The excitement level for Arkansas football has not been this high in quite some time. I dare say the excitement level is where it would have been for the 2012 season had Bobby Petrino still been the Head Hog. A different type of excitement, but excitement nonetheless, and it's through the roof.
But, even with all the anticipation surrounding the new era in the football program, it doesn't imply a season of certainty. Quite the opposite, in fact. With a brand new coaching staff, the plethora of injuries, and new offensive philosophy, there are plenty of questions heading into August 31.
Question #1: Can the passing game be effective enough to open the running game?
As Brandon Allen enters his first year as Arkansas' starting quarterback, he must quickly prove he can control the Hogs' passing game. If Allen cannot prove he can read the defenses correctly and show good decision making, or if receivers have difficulty making plays, defenses will sit on the Arkansas running game, and ultimately stall the offense.
If the offense is not up-to-par, it will put a lot of added pressure on the Arkansas defense to get stops and keep them in games, which could be a tall order. Playmakers will need to arise for first year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Question #2: Can the rushing game be effective enough to open up the passing game?
Obviously, the rushing and passing games go hand-in-hand. Can the Arkansas offensive line and run blocking be consistent enough to open holes for Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins? I think so.
Throw in Kiero Small, the human facemask smasher, Kody Walker, and all of the tight ends Bret Bielema likes and you've got a solid chance of having a consistent run game. If Arkansas can get solid production from the run game, play-action pass and the passing game should keep defenses on their heels.
Question #3: Who is going to step up at the receiver position?
Before the news of top returning receiver Mekale McKay transferring to Cincinnati and injuries began piling up for the Hogs at receiver, it was already a position with many question marks heading into a new year.
Now, with senior Demetrius Wilson out for the year with a torn ACL, and D'Arthur Cowan's foot injury that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks, Arkansas is in dire need of production from skill players. Seniors Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon return, but have never had the burden of being team leaders.
Aside from Herndon and Horton, true freshmen Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield will likely see time early. I also look for Keon Hatcher to make a bigger impact than most believe he will. It could be receiver by committee this year for the Hogs, and it could be a very big problem.
Question #4: How improved will the Arkansas secondary be in 2013?
In 2012, Arkansas' defense was asinine, just flat out terrible, allowing over 700 yards of offense to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. It was also a defense that allowed 30 or more points in seven games, and gave up 45 touchdowns.
If the Hogs want to take a step forward from a 4-8 season last year, it has to start with the secondary. Fans shouldn't worry too much about stopping the run, Chris Smith, Byran Jones, and Trey Flowers have that covered for the most part.
Yes, defensive backs Tevin Mitchel, Will Hines, Rohan Gaines and company should improve from last season. But how much they improve as a unit will tell the story. The defense must find ways to get off the field after third down (which Eric Bennett told me "3rd down is money down" for the defense), otherwise, Bielema's philosophy of ball control could backfire on him.
Question #5: Can the special teams unit be a spark?
In 2012, Arkansas did not record a single special teams touchdown of kickoff or punt returns. The good news is the Hogs did not allow a touchdown on special teams, either.
But, if Arkansas' offense does stall, which is likely to happen at some point during the year, the special teams unit needs to add some life. When Arkansas was very successful in 2010 and 2011, special teams was a big reason why. Whether it was great kickoff coverage, or Dennis Johnson and Joe Adams in the return game, it gave the Hogs a much needed spark, taking some pressure off the offensive and defensive units.
Ultimately, I think Arkansas can scratch up a couple of special teams scores this season, especially with all of the speed in the return game (Eric Hawkins, Nate Holmes, Javontee Herndon), and provide some excitement in that area like in years past.