No. 29 Arkansas
Four years into the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas, is it time for him to finally get over the hump and contend for an SEC West title?
The Razorbacks bring back one of the conference's better quarterbacks in Austin Allen, have a strong interior offensive line, new defensive coordinator and experience in the secondary. The talent should be there, but once again the schedule is treacherous.
2016 Record: 7-6 (3-5, SEC)
After starting 3-0, including a double-overtime win at TCU, Arkansas lost six of their 10 games. And when they went down, they usually went down big. Only one loss came by fewer by 11 points and they lost to Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M by an average of 30.3 points. Their 56-3 demolition at Auburn did not go over well — unsurprisingly.
Head Coach: Bret Bielema (5th year, 25-26 overall)
Bret Bielema is having a hard time getting over the hump and scratching back to .500 after going 3-9 in 2013, his first season. He's finished higher than fifth in the SEC West only once and is just 10-22 in the conference overall.
Athletics director Jeff Long was emphatic in saying Bielema is not on the hot seat and says he likes the direction the program is headed.
“Bret is the leader of our program,” Long said in the spring. “The leader is more than just winning games — and I know some fans don’t wanna hear that. Trust me, it doesn’t mean we aren’t competing with every fiber of our being to win in the toughest conference and the toughest division of that conference. But when you look at what Bret’s doing, we’re building a program that’s built on an outstanding foundation.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Austin Allen, RB Devwah Whaley, WR Jared Cornelius, OT Brian Wallace, G Hjalte Froholdt, C Frank Ragnow
Arkansas' offense wasn't necessarily bad in 2016; they were just below average in too many areas, including red-zone offense (100th), turnovers (107th) and third-down conversions (70th). They scored 24 points or fewer six times, including two games with 13 combined points, and had a few second-half meltdowns.
Austin Allen is back at quarterback after an up-and-down season that featured a strong first half and poor second half. The strong-armed senior had five interceptions in their final two games, including three in the bowl loss to Virginia Tech.
"A few times last year, I felt like I had to make a play to get us back on track,” Allen said. “I thought I had to get out of my comfort zone and it didn’t always work out. Punting isn’t always the worst thing. This year if I get 4 yards on a third-and-6, I know that it is playing field position and flipping the field. Knowing the scenario of the game and the down and distance will really help me out by playing smarter and staying in the flow of the game better.”
His supporting cast is mostly unproven. Running back Rawleigh Williams retired this spring, following a second neck injury, leaving sophomore Devwah Whaley at the lead back. The 5-foot-11, 216-pounder averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year. And Jared Cornelius is their new No. 1 receiver with Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan gone.
“You can’t play quarterback by yourself. Right now, we don’t know enough about their wide receiver corps,” college football analyst Greg McElroy said. “I feel good about (Jared) Cornelius, he’s solid, but he’s never been a (#)1 (receiver). I think they lost a lot of key personnel of the offense in terms of firepower and I’m still not sold on their offensive line.
The offensive line was bad — and that's being kind. They yielded 35 sacks, 13th in the SEC, and were routinely dominated by violent front sevens. They do return one of the best interior lineman in the nation in center Frank Ragnow. He'll contend for national awards.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE McTelvin Agim, LB Dre Greenlaw, LB Randy Ramsey, CB Ryan Pulley, CB Henre' Toliver, S Josh Liddell
As bad as the Arkansas defense was — 31.1 points per game and 45 percent on third down, among many other unflattering stats — they didn't lose many games solely because of the porous unit. Still, big improvements are needed.
Coordinator Robb Smith "left" for Minnesota and was replaced by former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads, who installed a 3-4 base defense that will use "tweeners" to stop the run without sacrificing versatility in pass coverage.
"I think we have a better chance of getting four runners at linebacker as opposed to four war daddies on the defensive line,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said of moving to a 3-4. “It’s certainly ready made set up with what we have.”
The "war daddies" are led by McTelvin Agim, one of few returning lineman with significant experience, while the "tweeners" are led by Randy Ramsey. Ramsey, a 6-foot-4, 228-pounder, had 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last year.
Secondary is their most experience unit, with junior corner Ryan Pulley (below) aiming for an All-SEC season. He had a breakout sophomore season with two picks and 12 passes defended.
“Ryan Pulley looks great,” Bielema said. “He is challenging himself to take over that, ‘I’m that guy that can shut down their guy.’ He has that Florida swagger that we recruited him for.”
Seniors Henre' Toliver and Josh Liddell are also back at corner and safety, respectively.
Notable Player Losses
RB Rawleigh Williams III, WR Keon Hatcher, WR Drew Morgan, TE Jeremy Sprinkle, OT Dan Skipper, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DE Jeremiah Ledbetter, CB Jared Collins
The retirement of Rawleigh Williams will sting, for a lot of reasons. An All-SEC performer, Williams had a monster sophomore as their workhorse back, rushing 245 times for 1,360 yards and 12 scores.
"It still doesn’t seem real yet, but I really don’t have a choice," he said in May. "I’ve dodged the bullet twice. I realize that at the end of the day I want to live a normal life and be around my family."
Jeremy Sprinkle, Deatrich Wise and Jeremiah Ledbetter were their three NFL draft picks and Dan Skipper was an all-conference tackle. Corner Jared Collins tied for the team lead with 12 passes defended last year.
Notable Player Additions
WR Brandon Martin, WR Jordan Jones, DE Briston Guidry
There will be plenty of opportunities for receivers to stand out in fall camp, among them JUCO transfer Brandon Martin and redshirt freshman Jordan Jones. Martin is a huge target (6-foot-4, 219-pounder from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Defensively, Briston Guidry is a former four-star recruit from Louisiana who has the size but quickness to play multiple positions along the line.
The non-conference slate is highlighted by a Week 2 trip to TCU in a rematch of last year's phenomenal game.
They only have one true road game before Oct. 22 but do play Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium and Alcorn State in Little Rock. Other games include Alabama (home) on Oct. 8, Auburn (away) on Oct. 22, Florida (home) on Nov. 5 and LSU (home) on Nov. 12.
|Saturday, Sept. 3||vs. Louisiana Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 10||at TCU|
|Saturday, Sept. 17||vs. Texas State|
|Saturday, Sept. 24||vs. Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Oct. 1||vs. Alcorn State|
|Saturday, Oct. 8||vs. Alabama|
|Saturday, Oct. 15||vs. Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Oct. 22||at Auburn|
|Saturday, Nov. 5||vs. Florida|
|Saturday, Nov. 12||vs. LSU|
|Saturday, Nov. 19||at Mississippi State|
|Friday, Nov. 25||at Missouri|