The Arkansas Razorbacks are a popular pick as a dark horse candidate to be competitive in the SEC West. The team went 7-6 last year, losing four games by a touchdown or less, while holding LSU and Ole Miss scoreless in back to back weeks. A team lacking talent doesn’t do this, and there’s reason to believe Arkansas can win a couple of those one score games and improve their record by a win or two. Returning behind center is junior quarterback Brandon Allen, who threw for 2,285 yards and 20 touchdowns while only throwing five interceptions. The headliners for this offense are running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who both rushed for over 1,000 yards last season. Allen only completed 56% of his passes, but handing the ball off to those running backs alleviates some of those concerns. Also on offense is tight end Hunter Henry, who could be a finalist for the Mackey Award this year. He’s listed at 6-5, 252 pounds on Arkansas’s roster, so he has the size to block and is a target in the passing game, he had 37 catches for 513 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year. The Razorbacks lack some depth at receiver, but do return leading receiver Keon Hatcher who caught six touchdowns last season.
Defensively, the Razorbacks have some weaknesses, namely their linebackers. The only returning linebacker is senior Brooks Ellis, who posted 72 tackles in 11 games. The defensive line did lose defensive end Trey Flowers (13.5 TFLs) to the NFL, but the rest of the starters return and Flowers’s replacement is 6-foot-5 Deatrich Wise Jr., who the coaches were raving about in spring practice. Arkansas could have one of the top secondaries in the SEC this year, returning starting corner Jared Collins and safety Rohan Gaines. Collins was tied for first in the SEC in pass breakups with 13, and Gaines recorded 59 tackles and five pass breakups. The most intriguing member of the secondary will be sophomore Henre’ Toliver, who appeared in 11 games as a true freshman. Toliver had two interceptions last year, and was the primary defender against Amari Cooper, limiting the Heisman finalist to two catches for 22 yards. Listed at 6-1, 186-pounds, Toliver has the height to stick with some of the big receivers in the SEC.
Arkansas brings in a top 25 recruiting class, according to ESPN, but the only player out of that who is likely to see playing time is JUCO transfer wide receiver Dominique Reed. If the defensive line is plagued by injuries, defensive tackle Hjalte Froholdt might see some time.
The Razorbacks play their first three games against UTEP, Toledo, and Texas Tech. The Toledo game is going to be played in Little Rock at a neutral site, but Arkansas is listed as the home team. The Razorbacks should win all these games pretty handily, with Texas Tech being the best of these three teams and still not posing much upset potential. Texas Tech went 4-8 last year, and were soundly beat 49-28 by Arkansas at home. Arkansas wins this one again.
After a few nice tune up games, the Razorbacks begin SEC play on September 26th against Texas A&M at home. I picked A&M as an upset against Alabama, but I think Arkansas has a much better secondary than the Crimson Tide. This game went into overtime last year, before the Aggies pulled out a victory. Arkansas gets the benefit of playing this game at home, and will be looking to get revenge after last year. I think Arkansas wins this game relying on their secondary and rushing attack.
After their first four weeks, Arkansas begins a murderer’s row of an October schedule. They first travel to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols are similar to the Razorbacks in the fact that both teams are talented and have the opportunity to improve their record this year. Where the Razorbacks will struggle with this game is on defense. This will be the first game where their inexperience at linebacker will show. Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs is threat to beat you with his legs or arm, and he could run all over Arkansas. If the defensive line can contain him a bit and keep him from reaching that second level, this will be a competitive game. However, Dobbs could have one of those games where he rushes for 75 yards and score, while throwing for 175 yards and touchdown. Arkansas matches up well with their defense, and will use their massive offensive line to contain defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Curtis Maggitt (ten and 11 sacks respectively). This game hinges on containing Dobbs, while keeping Barnett and Maggitt away from the quarterback.
Next on the schedule is Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Arkanas kept is close last year, forcing four special teams turnovers, but lost 14-13. I doubt Alabama turns the ball over four times again, which makes it hard for me to believe Arkansas keeps it close this year. Alabama will be a top ten team in the country and are simply too talented and too well coached to turn over the ball like they did last year. Arkansas loses this one.
After a much needed bye week following two away games, Arkansas plays Auburn at home on October 24th. Auburn was picked to finish second in the conference at the SEC Media Day, and rightfully so. Jeremy Johnson is projected as a better passer than Nick Marshall, but can still run the ball a bit, he’ll also have leading receiver Duke Williams back to help him out. Auburn won’t have running back Cameron Artis-Payne anymore, but Gus Malzahn is an offensive wizard and there’s still talent there. Also, Will Muschamp is the new defensive coordinator. He was unsuccessful as a head coach at Florida, but those Gator teams always had a great defense. He’ll get to focus solely on the defensive side of the ball, which is what made him such an attractive head coaching candidate during his time at Texas. These two teams last played in 2012, when Auburn went to the BCS National Championship, and Arkansas lost 35-17. Arkansas does get Auburn at home, and I think they still lose; but not by almost 20 points this time.
Arkansas gets some reprieve the following week, with a cushy game against UT Martin on Halloween. We can go ahead and chalk that up as a win. After that however, it’s a hellacious November schedule, playing both Ole Miss and LSU away before returning Fayetteville to face Mississippi State and Missouri at home.
Arkansas shut out both Ole Miss and LSU last season, but I don’t see that happening again. I think Arkansas splits these games, beating Ole Miss and losing to LSU. Ole Miss will still have a solid defense, but I believe losing quarterback Bo Wallace will really hurt their team. Ryan Buchanan might struggle against the Razorbacks strong secondary, as Buchanan did last year. Arkansas wins this one in Oxford.
LSU will be a different story. LSU was young last year, and it showed against Arkansas. LSU will be improved this year, especially on offense. Anthony Jennings, Malachi Dupree, and Leonard Fournette will all have a year of experience under their belt, and could form a scary three-headed scoring machine. LSU only generated 19 sacks last season, and they have a new defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele, who will be looking for a pass rusher. Their secondary figures to be one of the most talented in the nation, with Tre’Davious White, Jalen Mills, and Jamal Adams all returning. Brandon Allen only completed 56% of his passes for the Razorbacks, and a few misthrows against LSU could end up being turnovers. I’m also all in on Fournette, I think he’s going to be outstanding for the Tigers; and this season is going to be his breakout year. LSU doesn’t get shutout this year, and wins by a touchdown.
Finally, the last two games of the season, Mississippi State and Missouri, are both at home. I’ve gone on record before that I think Mississippi State won’t be nearly as good as last year. The lost running back Josh Robinson, and key defensive pieces in defensive end Preston Smith and linebacker Bernardrick McKinney. I’m not complete sold on Prescott as a passer (11 interceptions last season), and the Razorback secondary could put a lot of pressure on him. However, this could be similar to the Tennessee game. If the defensive ends and linebackers can’t contain Prescott as a runner, that’ll open up the Bulldogs offense. Even if Prescott goes for a big day, Collins and Williams will still be around to provide a rushing attack against a defense that’s missing pieces from last year. This game will be a close one, but I’ll give a slight of edge to the home team.
As for Missouri, I think this is a win for the Razorbacks. Arkansas only lost by a touchdown and Brandon Allen was clearly injured during this game. Mizzou lost the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Shane Ray, and lost his counterpart on the other end of the line in Markus Golden. Mizzou will struggle to get after the quarterback this year, and a healthy Allen only helps Arkansas’s argument against this team. The tables are turned on Mizzou, and Arkansas comes out of this one with a win.
Arkansas will be able to lean on their ground game, and let Brandon Allen throw it down the field when the safeties cheat up. Allen won’t win any awards, but he’s the most experienced quarterback this year in the SEC in terms of number of starts. Their secondary will be among the top three in the SEC, and their defensive line will be solid again. The linebackers are a liability, and could be exposed in a couple games, but otherwise I think that’s a weakness that can be covered up. Arkansas has six games they should win, three games they can win, one coin flip, and two games they’d be hard pressed to win. Converting two of those “can wins” into actual wins would put them at eight wins for the season, Razorback fans might be looking at even nine wins if they manage to eke out one more victory. The team that I’m worried about for Arkansas is Mississippi State. Going 3-1 against Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, and Mizzou would be huge for Arkansas. If the Razorbacks lose to Tennessee, Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen will be sure to employ some of the same tactics that resulted in a loss to the Vols. Containing Prescott will be key, and it’ll be up to the veteran linebacker Brooks Ellis and that defensive line. Yet, as I mentioned above, if Prescott can run the ball, it’ll be a long day for the Razorbacks.
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