By demolishing LSU, Ole Miss, and Texas in three of the season's last four games, the Razorbacks turned what was looking like a season best known for heartbreakers into what fans hope is a season remembered for turning that proverbial corner.
The late wins have kickstarted what should be an offseason full of optimism and excitement for next fall, and with good reason. For the first time in three years, fans can probably expect to be happy by what they see in all the annual preview magazines.
What's the Roster Going to Look Like?
Returnees on offense typically result in high preseason expectations, and the Hogs return most of their significant contributors on that side of the ball, with Brey Cook likely the biggest loss, literally and figuratively.
There's no reason for fans not to expect an improvement on offense next year. When Jonathan Williams announced his return, it solidified all significant skill players returning, plus the addition of JoJo Robinson to a shaky wide receiver corps with Jared Cornelius returning as a sophomore. Depending on how Signing Day shakes out, we could also see KJ Hill and Dominique Reed joining them. Highly-rated recruit Brian Wallace should make an immediate impact on the line after redshirting this year. If nothing else for the offensive line, by Year 3, it becomes harder to use the "depth" reason for struggles. Losing AJ Derby stinks after we just got a taste of what he's capable of at tight end, but Arkansas is bringing in what you'd have to think is the best tight end group in the nation with CJ O'Grady, Austin Cantrell, and Will Gragg.
As we all know, the biggest questions come on the defense because of the loss of Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers, and as of this writing, Darius Philon has not announced whether or not he'll be returning to school. Make no mistake, those aren't guys for which you can just plug someone else in their positions and expect the same results. Finding another guy completely off the radar like Spaight and expecting him to come in and lead the SEC in tackles is probably not the most realistic idea. Losing them hurts.
That doesn't necessarily mean the defense as a whole will take a big step back. There are other players fans should be excited to see. Deatrich Wise was one of the most hyped players on the team last summer, but he battled injuries all season and didn't make a huge impact although he did have two sacks. If he can stay healthy next season, he could very well play a larger role at defensive end. Arkansas also has highly-touted juco transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter coming in at defensive end. Freshmen like Bijhon Jackson and Henre Toliver could make the typical sophomore jump after being in the program for a year. Joshua Liddell will return at safety after playing well in Rohan Gaines' absences late in the year, and Santos Ramirez has drawn rave reviews from coaches at safety.
The biggest question, as it seems to be every year, is at linebacker. As mentioned, Spaight was a huge surprise in 2014. It's no secret Arkansas hasn't been able to recruit many highly-rated players at linebacker in recent years, so it would be another surprise if anybody is able to come near his numbers next season. That doesn't mean Arkansas won't have good players there, however. Brooks Ellis was 2nd on the team in tackles despite missing two games this year. Josh Williams also had a productive season in a backup role, finishing 8th on the team with 29 tackles. He might be a candidate to have a bigger role next year. After that though are only this year's freshmen, Khalia Hackett, Dwayne Eugene, and Randy Ramsey. How those guys perform as sophomores could be key for 2015.
As for whether or not Cole Hedlund claims the kicker job that many expected him to have this year? Who knows. Adam McFain will also return, so it'll be a battle to watch throughout the offseason. If Arkansas holds one of the field goal contests between quarters of the spring game this year as they've done the past two seasons, it could actually be one of the more highly anticipated events of the game.
What Happens When the Defense Doesn't Shut People Down?
If Arkansas is really to take that next step, the team must figure out how to win close games. The Razorbacks were tied or had leads in the fourth quarter of 11 games in 2014 and only won the games in which they led by a big margin. In fact, Bielema is now 0-7 at Arkansas in games decided by a touchdown or less. Including his last two seasons at Wisconsin, he's just 3-15. Close games haven't always been a problem for him, however. In his first five seasons at Wisconsin, Bielema was 18-7 in those games. He's got to figure out how to get that magic back.
Whenever the question of fourth-quarter scoring was brought up to Bielema, the answer was usually related to the team's lack of depth, which is a politically great way of passing the buck back to bad recruiting by previous coaching staffs without directly blaming them. Of course, in Year 3 and each year after, that answer holds less water. Arkansas will have to pull some of those close games out next year.
How Does the Schedule Shape Up?
Odd-numbered years have proven difficult for Hog teams hoping to make runs to win the division on account of having to travel to both Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge in those years. The trip to Oxford used to be a respite from those trips, but next year's game won't be much if any easier than those other two games.
The Razorbacks switch a home game with Georgia for a road game at Tennessee, which will be a really interesting game as both programs are on the upswing after finishing with 7-6 records this year. Next year's Vols probably won't be as good as this year's Georgia team, but it will still be an important challenge. I'm sure in the build up to that game, we'll hear all about how Bielema has yet to win an SEC game on the road. I think it's a good thing for Arkansas that the game falls directly in between Tennessee's rivalry games with Florida and Georgia, though.
The rest of Arkansas' schedule seems to set up better for the Hogs than this year's schedule. The Razorbacks don't have to open the season with a game like Auburn, which I'll argue was a scheduling disaster for the Hogs this year. Next season they don't play the Tigers until late October and following a bye week. Missouri and Mississippi State both lose some really important players next year and both come to Fayetteville. The Hogs will be favored to beat Texas Tech at home after blowing them out in Lubbock last year.
Arkansas loses a conference home game because the A&M game is technically a home game for Arkansas in odd-numbered years. The Hogs never had to play consecutive road games in 2014 but they'll do that twice next year, and the first home SEC game won't be until that Auburn game, which isn't until October 24th.
Any Chance Rafe Peavey or Ty Storey Will Take Brandon Allen's Starting Job?
Barring injury, Brandon Allen will be the starter next season. There still seems to be some fans who have a hard time accepting this, but it's the truth. Allen's going to be a 5th year senior with more than two years of SEC experience under his belt, was named MVP of the bowl game, and his numbers were significantly improved across the board in 2014. It's possible he could have his best offensive line and receiving corps next fall. He's going to be the starter in 2015, whether you like him or not.
Does that mean Austin Allen is locked in at #2? Of course not. The competition to be Allen's backup is one of the more interesting plots of the offseason. After years of anticipation, both Allens, Peavey, and Storey are all on campus and will begin competing with each other this year. How that competition shakes out could impact the Hogs for the next seasons following 2015, so it will be fun to watch.
What Should We Expect the Team's Record To Be?
I won't pretend to have studied the other SEC teams for next season yet, but after this season, it's hard to look at the schedule and think the Razorbacks won't have a shot in every game. That being said, I expect the over/under to be either 7.5 or 8.5.