTAL CAROLINA
Nov. 11 – at LSU
Nov. 18 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
Nov. 24 – MISSOURI (2:30 p.m. ET, CBS)


What We Know

-The Hogs are in pretty good hands under center. Austin Allen returns for a fifth year after leading the SEC with over 3,400 yards passing last season. A tough guy that dealt with protection issues all of last season, Allen can be effective both inside the pocket and out. His biggest issue last season was his drop in play after halftime. His completion percentage was nearly 10 percent lower in the second half than the first, and his TD-INT ratio plummeted from 16-to-4 to 9-to-11. Allen needs to show he can make plays consistently when they matter most.

-The secondary looks solid again. While not overly athletic, this group returns three of four starters, and its former position coach, Paul Rhoads, is now the defensive coordinator. Only Mississippi State amassed 300 yards in the air against the Razorbacks among SEC opponents in 2016. Some more takeaways would be nice (just 10 interceptions in 2016), but this unit isn’t going to burn you.

-It’s Arkansas, and it’s Bielema, so there will be quality tight end play. Yes, Jeremy Sprinkle is off to the NFL, but the Razorbacks have two highly-recruited replacements in sophomores Will Gragg and C.J. O’Grady. Austin Cantrell is also back after a 13-catch, two-touchdown redshirt freshman season. Expect this group to be targeted even more than Sprinkle was last season because of the losses at wide receiver, with only one of the top five from a year ago back.

What We Don’t Know

-Was the offensive line disaster a one-year blip or a sign of a regression? The Razorbacks allowed 36 sacks last season, just one fewer than from 2013-2015 combined. The running game, which had averaged more than five yards per tote in each of Bielema’s first three seasons, managed only a 4.1 yards average in 2016. Four starters on the line are back, led by potential All-American Frank Ragnow at center. With three sophomore starters from a year ago now juniors, and Kurt Anderson in his second year as position coach, this should resemble more of a traditional Bielema line.

-Unlike its offensive counterpart, defensive line play has been a consistent issue at Arkansas. The Hogs have struggled to recruit the game-changing athletes that every other school in the SEC West has. The Hogs move to a 3-4 this year under Rhoads, which has forced senior Bijhon Jackson to work at nose tackle. He’s got the size at 335 pounds, but playing the nose is a different challenge, often with little prestige on the stat sheet. McTelvin Agim could make a big leap as a sophomore after an impressive true freshman campaign.

-Can the Razorbacks rediscover a killer instinct? The 24-7 and 24-0 blown leads in the final two games against Missouri and Virginia Tech respectively turned a successful season into a disappointing one. The Razorbacks couldn’t close games last year and no-showed for the second half of a tie game with nemesis Texas A&M. The Hogs seized the big moments late in 2015 and in a Week 2 overtime road win at TCU last season, but they did a 180-degree flip starting with the Texas A&M game. Which Arkansas will show up this fall?

X-Factor

Jackson – The offense should bounce back nicely, but the defense is full of question marks with four new front seven starters, a new coordinator and a new scheme. The run defense was abysmal last year, allowing more than seven yards per carry in half of the team’s SEC games. Jackson has to help clog up a porous middle. The secondary improved last year under Rhoads, and now that he’ll have his fingerprints on the front seven as well, that unit will need to make similar strides this season.

Ranking The Units

1.   Quarterbacks
2.   Defensive Backs
3.   Offensive Line
4.   Running Backs
5.   Defensive Line
6.   Linebackers
7.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Season Prediction

There are only three SEC home games this season, meaning the Razorbacks will have to play well away from home. The September Texas two-step will go in reverse of last year, with the Hogs falling to TCU but finally defeating Texas A&M. Alabama, Auburn and LSU will simply out-athlete the Hogs, but a 4-1 mark in the other five SEC games will allow for a respectable fourth place showing in the SEC West and the program’s first trip to a Florida bowl game in more than 10 years. Oh, and there might be a notable storyline for said bowl game.

Overall Record: 7-5
SEC Record: 4-4
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Louisville

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.