Football season is fast approaching.
In less than two weeks, SEC Media Days will be upon us and it’s all down hill from there.
In less than five weeks, the Arkansas Razorbacks will begin preseason workouts. Nine weeks from today, the Hogs will already be 1-0.
The last statement isn’t a fact. It’s more of a prediction, but it’s one I feel pretty safe about. The Razorbacks open the season on Aug. 31 against Florida A&M on the SEC Network. That’s a Thursday night.
It’s the first game any SEC team will play this season. With that in mind, the Razorbacks should be 1-0 in the clubhouse before any other SEC squad kicks off.
However, Arkansas being 1-0 in nine weeks is one of the few things I feel safe predicting concerning the Razorbacks’ season going into Bret Bielema’s fifth year as Arkansas’ head coach.
Usually by this time of year, I have a strong feeling about the type of football team the Razorbacks are going to have. That feeling isn’t always right. I’ll admit I have a tendency to be overly optimistic.
When the experts predict seven wins, I’ll generally feel more like eight, or maybe even nine. I like to give the Razorbacks the benefit of the doubt. I see no reason to be pessimistic, especially before the Fourth of July. There will be plenty of time for reality once the season starts.
But, I just don’t have a good feel for this team.
For every positive like senior starting quarterback Austin Allen, there seems to be an equally alarming question mark like the state of Arkansas’ defense.
The Razorbacks installed a 3-4 defensive scheme in the spring, which seems a bit odd, considering the coaching staff had difficulty putting two SEC-caliber linebackers on the field last year after the season-ending foot injury to Dre Greenlaw.
Obviously, Bielema and Paul Rhodes, promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator, know their personnel and the game itself far better than me or any other fan or outside observer.
Some kind of change had to be made on defense after last season when the Hogs allowed 31.1 points per game and 426.6 yards of total offense a game.
When a team gives up that kind of real estate, I’m not sure if a breakdown of the numbers really matters, but that was 205.5 yards per game on the ground and 221.2 yard through the air. Opponents averaged 5.9 yards per carry against Arkansas last year and scored 39 rushing touchdowns.
I don’t believe Arkansas’ defensive personnel was as bad is it played last year. Something was amiss with team chemistry and player leadership. Hopefully the change at coordinator fixes what was broken in that department so the players can perform closer to their potential.
I expect Arkansas to play better defensively this season. The Razorbacks have to, right? The question, though, is how much better? We’ll just have to wait and see on that one.
Last season the Razorbacks offensive line was a mess. The Hogs had two dependable linemen in senior tackle Dan Skipper and junior center Frank Ragnow. Ragnow may be the best center in the college game this year, but the other players remain question marks.
As bad as the defense was last season, I think the trouble the Hogs had across the offensive front was just as detrimental. Rawleigh Williams, who left the game behind after his second neck injury in less than three seasons, had a fine season in 2016, rushing for more than 1,300 yards, but the Razorbacks’ short-yardage running game was dismal last season.
Arkansas was unable to convert short-yardage opportunities into first downs and touchdowns. When that happens, the result is usually sacks, interceptions, and losses. Though Allen had productive passing numbers last year, he was sacked 35 times and he threw 15 interceptions because of the pressure from opponents and the pressure on him to produce.
Arkansas’ anemic running game was too weak to protect double-digit leads in the second halves of Arkansas’ losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. That hung offensive coordinator Dan Enos and Allen out to dry.
One would imagine Arkansas’ offensive line will be improved this season, but like with the defense, the question is how much?
Likewise the experience Allen gained last season should only help him, but Arkansas’ top three pass catchers — Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, and Jeremy Sprinkle — are trying to make NFL rosters right now. There is talent on hand at wide receiver and tight end, but other than senior receiver Jared Cornelius, it is mostly unproven.
As promising as sophomore running back Devwah Whaley is, the loss of Williams is a blow that is hard to mitigate. Maybe freshman running backs Maleek Williams and Chase Hayden will be up to the challenge along with sophomore T.J. Hammonds, who practiced at receiver in the spring.
I wrote earlier that I prefer to be optimistic, but considering the Razorbacks’ circumstances and that they play in the SEC West, my view for the season is hazy at best.
Bielema, his coaching staff and the players have their work cut out for them. The Razorbacks should get to at least six wins, but until I see some improvement over last year’s play, it’s hard for me to see many more.