CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2016 Arkansas football season has been full of ups and downs. In fact, the Razorbacks have alternated wins and losses since mid-September.
Although the Hogs’ 7-5 overall record — and 3-5 mark in SEC play — surely disappointed many fans, this team also provided some exciting moments and plenty of players to be proud of in 2016.
So on Christmas Day, let’s take a quick look at 16 gifts the Arkansas football program provided for its fans in 2016. These are not in any particular order — except for No. 1.
The Razorbacks wrap up the 2016 season on Thursday in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.
1. Bret Bielema
I realize there are probably a lot of Arkansas football fans who aren’t pleased with Bielema’s job performance. After all, the Hogs finished the 2016 regular season with the same record as last year, and even if Arkansas beats Virginia Tech, this year wouldn’t be an improvement. In fact, the Razorbacks’ 3-5 SEC record is a significant drop-off from last year.
But Bielema is absolutely a gift to Razorbacks fans and should be viewed as such.
This is a man who inherited a complete mess in the aftermath of the Bobby Petrino debacle. The team has improved almost every year. He’s recruited quality, stand-up players — more on that below — and generally kept this program out of the news for the wrong reasons.
Who could forget the incredible act of decency and kindness he showed earlier this year after Frank Ragnow’s father died?
He’s also one heck of a coach.
2. Finally beating Mississippi State
Arkansas went to Starkville, Miss., and beat the Bulldogs for the first time since 2011. It was also Bielema’s first victory over Mississippi State.
The Hogs won 58-42 behind strong performances from both Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley.
3. Austin Allen
Arkansas fans didn’t know precisely what they were getting when Brandon Allen’s little brother took over as the Hogs’ starting quarterback.
What they’ve gotten is one of the toughest quarterbacks in the country.
He’s also pretty talented. If Allen’s offensive line improves next season — and he has good replacements for all of the departing receivers — he could put up some gaudy numbers.
4. Rawleigh Williams III
Sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in rushing after returning from an absolutely frightening neck injury suffered last season.
He’s also one of the friendliest, brightest guys on the team. Talking to RWIII, you’d never believe the guy has a bad day.
5. 21 graduates
Arkansas saw 21 football players graduate during the 2016 calendar year. They are:
- Austin Allen (supply chain management), Toby Baker (finance), Jared Collins (recreation and sports management), Brooks Ellis (pre-professional exercise science), Matthew Emrich (agricultural business), Keon Hatcher (sociology), Cody Hollister (marketing), Taiwan Johnson (journalism), Jeremiah Ledbetter (sociology), Brandon Lewis (recreation and sports management), Adam McFain (supply chain management), Connor McPherson (finance), Damon Mitchell (English/journalism), Drew Morgan (management), Jake Raulerson (finance), Dominique Reed (sociology), Dan Skipper (biology), Jeremy Sprinkle (recreation and sports management), Kody Walker (sociology), JaMichael Winston (recreation and sports management), Deatrich Wise Jr. (kinesiology).
6. Three straight over Ole Miss
Arkansas has beaten SEC West rival Ole Miss three straight seasons. This year’s victory was especially impactful. The Hogs won 34-30 in front of a rowdy home crowd at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Any time you beat an SEC West foe three years in a row, that’s a good thing.
7. Toby Baker
Baker’s senior season has been really tremendous for the most part.
You’re gonna miss him when he’s gone.
8. Ryan Pulley
The sophomore cornerback was called into duty after Kevin Richardson II’s Week 1 injury. The Hogs had to reshuffle their defense and move Henre’ Toliver to nickelback, throwing Pulley into a starting corner role.
Pulley has shown fantastic potential and should be a really good player next season.
9. Another bowl game
It’s hard to be too down on any season that ends with a bowl trip. And Arkansas is going bowling for the third straight season, with the opportunity to beat a strong Virginia Tech team in the Belk Bowl.
10. A team full of generally good guys
No team is perfect and there will always be the occasional arrests and disciplinary problems.
But you don’t see Bielema’s players getting into the kind of trouble you see elsewhere in the college football, and that speaks to the kind of players his staff recruits and develops.
Regardless of the on-field product, Arkansas fans can generally rest easy knowing that their team won’t do anything ugly or embarrassing off the field.
11. A win over Florida
On Nov. 5, Arkansas beat Florida for the first time in SEC play. The Hogs posted a convincing 31-10 victory over the eventual SEC East champion.
Two weeks later, Florida beat LSU — a team that easily beat Arkansas — proving that the Razorbacks are capable of playing with almost anyone on their schedule.
12. Stadium renovations
Arkansas is renovating Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, a $160 million project that will give the stadium a facelift.
The north end zone and the Frank Broyles Athletic Center have been ripped up, with the renovations expected to be completed by the 2018 season.
The renovations will increase capacity to 77,000, enclose the north end zone and add new club and suite seating.
13. McTelvin Agim
The former 5-star prospect entered the Arkansas starting lineup for the Florida game in early November and has shown flashes of brilliance this season.
A true freshman, Agim is probably going to be a superstar on the Hogs’ defensive line.
14. Devwah Whaley
Whaley saw his playing time increase as the season went on and at times looked like the star most expect him to become. The true freshman running back was one of the most highly recruited players at his position in the 2016 class, and the Hogs are surely thrilled to have him.
15. The TCU win
The Hogs’ 41-38, double-overtime victory at TCU on Sept. 10 was thrilling, but also gave fans a glimpse at what kind of quarterback they had in Austin Allen.
Even though the Horned Frogs didn’t end up being quite as good as most expected, that doesn’t take away from the way this win — over an old Southwest Conference foe, no less — made Arkansas fans feel.
16. A secure QB future
Allen will return for his senior season — which is exciting on its own — but after that, Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos has recruited some guys that should make Hogs fans feel good.
True freshman Cole Kelley very nearly became Allen’s backup this season, and incoming freshman Daulton Hyatt has a strong skill set that should make him a formidable QB competitor in the coming seasons.
That doesn’t even include redshirt freshman Ty Storey, who is Allen’s backup this year and was a 4-star prospect out of high school.
You’ve always got a chance to win in football with great quarterback play, and there are lots of reasons to believe the Razorbacks could have that for years to come.