Bloguin Top 50: No. 25 — Arkansas

Arkansas Razorbacks

2014 Record: 7-6 (won bowl game)

1 Burning Question: Will Arkansas be able to build on late success from last season?

Last season, Arkansas was able to muster only two conference wins. However, the Razorbacks were close in nearly every conference contest. In addition, they won three of their last four games and four of the last six. This includes the bowl win, a 31-7 thumping of Texas. The most impressive games of the season came during this late run, with wins over LSU and a 30-0 pounding of Ole Miss. There is no doubt that Arkansas got better as the season went along; how the Hogs carry that momentum in 2015 will determine how the season goes.

Why buy Arkansas this year? Bret Bielema is five games under .500 in his two seasons at Arkansas, but the SEC West has been a buzzsaw over the past few years. Now that they have taken their lumps, the Razorbacks are primed to compete in that difficult half of the conference. Enduring close games and deriving lessons from them will be crucial as they try to win games, rather than just be close, in 2015.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to

2 — The number of games Arkansas won last season in the SEC. However, six of the Hogs’ losses were by one score. One of the losses was in overtime, and in four losses, they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter. The difference in the (14-13) Alabama game was a blocked extra point.

218 – The amount of rushing yards the Razorbacks accumulated last season. Arkansas boasted of a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins last season. Both of those players return for this season, and the Razorbacks could be special in the running game as a result.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

2015 Full Schedule
Sept. 5 — UTEP
Sep. 12 — Toledo
Sep. 19 — Texas Tech
Sept. 26 — Texas A&M
Oct. 3 — at Tennessee
Oct. 10 — at Alabama
Oct. 24 — Auburn
Oct. 31 — Tennessee-Martin
Nov. 7 — at Ole Miss
Nov. 14 — at LSU
Nov. 21 — Mississippi State
Nov. 28 — Missouri

Saturday, October 10, @Alabama
Record in the Last 5 Meetings: 0-5
Last Year’s Result: L, 14-13

Why it matters: In last year’s meeting, the difference in the game was an extra point. However, this was not the case in the previous three meetings before that, as the Tide outscored the Razorbacks, 142-14. This included back-to-back 52-0 massacres. While this year’s game is in Tuscaloosa, it is vital that Arkansas keeps it close to sustain morale.

Saturday, October 24, Auburn
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 45-21

Why it matters: While Auburn has been a powerhouse in the SEC over the past few years, Arkansas has seen a decent amount of success against the Tigers. The Razorbacks won back-to-back games in 2011 and 2012, before dropping two in a row in 2013 and last season. Points are scored in bunches in this rivalry, but fireworks won’t matter much if Arkansas can’t reclaim control of the matchup. This contest follows the Alabama game and could therefore dictate how Arkansas feels about its season heading into November.

Speaking of November…

Saturday, November 14, @ LSU
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: W, 17-0

Why it matters: The Tigers ran into Arkansas when the Hogs were hot and fell to them in shutout fashion. LSU will be out for blood this season, and many of the games in the recent history of the series have been quite close. Three of the five games have been decided by one score or less. On a separate note, the game follows the Tennessee-Martin and Ole Miss contests, beginning the stretch run for the Razorbacks. This is the last road game on the schedule, so if Arkansas can clear this hurdle with the SEC West in striking distance, its chances of making Atlanta would rise to a considerable degree.

4 Key Players

Brandon Allen, QB – Allen was able to complete only 56 percent of his passes last season in a fairly run-heavy offense, but he also threw only five interceptions to his 20 touchdowns. Generally with a low completion percentage, you see many more turnovers. This shows that Allen is capable of bringing more to the offense. Combined with the running game, any semblance of a passing game could turn this Razorback offense into a juggernaut. Allen threw only one pick in the final six games, when the team started winning on a more regular basis.

Jonathan Williams, RB – Williams was the leading rusher for Arkansas in 2015 with 1,190 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. The 223-pound Williams has the ability to overpower defenders, but also the shiftiness to beat them with speed, which showed on his 90-yard run against Nicholls State last season.

Alex Collins, RB – Collins finished just behind Williams with 1,100 yards on the ground, but that’s an incidental detail. The main point is that the duo dominated defenses most of the season. Collins emerged as the slightly more electric of the two, as he had runs of 84, 50, and 42 yards over the season. He added 12 scores on the ground.

Brooks Ellis, LB – Having lost defensive stars Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight, and Darius Philon to the NFL, Ellis is one of the most successful returning players on the defensive side of the ball. Ellis had 72 total tackles, with 5.5 coming for a loss on a unit that ranked 10th in total yards per game allowed in the FBS.

5 Bold Predictions

5. Williams and Collins will both go over 1,000 yards again.

With the skill set Williams and Collins bring to the table, there is no doubt that they will both go over 1,000 yards again. There is also little doubt that they will combine for at least 24 touchdowns again as well. The only question is who gets the bulk of the carries and whether they can mimic 2014 and both go over 1,100 again.

4. Brandon Allen will show improvement.

After seeing the improvement that Allen showed as the 2014 season went along, he will progress in 2015. He has not had any turnover issues at all in the past, and if he can become a 65-percent passer, the Arkansas offense should do special things.

3. The Arkansas defense will not see a drop-off.

Despite losing the talent of Flowers, Spaight, and Philon to the NFL, the defense still returns a lot of talent on that side of the ball. The Razorbacks also bring back defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson, who should help Arkansas to repeat the success it had in defending the run last season. The Hogs allowed little more than 100 rushing yards per game. They were a bit shaky against the pass, so turnover on the roster might not hurt to the extent one might first anticipate.

2. The Razorbacks will win the close games they lost last season.

Despite losing more close games than winning them over the past few seasons in the Bielema era, the experience of being in those close games will pay dividends in 2015 for the Razorbacks. There were signs of this at the end of 2014, with the team played its best ball of the year. It showed that experience turned losses into wins, which will recur this season.

1. Arkansas will win at least nine games.

While 10 wins may be the absolute ceiling for Arkansas, the progression the Hogs made last season — combined with the talent this team brings back — makes it just about impossible to think that the Razorbacks will struggle they way they did in 2014. While the Hogs probably won’t win the SEC West, and shouldn’t be favored to do so, the rebuild is nearly complete for Bielema. Arkansas will be a solid squad in 2015, competitive in every single contest… and more successful in closing down opponents.