Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Questions, expectations, predictions, and speculations, that’s what the preseason is all about concerning college football.
After eight months, thankfully, we’re about to move past all of that, and actually have real games to watch and discuss. Bret Bielema’s fourth Arkansas squad takes the field at 3 p.m. Saturday to face the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in a SEC Network –televised game.
The Razorbacks should win. They’re almost a four-touchdown favorite by at least one of the betting lines. If I gambled, I don’t know if I would take the Hogs to cover. First games are always tricky, and as much as we think we know, we won’t know anything real until the Razorbacks actually play a game.
I personally think the Razorbacks are going to have a fine season, maybe even a great one, but who knows how they will come out of the gate. I also wonder just what type of personality the Razorbacks’ offense will develop this season?
Last year the Razorbacks developed into a high-scoring team once they hit their stride out of necessity. Poor defensive play forced the Hogs in that direction to stay in games. With the defense giving up 27. 4 points per game, the Hogs had to score at least 30 to have a chance to win.
The Hogs won shootouts with Auburn (54-46) and Ole Miss (53-52) in overtime, and were blocked field goal away from topping Mississippi State in regulation, but fell 51-50 because of an assignment snafu by the field goal unit.
The Razorbacks’ inability to put the clamps on opponents defensively forced the Hogs into overdrive, and Brandon Allen and crew basically responded in SEC play.
Brandon of course exited after his fine senior season in which he led the nation in ESPN’s quarterback ratings. That’s quite an accomplishment considering he and offensive coordinator Dan Enos only worked together for that one season.
With Enos once again calling the Hogs’ offensive shots, some assume the Razorbacks will be just as wide open this year, particularly considering the strength at wide receiver.
New starting quarterback Austin Allen has veritable buffet of pass-catchers to choose from. Drew Morgan (63 receptions, 893 yards and 10 TDs) and Dominique Reed (53 receptions for 739 yards and 3 TDs), who were Arkansas firt- and third-ranked receivers respectively last fall return for their senior seasons, and fellow seniors Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister are healthy after suffering season-ending injuries early last year. Junior Jared Cornelius is just as dependable as those four, and Jeremy Sprinkle is considered one of the best tight ends in the country.
While the younger Allen has limited experience, word is that he spreads the ball around well, going through his progression of targets quickly and firing on point. More than once Bielema has said he’s a better downfield passer than Brandon was.
Putting all that together, it adds up to the Razorbacks passing as much or more than they did a year ago, right?
Maybe, it does. Maybe it doesn’t.
The Razorbacks stand to be much improved this season on defense with a quick and deep defensive front, more depth at linebacker, and a better-coached secondary thanks to the addition of former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads to the defensive staff. Rhoads made critical changes to the DBs stances that should allow them to backpedal and adjust better in coverage.
If the defense is as stout and stingy as some are predicting, it should do a better job of setting the table for the offense. The Hogs had trouble getting stops and forcing turnovers a year ago, which kept pressure on the offense to score.
If that’s not the case this season, Enos’ playcalling might reflect that. Not that Bielema is averse to passing, but he does have a history of shortening football games when he has the ability to do so. We might see that this year, if the Razorbacks’ running game is up to snuff.
Now, that’s a question, too. Arkansas’ running backs sophomore Rawleigh Williams III and freshman Devwah Whaley are young, and junior Damon Mitchell is playing the position for the first time as a collegian. On top of that, Arkansas is retooling its offensive line with three new starters — Hjalte Froholdt and Jake Raulerson at the guards and Colton Jackson at right tackle — joining returning starters Frank Ragnow at center and Dan Skipper at left tackle.
I suspect this line will be very good in the run game, and if Williams, Whaley and Mitchell live up to billing, the Razorbacks might be more of a pound-and-ground team until Allen gets legs under him.
Of course, the better the Hogs are at running the ball, the more it opens up the play-action passing game for Allen and his deep corps of receivers.
To me the linchpin in how successful the Razorbacks’ offense will be this season is how well the defense performs.
If the defense can be as or nearly as effective as it was in defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s first season in 2014, the easier the game becomes for the offense. Good field position only gives Enos and the offense more options. And Enos seems like a coordinator who knows how to make the most of his options no matter how narrow or expansive of a menu he’s working with.
While the book won’t be written on the Razorbacks after just one game, I’m excited to actually see the Hogs play after months of playing mental gymnastics with the possibilities for this team. Come Monday, we’ll have something more solid than our thoughts to talk about.