Last Updated: 2018-07-18
The Bret Bielema era has come to an end in Fayetteville. The Arkansas Razorbacks will play under the watchful eyes of Chad Morris, who was destined for a Power Five job sooner rather than later. The former Clemson offensive coordinator took SMU up to respectability in a hurry and will now find himself looking to resurrect a team buried in the SEC West Division with several of the country’s most talented teams. This renovation is going to take some time. This won’t be a quick flip. This is going to be a gut and rebuild. At least the proverbial studs are in place with a program that has had recent success.
This is not a team devoid of talent, but it was one that was trying to force square pegs into round holes. Power football doesn’t really work in the fast, athletic, spread-happy SEC. Bielema just wasn’t the right type of fit for this brand of football. More than that, though, this Razorbacks defense just couldn’t keep up. It will take time to put all of the pieces in place. How much time will it take? How many games will Arkansas win in the meantime? Those are both reasonable questions and ones that we will attempt to answer.
Arkansas will not dethrone the big boys and win the SEC, so we’ll simply focus on their season win total odds. A pretty light non-conference schedule helps, as the Razorbacks are lined at 5.5 with -115 on the over and -105 on the under at BetOnline. Customers at 5Dimes are even more bullish with -140 on the over 5.5 number. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
||@ Colorado State
||Texas A&M (N – Arlington)
||Mississippi (N – Little Rock)
||@ Mississippi State
Expected Wins: 6.05
The offensive transition is going to be the biggest story at Arkansas this season. Personnel recruited for Bret Bielema’s power rushing attack now needs to figure out how to operate Chad Morris and Joe Craddock’s spread. It worked at Clemson and it worked at SMU, but Arkansas is set up much differently right now. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Connor Noland, a Chad Morris recruit, get the start. Cole Kelley had a 57.6 percent completion rate last season with an 8/4 TD/INT ratio and he could get the nod at the outset, but the Razorbacks really don’t have a clear QB1. They’ll need to develop one rather quickly because the first four SEC games are all pretty challenging. All of the quarterbacks have good height and pretty strong arms, so Morris has to be excited about the group’s potential. All of the top wide receivers return as well, including Jared Cornelius, who missed last season with an injury.
Just because this is a spread doesn’t mean that the Razorbacks will abandon the run. Devwah Whaley is the top returning back from a total yardage standpoint, but others like Chase Hayden and TJ Hammonds had more yards per carry. JUCO transfer Rakeem Boyd is another one that will threaten to get carries. That will be one of the hard things for bettors early in the season. Arkansas is going to look at a lot of guys in the non-conference portion of the season, so covering big numbers may not be in the cards. Furthermore, four starting OL return, but they’re learning a dramatically different offense and may not be the right fits for a spread.
At SEC Media Days, Chad Morris talked about the shortcomings of his defense. This is a unit that allowed 36.2 points per game last season and allowed 6.1, 6.7, and 6.5 yards per play over the last three seasons. This is a group that returns eight starters, but what does that really mean when you got gashed for five yards per carry? Morris will not be pushing the tempo as much on offense at the outset to let this defense ease into the new schemes and systems. At least Arkansas did make a home run hire at defensive coordinator with John Chavis, who knows the SEC extremely well. He’ll whip this group into some sort of shape by season’s end, but it could be ugly at the outset.
There aren’t many big losses. Granted, there weren’t many big playmakers either. Henre Tolliver started all 12 games and was tied for the team lead in pass breakups and also interceptions. He’s gone. The Razorbacks only had 19 sacks last season, and didn’t have a whole lot of tackles for loss either, so they had a really hard time creating explosive plays. They also allowed 23 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Dorian Gerald, a JUCO transfer from College of the Canyons in California, should slot in at defensive end right away. De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw combined for 218 tackles.
Arkansas has a really friendly schedule by SEC standards. They avoid Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina from the East Division. They are a much bigger underdog in look-ahead lines against Missouri (+11.5) than we have them here, but the road schedule isn’t too bad. A rare trip to the altitude in Fort Collins, Colorado is a weird road game in the non-conference. Morris is a good hire and Craddock had success as his OC at SMU. Chavis is a strong hire, especially since Arkansas can now return to a 4-3.
Pick: Under 5.5 (+110, 5Dimes)
Our numbers put Arkansas just over six wins, but the value appears to be on the under. Either way, this isn’t a pick to put money on. We’re just putting a pick on all 130 season win totals here at BangTheBook. One suggestion regarding Arkansas is that they should be able to score. They have big, powerful quarterbacks and all the skill position talent is back. They’re also going to give up points in bunches, so overs will be attractive, even if Morris doesn’t push the offensive pace. As far as a win total goes, with 130 other teams, you can find better options. After all, if we put Arkansas at +11.5 like the market price in the final game, our expected wins number is more like 5.7, so there isn’t much value.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
Under the guidance of Bret Bielema, the Arkansas Razorbacks have been a consistent and competitive team in the hardest division in the country. That task may be a little bit harder this season based on some of last year’s losses. That being said, the Razorbacks play a brand of football that allows them to hang with teams that are more athletically gifted. A physical, hard-nosed style of running the football at the start has morphed into more of a balanced attack, so opposing defenses have a lot to consider.
Going into the 2017 season, the Razorbacks are riding a streak of three straight bowl game appearances. Former head coaches Dan Enos and Paul Rhoads are the coordinators for Bielema, so this is a coaching staff capable of getting the most out of its players. That’s critically important in the SEC West. Unfortunately, with a team trending down in a lot of ways from Bielema’s second year through his fourth year, it’s fair to wonder what the ceiling is for this season in Fayetteville.
That relatively low ceiling is on display at 5Dimes Sportsbook, where Arkansas has a season win total of 7 with the under at -140. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
||Texas A&M (N – Arlington)
||New Mexico State
||@ South Carolina
Total Expected Wins: 6.55
Even in 2013, when Bret Bielema was just starting out in the SEC, the Razorbacks were running for more than 200 yards per game. Last season, Arkansas’s offense rushed for just 4.1 yards per carry and just 164 yards per contest. That was the lowest in the Bielema error in both categories by a large margin. On the positive side, the passing game did improve while other things went downhill. Austin Allen is now entering his second full season as the starter. He completed over 61 percent of this throws last year with a 25/15 TD/INT ratio. Allen should be able to give this retooling offense a little bit of stability.
They’re going to need it. Star running back Rawleigh Williams walked away from the game earlier this year after getting hurt in the spring game. The top returner is Devwah Whaley, who ran for over 600 yards as a true freshman last season. Beyond him, though, the depth is unproven. At wide receiver, Jared Cornelius is the top returner with just 32 catches. Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan combined for 109 of the team’s 247 completions and over 1,480 yards. The offensive line is still solid and should create holes for the backs and time for Allen to throw, but this team needs skill players in a hurry.
As the running game suffered last season, so did the defense. The Razorbacks allowed over 30 points per game for the first time since 2013, which was Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith took his talents north to Minnesota to be part of PJ Fleck’s staff. Fortunately, Bielema had an early decision to promote Paul Rhoads, former Iowa State head coach, to the DC. Rhoads hasn’t been a DC since 2008, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this group get a little bit stronger. Six starters return, including top defensive back Ryan Pulley.
On the other hand, like the offense, the defense has experienced some losses. Defensive captain Brooks Ellis ran out of eligibility. Three of the top four tacklers are gone, including Jeremiah Ledbetter and Diatrich Wise, who were both NFL draft picks off of the defensive line. The Razorbacks are moving to a 3-4 this season, which could help with the losses of the top two defensive linemen, but the linebacker corps is fairly inexperienced. The secondary lost Jared Collins, who was a good corner opposite Pulley, but this was the best part of the defense last year. It was the 5.9 yards per carry allowed that stood out the most.
Arkansas has a very difficult conference schedule. The game against Texas A&M is at a quasi-neutral site, but College Station is much closer than Fayetteville to Arlington. The Razorbacks go on the road to face upstart South Carolina and play Alabama and LSU on the road. Getting Auburn at home is a blessing, but the Tigers could be the team to beat in the SEC West if things go their way. The schedule softens up late for Woo Pig Sooie, but the damage may already be done.
Win Total Pick: Under 7
Arkansas will likely get to that important six-win plateau for a bowl game, but getting seven regular season wins will be a challenge. A lot of skill position talent left from last season. Allen put up some decent numbers, but the Razorbacks also allowed 35 sacks with experienced wide receivers. What will happen with guys that can’t create as much separation? Will it allow opposing defenses to flood the box? How will the change to the 3-4 go? There are a ton of questions with Arkansas this season and too many questions are a bad thing in the SEC.
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