The SEC West is the toughest division in football, and Bret Bielema left the Big Ten and a 68-24 career record at Wisconsin to take over an Arkansas Razorbacks team that was in rebuilding mode. In year one, Bielema and the Hogs went just 3-9. The Auburn Tigers proved last season that it is possible to rebuild very quickly, as they went from 3-9 to playing for a national championship.
As Bielema enters his second season, a turnaround like Auburn had last season does not seem like it’s about to happen. After going 11-2 in 2011, the Hogs have fallen off the map with a 7-17 record in two seasons, and they failed to win a conference game in 2013.
The Razorbacks face off with the 2013 SEC champion Auburn Tigers in week one. As Bielema tries to change the culture of the Razorbacks, we will learn a lot about Bielema’s team on Saturday.
Over the last two years, the Razorbacks have gone from having the most explosive offensive in the league (36.8 points per game in 2011) to one of the worst (12th in the league at 20.7 ppg in 2013).
As a sophomore, quarterback Brandon Allen completed just 49.6 percent of his passes and threw almost as many interceptions (10) as he did touchdowns (13). Allen has to be consistent this year, and one thing to watch will be how he performs on third down and 4-6 yards. In 2013, he completed just 42.9 percent of these passes and threw more interceptions (3) than touchdowns. As Bill Connelly of SB Nation points out in his Arkansas preview, Allen was historically bad against top competition:
Against Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, Brandon Allen completed 28 of 78 passes (35.9 percent) for 285 yards, no touchdowns, and four interceptions. Even against good defense, that’s incredibly bad.
Bielema wants to move the football on the ground, and he’s built a very good stable of running backs with Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall. Arkansas will be able to run the football, but can the Hogs complement the run with an efficient passing game?
On defense, the area to watch for Arkansas will be how it holds up against the run… and what a great week one challenge the Razorbacks have with Auburn.
In 2013, the Hogs gave up 5.29 yards per carry (12th in the SEC) and 221.38 yards per game (12th in the SEC) in conference games. Against Auburn they gave up 233 yards and 5.07 ypc.
For Arkansas it’s about running the ball (and passing with efficiency) and stopping the run. That’s what Bielema is trying to bring to Fayetteville.
The question I’m most interested in learning more about this weekend is:
How close is Arkansas and are the Hogs starting to turn the tide?
Make no mistake about it, college football is all about wins and losses, but in certain situations there are such things as moral victories.
Arkansas is an 18-point underdog on the road. The Razorbacks are also on a nine-game losing streak and are playing a team that is being predicted as a Top 5 team.
Watch Brandon Allen. Can he be the quarterback Arkansas needs him to be?
Watch the Arkansas defensive line. Can these four players in the trenches get stops (in conference games, Arkansas allowed opponents to convert at a rate of 50.52 percent on third down)?
Bielema is confident of an upset this weekend, but what he needs to see is that his team is headed in the right direction. A blowout is the worst thing that can happen for Bielema and Arkansas. If they can hang with Auburn, it will show that this team might be ready to turn the corner sooner than anticipated.
What we are looking for with Arkansas this weekend is a spark and a sign of life.