FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The 2017 Arkansas Razorbacks begin fall camp Thursday, July 27 and a whole lot of questions are on the minds of Hogs fans entering Bret Bielema’s fifth season in charge.
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 few experienced pass catchers are back and the Hogs also lost an All-SEC-caliber running back when Rawleigh Williams III retired from the game.
So, here is what the worst-case scenario would look like for Arkansas in 2017. If this depresses you, don’t worry! On Thursday, we’ll hit you with the best-case scenario.
Factors that would create a worst-case 2017 Arkansas season
The defense isn’t any better
There are plenty of reasons for optimism about Arkansas’ defense in 2017, but just as many — if not more — for pessimism.
Despite the poor overall performance, the Hogs lost lots of pretty good players from their defense last year. In fact, Arkansas probably would have been much better last season if it ran the new 3-4 system. Can you imagine Deatrich Wise Jr. playing as a pass-rushing outside linebacker last season?
Now, Arkansas has new coaches, a new system and a whole lot of new players on defense. Senior Bijhon Jackson will start at nose guard — arguably the most important position in any 3-4 system — and until now, has never started a game in his college career.
The Arkansas safeties have been a liability the last two seasons and it looks like pretty much the same guys — some combination of Santos Ramirez, Josh Liddell and De’Andre Coley — will line up in those spots again. A change from the 4-3 to the 3-4 doesn’t change anything structurally for those guys.
Rawleigh Williams-less RBs don’t produce
Arkansas went through the spring feeling pretty confident about its backfield because of Williams III and Devwah Whaley both returning. When Williams opted to retire because of a neck injury suffered in the spring game — and then junior Juan Day transferred — the Hog backfield suddenly became pretty inexperienced.
This group will thrive or struggle based mostly on Whaley’s performance. What if he isn’t ready to carry the load? If that happens, are the Hogs really going to rely on South Carolina transfer David Williams — who failed to live up to high expectations with the Gamecocks — or one of the true freshmen?
Young WRs don’t step up
Senior Jared Cornelius is the only receiver back with any game experience. Allen will rely on guys such as La’Michael Pettway, Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones, T.J. Hammonds, Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance.
Then there are the tight ends.
Allen is a potential first-team All-SEC quarterback, but that won’t matter if he doesn’t have at least three guys who can catch his passes and make plays.
The offensive line stinks again
The Arkansas offensive line wasn’t very good in 2016. That fact bothered a lot of people — chief among them being Bielema — because of the Hogs’ reputation for the O-line being a team strength.
Allen took an absolute beating for a large portion of last season.
Senior center Frank Ragnow is one of the best offensive linemen in the country and the Razorbacks return a total of six guys up front with starting experience. But will they be better?
To parrot myself from the previous section: Allen is a potential first-team All-SEC quarterback, but that won’t matter if he doesn’t have time to throw the ball. And that was frequently a problem last season.
Special teams still aren’t so special
Other than punter Toby Baker, Arkansas was not very good on special teams in 2016. The Hogs finished last or near the bottom in several special teams statistical categories. For the second straight year, Arkansas did not have a reliable field goal kicker.
Bielema did not hire a special teams coordinator during the offseason. Junior Cole Hedlund and sophomore Connor Limpert — a combined 13 of 17 last season with just one field goal that was longer than 40 yards — will compete with freshman walk-on Blake Mazza to become the place kicker and kickoff specialist.
Sophomore Blake Johnson looks like the new punter, but off-the-field issues have plagued his entire career so far.
Special teams can often be the difference between a win and a loss. And if those units aren’t better for Arkansas this season, it could mean the difference between being bowl eligible and staying home for the holidays.
It goes without saying that a rash of injuries could sink the Arkansas season — as something like that could do to any team. If the worst-case scenario comes true for Arkansas, injuries will likely play a role.
A ‘worst-case scenario’ 2017 Arkansas season
Arkansas’ worst-case record
- 4-8 overall (1-7 SEC)
Arkansas’ 2017 worst-case results
- Aug. 31 vs. Florida A&M (in Little Rock, Ark.) — W
- Sept. 9 vs. TCU — L
- Sept. 23 vs. Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas) — L
- Sept. 30 vs. New Mexico State — W
- Oct. 7 at South Carolina — L
- Oct. 14 at Alabama — L
- Oct. 21 vs. Auburn — L
- Oct. 28 at Ole Miss — W
- Nov. 4 vs. Coastal Carolina — W
- Nov. 11 at LSU — L
- Nov. 18 vs. Mississippi State — L
- Nov. 24 vs. Missouri — L
- There is no way Arkansas — even in the worst-case scenario — will lose to Florida A&M, New Mexico State or Coastal Carolina.
- With all the NCAA stuff swirling around, I thought Ole Miss was probably a pretty safe win even before Hugh Freeze’s departure. With an interim coach, the bottom could easily fall out from under the Rebels.
- TCU’s offense and all its returning experience will be an early test for the defense. If the Horned Frogs light up the Hogs, it could be a (bad) sign of things to come.
- If Arkansas can’t beat Texas A&M in average or above-average years, why would the Hogs beat the Aggies in a bad year?
- South Carolina, Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri all have quarterbacks with lots of potential. In a worst-case scenario, they have big games against Arkansas.
- Speaking of Missouri, that is projected as a loss in this scenario because if the Hogs are 4-7 and guaranteed a losing record heading into that finale, it’s very easy to see them losing to the Tigers for a second straight season.
If Arkansas’ worst-case scenario comes true …
- The pressure on Bielema will enhance dramatically. Athletic director Jeff Long expressed the utmost confidence in him earlier this summer, but a 4-8 record would be a major step back for the program. Bielema probably wouldn’t be fired after one bad year, but he would likely enter 2018 on the hot seat. In that situation, would Bielema entertain other opportunities?
- With Bielema under increased pressure, there would almost certainly be some assistant coach firings.
- Recruiting would probably take a major hit. The Hogs already struggle to sign very many 4- and 5-star prospects. Would the few who might consider Arkansas decide against it because of a bad season? Arkansas is already likely to sign a small 2018 class, so if there were de-commitments, it could create a major problem.