Tuesday was a big day in the offseason. It’s the day SB Nation’s (and, regrettably, Rock M Nation’s) Bill Connelly published his big advanced stats preview for Arkansas. I highly recommend reading through it. For a single-article post, it’s as thorough of a preview on Arkansas as you’ll read this summer.
I like to take out what I think are the more interesting notes and share them here for discussion. Of course, some of the general motif’s of the 2016 offseason are there: almost entire defense is coming back, new quarterback, new running back, new linemen, etc.
But there’s also plenty of interesting analysis and framing as well.
Eight programs have finished in the S&P+ top 15 in each of the last two years. But while Ohio State, Alabama, and Michigan State have combined for only nine losses in this span, and Baylor, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Stanford have averaged a 20-7 record, Arkansas is 15-11.......So for the second straight year, the Razorbacks had to settle for knowing they were very good, without the record to prove it.
The emphasis here is mine. Razorback fans have known for the last couple of years that the team was pretty good even though close losses to (mostly) highly ranked teams has kept Arkansas out of the top 25. It’s been frustrating to see the Hogs frequently highly ranked in advanced stats but not getting the respect of the pollsters because the archaic methods of setting teams in the polls.
In a way, the answer depends on assumptions. In terms of experience, perhaps the biggest questions the Razorbacks have to answer this year are at running back and on the offensive line.
Arkansas' identity is premised around bruising running backs and a meaty offensive line; if we assume a Bielema team will have quality options in these two areas, then everything else could fall into place.
I like how Connelly phrases the offensive line issue on “assumptions” rather than “questions.” I think a lot of people are downplaying potential problems with the offensive line based on Bielema’s reputation. Considering the team is still shuffling linemen around two weeks into camp, I’m a little more concerned - at least for the early TCU game in Week 2.
Arkansas completed 24 passes of 30-plus yards in 2015 (27th in the country), up from 10 (114th) the year before. In 2014, the top six wideouts combined to average 12.8 yards per catch; in 2015, that improved to 15.3.
That made all the difference in the world. Despite losing 2014 leading rusher Jonathan Williams to injury in the offseason, then losing leading receiver Keon Hatcher two games into the year, Arkansas improved from 15th to second in Off. S&P+. Meanwhile, the quarterback in charge of the No. 1 Passing S&P+ offense wasn't Deshaun Watson or Jared Goff or Baker Mayfield -- it was Brandon Allen.
I think this is an important factor that isn’t getting enough attention. By all accounts, Austin Allen throws a better deep ball than Brandon. Can the Hogs utilize that well enough to open things up more for the running game? Probably, as long as the line can give Austin and the receivers enough time for deep passes.
While the Southwest Conference became known mostly for offensive innovation and scoreboard fireworks, Arkansas was based on defense during Frank Broyles' long run.
But the identity the Hogs have established over the last decade has been a little bit different.
In the last 10 years, Arkansas has ranked in the overall S&P+ top 20 six times; Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino, and Bielema have utilized different styles but have put major offensive talent onto the field all the same.
The defense has been a constant drag on the Hogs' prospects. In this 10-year span, the Hogs have only three times ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 35. They surged to sixth in 2014 with a dynamic run front that featured end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon, and linebacker Martrell Spaight, but all three left, and the 2015 defense simply couldn't match the same level of firepower.
I thought this was an interesting historical note. Anyone who has watched the Hogs for the last several years knows defense has been a problem more frequently than offense.
This is part of why, while I think Arkansas’ defense will be better this year than last year, I’m hesitant to compare it to the 2014 group. I think it will be somewhere in between.
The Razorbacks had one of the most successful punters in the country in Toby Baker -- he averaged only 41 yards per kick but allowed few returns and almost no good returns. Meanwhile, Jared Cornelius and DJ Dean were both dangerous in punt returns.
Meanwhile, they stunk at pretty much everything else. Opponents got return opportunities on nearly every kickoff, kick returns were mostly ineffective, and Cole Hedlund was a freshman kicker who ... looked like a freshman kicker.
It seems like this is the biggest question mark that is most likely not to be answered positively. Field goals and kickoffs were bad last year and there’s no evidence so far that they will be better.
A 55 percent win probability at TCU; 56 percent against Texas A&M at Jerry World; 50 percent against Ole Miss at home; 48 percent at Auburn; 46 percent at Mississippi State.
I'm not sure there's a team in FBS that will have its fate and narrative decided more by 50-50 coin-toss games than Arkansas.
This of course is ultimately what it all comes down to. There’s been a lot of talk about “what is the key game” for Arkansas this year. That’s not a question with an answer, honestly. Half of Arkansas’ schedule will likely have really close point spreads. And the five games Connelly lists doesn’t include the Florida game, which he gives Arkansas a 60% chance of winning.
I have a really hard time making a prediction for this season because the season could swing so wildly in different directions. If Arkansas splits those 5 toss-up games and wins the five games Connelly says Arkansas is a stronger favorite, it will be a 7-8 win season. Depending on how luck favors or hinders the Hogs (I know we all think the Hogs are unlucky, but remember 4th-and-25 happened just a year ago) the record could very well be better or worse than that.
In short, no one has much of a clue what will happen this year. And that’s the most fun way to set it up.