Last Updated: 2017-08-30
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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