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Arkansas Brought Back Almost Every Starter on Defense - And Somehow Got Worse

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The biggest disappointment of 2016 is obvious.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Arkansas’ most lopsided loss since the infamous 2005 USC debacle, there are plenty of questions and concerns that need to be addressed. We here at Arkansas Fight have already brought up quite a few since the Auburn game ended, but there is one point in particular I’ve thought about quite a bit over the last 24 hours and felt the need to address it.

Going into the season, one of the most-discussed issues was Arkansas’ returning defense. The pass defense was dreadful last season, but the run defense was ok, and the Razorbacks returned 9 of 11 starters on that side of the ball. Everyone expected Arkansas’ defense to be better. The only question was "how much better?" I remember being asked on the radio even if the 2016 defense would match the stout 2014 group led by Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight, and Darius Philon that came out of nowhere to finish 6th nationally in defensive S&P+.

While I was never on board with going that far, I definitely believed Arkansas’ defense would improve by some measure. In college football, with that many returning starters, it’s common knowledge that with halfway decent coaching, players do improve as they gain experience and grow bigger and stronger from year to year. It’s just what happens.

I thought worst-case scenario would be that the players maintained the status quo, that they simply wouldn’t have improved at all. It never even registered that, again with 9 of 11 returning starters, the defense could be worse.

But it is. It’s worse. In some aspects, ridiculously worse.

To be fair, using the S&P+ ratings we use for Adam Ford’s Advanced Stats Recaps and Previews, Arkansas is better in pass defense. Without factoring in stats from the Auburn game, Arkansas has improved from 115th (among the worst in the nation) last season to 50th seven games into this season. They've also improved at sacking quarterbacks, getting up from 100th in 2015 to 41st this year.

That’s better, and the team deserves credit for that. But when looking at everything else you can’t help but ask: did they work so hard on improving the pass defense they neglected everything else?

I’m not bothering to wait until after the Auburn numbers come in because you don’t give up the worst rushing defense performance in the history of the program and expect any numbers to get better.

Arkansas wasn’t great against the run last season, but was relatively respectable at 59th. Heading into the Auburn game, they were 108th.

You can look at Arkansas’ 2016 stat profile here. Here were Arkansas' rankings in key defense categories in 2015 and where they were before the Auburn game this year. And remember, they obviously won't be better after the Auburn game. Here is the terminology glossary.

Stat 2015 2016
Explosiveness 41 115
Efficiency 119 96
Field Position 29 109
Finishing Drives 96 46
Rushing Success Rate 102 94
Rushing IsoPPP 5 127
Adj. Line Yards 23 90
Opportunity Rate 68 90
Power Success Rate 123 58
Stuff Rate 46 93

The first four stats are for the entire defense, and the bottom six are exclusive to rushing defense. Arkansas' defense has been better at keeping opponents from finishing drives! Things like taking advantage of red zone fumbles, which Arkansas did against Alabama, Texas A&M, and Alcorn State, and blocking field goals like Dan Skipper did against TCU will help with that. The Hogs have also been much better at Power Success Rate, which measures the defense in short-yardage rushing situations, although still just 58th nationally.

However, in every other one of those categories, Arkansas is either essentially the same as last season or way worse.

The biggest problem has been IsoPPP, which is essentially points-per-play, or how explosiveness is measured. Arkansas was very good at preventing big running plays in 2015. One of the best in the country. They finished the season 5th. This year, 127th. Nearly the very worst in the nation and once the Auburn numbers come in, they very well could be last.

They dropped from 46th to 93rd in stuff rate, which measures how frequently a runner is stopped for a loss or no gain. They free-fell from 29th to 109th in field position, which measures how well they set up the Hog offense for a shorter drive. You can see it all for yourself.

And again, the most baffling part of this is that it's almost the entire defense back from 2015. At the very least, it's all of the most important players. And yet Arkansas is suffering from this type of regression? That makes zero sense. We know this isn't about recruiting, because these same players were better last year. No, Arkansas hasn't recruited well on defense, but the players they have shouldn't get worse. This group has gotten worse, and in some ways, drastically worse. That's a lack of coaching and development.

Of course, the defense isn't the only issue with this team. The offensive line is also a major issue. In the interest of time, I'll leave that to Adam Ford and won't get too much into it in this piece. All I'll say is that the offensive line at least went through serious turnover from last year. Two of the three players that left are on NFL rosters right now. It's reasonable to expect some struggles there (although not as much as what we've seen, but still some level of growing pains should be expected).

The defense has no such excuse.

I don't know if the coaches legitimately thought the defense would be better or if they were just offering spin before the season started, but they definitely didn't let on that we would be seeing this. Bret Bielema said a few times in August that he told the defense to keep things basic because they were being too disruptive. Here's Bielema at the Little Rock Touchdown Club in August:

"When you get nine of 11 starters back, that should help. They are going to be better, and they are very coachable. Robb Smith, going into his third year as defensive coordinator, he would tell you, too, that he was getting to know our team that first year, and now he has seen the development of what guys can do well and what they can’t. Just getting guys in the right position is big."

Maybe Smith should go back to not knowing the team very well because that first defense of his was good. As he's gotten to know the players more, it's gotten worse and worse.

This is without a doubt the most disappointing aspect of the 2016 team for me. There was no reason to expect them to be any worse on defense but to see them drastically worse in major areas is a huge red flag for this coaching staff.

And, again, these numbers don't even take the Auburn game into consideration and the Auburn game was the single worst defensive performance against the run in the history of the Arkansas football program.