Coming off a historically-bad 3-9 season, this may appear to be the wrong time to stick one's neck out and predict a quick turnaround for the beleaguered Arkansas Razorbacks. After a stronger start than that of Bobby Petrino's first campaign in 2008, Hogs fans were understandably hopeful that new coach Bret Bielema was primed for a first year run to a quality bowl game. The two-headed running back combo of sophomore Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins appeared likely to live up to its billing (and, ultimately did, with 1,926 yards between them for the year). Then came the Rutgers loss on September 21-Arkansas's first of the season, and the first time they had picked on someone their own size (although they were notably hampered by the loss of QB Brandon Allen to injury).
What followed was like a descent into madness: loss after loss culminating in a 99-yard, textbook two minute drill by LSU to cap the perfect storm: a zero-for-eight SEC record, the first time in Razorbacks history they failed to win a conference game.
Surprisingly, a closer analysis of the season underscores just how unlucky the Razorbacks needed to be to go 0-for-the-conference. First of all, the Hogs ended the year with the 13th-ranked strength of schedule in the country; a metric that actually does not consider the home-away split. The Hogs were at Rutgers, at Florida, at Alabama, at Ole Miss and at LSU in 2013. Meanwhile they saw Top Ten opponents Texas A&M, Auburn, and South Carolina at home. The loss of Allen was the deciding factor in the Rutgers game, and he was once again injured in the Auburn game.
The Hogs also caught a particularly nasty five-game set of matchups in the heart of their schedule in October. Following the Rutgers loss (a true road game in New Jersey and the first time the Razorbacks had played north of Mason-Dixon since the second Roosevelt Administration), they squared off against five Top 25 teams in a row. The Hogs play in the SEC, so that's hardly a surprise, but that run also included plucky South Carolina, the Alabama Death Star and SEC-West champion Auburn.
Despite the atrocious W-L record, the Hogs actually showed signs of life as the season progressed, and gave fans reason to hope for better next year. Only the Alabama and South Carolina games were true blow-outs, against opponents everyone had penciled in as clear victors. The Hogs took LSU and Mississippi State down to the wire in the final two games of the campaign. They matched up reasonably well against a good Ole Miss team and put up a fight against an Auburn team which was clearly operating on black magic in 2013.
Historically, teams with narrow point spreads but a lot of losses often show rapid turnarounds the following year. Auburn's record in 2012 was 3-9 with an 0-8 record in the SEC (the exact same as the Razorbacks' in 2013). What made Auburn's sudden turnaround possible? Clearly, coach Gus Malzahn. But more importantly, Gus Malzahn's players. Auburn is only three years removed from its national championship following the 2010 season. Auburn's recruits from the 2011 campaign were ranked #7 by the Rivals.com recruiting service. Those kids are on the field now, and that class will likely be re-ranked even higher following their showing on the field this year.
Meanwhile, Arkansas in 2013 played more freshmen and sophomores than any other team in the league. Specifically, half of the 44 first- and second-string starters listed on the depth chart were freshmen or sophomores coming out of summer practice, and the youth contingent was even more evident on the field as the season continued. Were these players members of a top-10 recruiting class? Not on your life. These were recruits from the last year of Bobby Petrino's regime and what Bret Bielema could scrounge in the final month of the recruiting window, after his hire (a haul which most notably included Fr. RB Alex Collins). Petrino was a great player developer but a notoriously poor recruiter. John L. Smith would have been better advised to not recruit at all (and, indeed, Bielema wound up releasing many of Smith's recruits when he took the job). Thus Bielema was working with a cupboard which was almost bare.
What the Hogs in 2014 will have going for them is a very strong running back corps hitting holes opened by what should be an experienced, albeit youthful, offensive line. Bielema is Petrino-caliber at working up offensive linemen, and the Hogs have established an identity as a running team which should play well to junior college transfers on the off-season recruiting trail. There will obviously be no question about early playing time for a talented juco transfer. And meanwhile Bielema will have his first full season of recruiting under his belt (only then will we be able to evaluate his performance in what has become the most important part of a head coach's job).
Meanwhile the schedule in 2014 is much more favorable. Alabama, LSU and Georgia are at home. Instead of a cross-country quasi-rivalry matchup versus South Carolina (which will now be an ordinary rotating opponent), the Hogs get a road game against new permanent opponent Mizzou, in nearby Columbia, Missouri. The Texas A&M game goes back to Jerry World in Dallas (a Razorbacks hotbed) rather than out to College Station. The non-conference adult-league contender is dangerous Texas Tech, which seems likely to feast on what will probably still be a weak Hogs secondary. Still, as SEC schedules go, this is better than average.
The Hogs' primary weaknesses will continue to be at quarterback, receiver and in the defensive secondary. Whether Brandon Allen will be the designated starter going into spring practice should be an open question all winter. Some SEC quarterbacks develop greatly after their first wash-cycle in the league. (See Mettenberger, Zach). Others are just in over their heads. (See Clark, Zak). But Bielema has four-star QB Rafe Peavey coming in from Bolivar, Missouri-a potential rival for playing time even as a true freshman.
Are the Hogs poised for an Auburn-like run to the top of the SEC West? No, probably not. But this could easily be an eight win squad in 2014 if the team can avoid the injury bug and get the bare-minimum performance it needs from the defensive unit, a weak spot seemingly ever since Houston Nutt's defensive coordinator Keith Burns left to take the Tulsa job.
Bielema will start 2014 with "hot seat" whispers-and not just from the lunatic fringe. But don't be surprised if he winds up on coach of the year short lists when the 2014 campaign is concluded. In the tightrope-walking act of SEC coaching, teams can rise and fall in a heartbeat.
Zach Matthews is a native of Rogers, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.