FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Arkansas Razorbacks begin 2017 fall practices Thursday, kicking off the beginning to the fifth season of Bret Bielema’s tenure as head coach.
Following some historically bad defense and a pair of second-half meltdowns to end the 2016 season, Bielema shook up his defensive staff and changed the scheme on that side of the ball. On offense, Arkansas returns senior quarterback Austin Allen, but there are few experienced pass catchers on the roster, and the Razorbacks also lost an All-SEC caliber running back when Rawleigh Williams III retired from the game.
Wednesday, we took a look at what the worst-case scenario would look like for Arkansas in 2017. If you were feeling down after reading that, this post should bring you back up. Here is our glance at the best-case scenario for the Hogs in 2017.
Factors that would create a best-case 2017 Arkansas season
Austin Allen becomes a superstar
Quarterback is the most important position in team sports and we know that Arkansas has a good one. But do the Hogs have a great one?
There are a lot of people who believe Allen is the best quarterback in the SEC. He showed flashes of that last year, but struggled down the stretch and played a big role in the Razorbacks’ consecutive second-half meltdowns to end the season.
So, in order for the Hogs to reach their full, best-case-scenario potential, Allen needs to be a star. He would need to cut down on the interceptions — he threw 15 last season — and also play a big role in bringing along the Hogs’ inexperienced wide receivers and tight ends.
Allen was elected a team captain, signifying the way his teammates feel about him as a leader. That’s a good sign.
If Allen becomes the first-team All-SEC quarterback many believe he can be, that would be a great start for Arkansas on the road to a great season.
Two or three running backs have big seasons
Bielema has had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in all four of his seasons as a head coach at Arkansas — and, for that matter, the four previous seasons at Wisconsin, as well — but his very best teams have included at least two running backs capable of carrying the load. That seems a lot tougher after Rawleigh Williams’ retirement.
Sophomore Devwah Whaley is certainly talented enough to become a top-tier SEC running back. Whaley would need to have a big year for this best-case scenario to happen, and the potential is clearly there after rushing for 602 yards on just 110 carries — a 5.5-yard per carry average — as a freshman.
But someone else in the Hogs’ backfield also needs to step up. The most-likely candidate would seem to be South Carolina transfer David Williams because of his experience. True freshman Maleek Williams enrolled early and impressed coaches through spring ball, so he’s another possibility.
Another true freshman, Chase Hayden, is talented and versatile, but may start fourth on the depth chart. If he has a good camp, though, he could fly up the ranks and become that guy.
Paul Rhoads is a miracle worker
Before his seven-season run as Iowa State’s head coach, Rhoads was a highly-respected defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn. His first year as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator will be a challenge considering the new system and a whole lot of new players, but for the Hogs to have a best-case season, Rhoads will need to do an incredible job in 2017. Like, a Broyles Award-winning type of job.
Now, considering how poor Arkansas played on defense last season, it seems likely that the Hogs’ defensive statistical rankings will improve at least some. Honestly, they can’t get much worse.
But for this scenario to play out, the Razorbacks defense needs to make monumental leaps in those categories. In the new 3-4 system, Arkansas’ defensive linemen and linebackers will need to make life hell for opposing quarterbacks. And the Hogs play several good signal callers in 2017.
Safeties Santos Ramirez, Josh Liddell and DeAndre Coley will have to be better, too. They have struggled the last couple of seasons, so a big step forward by that group will be a must.
Offensive line returns to normal
Plenty has been written about how much the Arkansas offensive line struggled last season, so there’s no need to rehash all of that. For the Hogs to have their best possible season in 2017, things need to get back to normal.
By that, I mean the Arkansas offensive line needs to be more like what everyone is used to seeing from Bielema-coached teams. In 2014 and 2015, the Razorbacks improved as the seasons went along, largely because the Hogs’ big offensive line wore down opposing defense in November.
There is reason to believe things could be better up front in 2017. It starts with senior center Frank Ragnow, who is already one of the best offensive linemen in the country. And unlike last year at this time, offensive line coach Kurt Anderson seems to have his starting five pretty well figured out entering fall camp. Last fall camp, Anderson experimented with about 10 different first-team units before the season opener and that turned out to be a sign that things weren’t good.
If the line is indeed better, the first two factors listed here — Allen starring and the running backs doing well — will be a whole lot easier.
The team stays healthy
Great football teams are usually helped along by some good luck when it comes to injuries. So, the Hogs need to stay healthy. That’s a given. No need to say more here.
A ‘best-case scenario’ 2017 Arkansas season
Arkansas’ best-case record
- 10-2 overall (6-2 SEC)
Arkansas’ 2017 best-case results
- Aug. 31 vs. Florida A&M (in Little Rock, Ark.) — Win
- Sept. 9 vs. TCU — Win
- Sept. 23 vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas) — Win
- Sept. 30 vs. New Mexico State — Win
- Oct. 7 at South Carolina — Win
- Oct. 14 at Alabama — Loss
- Oct. 21 vs. Auburn — Win
- Oct. 28 at Ole Miss — Win
- Nov. 4 vs. Coastal Carolina — Win
- Nov. 11 at LSU — Loss
- Nov. 18 vs. Mississippi State — Win
- Nov. 24 vs. Missouri — Win
- In the best-case scenario, Arkansas beats TCU and Texas A&M and as a result, starts the year 4-0. The Hogs haven’t started a season 4-0 since 2003.
- The Oct. 7 South Carolina game will be crucially important. I see these two teams as somewhat similar in terms of their SEC prestige, so Arkansas needs to win this one.
- I don’t see any way Arkansas wins at Alabama, even in a best-case scenario.
- Auburn would be a huge victory at home, especially after the way the Hogs were embarrassed last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium. There is a lot of hype surrounding the Tigers entering 2017.
- I want to be realistic here. Even in a best-case scenario, Arkansas is probably going to lose two games. Alabama is one, and I would put the game at LSU as the most-likely other loss. The Tigers are very talented and LSU is a tough place to win.
- Mississippi State is a team that could surprise some people — Nick Fitzgerald could end up being one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC — so this would need to be a win for the Hogs to have their best possible season.
- No way Arkansas can have a “best-case scenario” 2017 season without beating Missouri and avenging last year’s embarrassing loss in Columbia.
If Arkansas’ best-case scenario comes true …
- Austin Allen might — might — generate some legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz. If the scenario above plays out and he indeed is the best quarterback in the SEC, he’ll at least be in the conversation.
- The “Bret Bielema is on the hot seat” talk evaporates into thin air. He would probably get a nice, big raise and contract extension.
- Coordinators Dan Enos and Paul Rhoads would both become hot head coaching candidates. Both have been head coaches before and aspire to get there again, and a season like the one described above would probably land them on lots of schools’ short lists.
- Arkansas would find itself a hotter recruiting destination. I’m not sure if one 10-win season would necessarily land the Hogs in the top-10 of national recruiting rankings, but there would be a lot of top 2019 and 2020 prospects taking a closer look.