Football season is back!
For the second straight season, the Hogs ended last year playing in a way that left fans wanting more games. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is the way the Hogs tend to start seasons: in a way that leaves fans like me wondering why I dedicate so much of my time and emotions to this sport anyway!
But in the offseason, everyone’s undefeated. And while everyone is wondering about TCU, getting off on the right foot means beating Louisiana Tech.
The Bulldogs are no pushovers. Skip Holtz’s rebuild has been eerily similar to Bret Bielema’s: in 2013, he inherited a team that had won big under a previous coach, but lacked depth and needed a scheme change. He struggled in year one (4-8 in 2013), got the defense rebuilt under a new defensive coordinator (Manny Diaz, and the Bulldogs were 9-4 in 2014), and then watched the rebuilt defense collapse in 2015 just as a senior quarterback helped Louisiana Tech stay solid (9-4 last season). Now the offense is looking for a new quarterback and running back.
The difference is, of course, that Louisiana Tech is a Group of Five school with far less capacity to replace losses. Also, that hotshot defensive coordinator is gone. And, unlike Arkansas, the Bulldog defense was gutted by graduation. Louisiana Tech has less returning production than almost any team in the FBS.
Let’s jump into the preview! Obviously, I’m using last year’s numbers and will have to rely on them until we start getting 2016 sample sizes large enough to use.
When Arkansas has the ball
Here’s a quick reminder of what the advanced stats are:
- S&P: A catch-all quality statistic invented by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, who operates FootballStudyHall.com, part of the SB Nation family. It’s essentially the football equivalent of the baseball sabermetric “on-base plus slugging” in that is composed of part efficiency and part explosiveness.
- Success Rate: The “efficiency” part of S&P. It measures the percentage of plays that are “successful.” A successful play is one that gains 40% of the yards to go on first down, 50% of the yards to go on second down, and a conversion on third or fourth down. It measures the offense’s ability to stay ahead of the chains.
- isoPPP: The “explosiveness” part of S&P. It measures the average “points” gained by each successful play, based on how far from the end zone they are. I frequently use isoYPP, which is the yards per play of successful plays, since that’s easier for me to conceptualize.
- Line Yards: Rushing yards gained with the help of the offensive line. Essentially, every rushing play is capped at a maximum of six yards (an 18-yard run and a 6-yard run are both recorded as six), based on the assumption that the blocking of the offensive line is, on average, only necessary for the first six yards. If a guy puts a move on the deep safety and scores an 80-yard touchdown, the line wasn’t really responsible for the last 74.
- Sack Rate: Percentage of dropbacks ending in a sack. Raw sack numbers aren’t as good because they don’t take into account how often a team tries to throw.
The plus sign (“+”) means the stat is adjusted for opponent quality. If there’s no plus sign, the stat is raw.
We’ll encounter plenty of others as the season progresses, but for Week One, these are the four advanced stats we’ll be using.
Standard downs are plays run on first down, second and nine or fewer, or third/fourth down and four or fewer. They make up about 70 to 75 percent of offensive snaps in a given game. The assumption is that the entire playbook is open during these plays. Obviously, one of the goals of the offense is to stay in standard downs as much as possible. Passing downs are, obviously, second and 10+, and third/fourth and five or more.
Arkansas spent a lot of time in standard downs in 2015. The Hogs ran on 65% of standard downs and were very efficient (high Success Rate+) although not very explosive (60th in isoPPP+).
With Alex Collins in the backfield, Arkansas boasted an extremely efficient running game in 2015. Collins wasn’t necessarily a breakaway threat, but used his good vision and footwork to find the holes. Now that he’s gone, a three-headed monster replaces him.
Kody Walker, Rawleigh Williams, and Devwah Whaley should all get chances to prove themselves on Saturday. The back that performs the best might get the edge in carries as coaches start gameplanning for TCU next week.
A somewhat familiar face is riding to the rescue for the Bulldogs, who lost all three starting linebackers. Dalton Santos was a four-star linebacker heavily recruited by Arkansas in 2012. He ultimately committed to Texas but never made it out of the special teams unit. He’s now a graduate transfer and appears to have won the starting middle linebacker job. He’s surrounded by undersized guys with virtually no experience: Tech’s projected starters at outside linebacker have 19 career tackles between them.
Up front, sophomore Jaylon Ferguson (7 starts in 2015) tied for the team lead in sacks (6.0) last year, so he’s one to watch. Senior Aaron Brown (9 starts) plays defensive tackle. Junior end Deldrick Canty had one sack last year and starts opposite Ferguson. Tech has impressive size for a Group of Five team - 256 and 268 pounds on the end and 270 and 336 in the middle - but only has 16 returning starts (out of a maximum of 52).
Arkansas returns three starters on the offensive line, namely senior Dan Skipper, a four-year starter moving back to left tackle after playing right tackle in 2015. He’ll have to deal with Ferguson most of the time. The other ends on the roster don’t appear to be major passrushing threats.
Arkansas was sensational in passing downs in 2015, thanks to Brandon Allen’s incredible efficiency. With a new quarterback, the Hogs will want to stay out of these passing downs as much as possible.
Passing plays were Louisiana Tech’s weakness in 2015. The Bulldogs allowed opponent passing attacks to be very efficient (76th in Success Rate+), but they still gave up several big plays (60th in isoPPP+). Arkansas was good at both.
The personnel for receivers and secondary suggest this game could feature more of the same. The Hogs bring back their top three wide receivers: Drew Morgan (843 yards), Dominique Reed (535 yards), Jared Cornelius (393 yards). Keon Hatcher (558 yards in 2014) returns for a second try at his senior season after an injury. Jeremy Sprinkle (408 yards) should shine as the primary tight end. Few receiver groups in the nation have the experience and talent of this one.
For Louisiana Tech, coverage might be a nightmare. As the numbers show, Tech was awful against the pass, and now both starting cornerbacks and a starting safety are gone.
The best player here is senior free safety Xavier Woods, although he’s mostly the best defensive player for Tech by default (they return just three starters, and Woods is the only returning defender to start all 13 games in 2015). Woods saved Tech’s bacon several times last year and is a Senior Bowl candidate. He totaled 46.5 tackles and three interceptions as a junior. All other defensive backs are extremely inexperienced.
When Louisiana Tech has the ball
Arkansas’ defense is hoping to rebound from a rough 2015. It was a big backstep in Robb Smith’s second season; in fact, the Hogs’ 71st ranking is its worst in the history of the S&P+ (since 2005).
Arkansas was decent against the run, but the pass defense problems were mostly with the safeties and the lack of a pass rush. The pass rush problem should be largely solved in 2016, and the cornerbacks and linebackers should be better in coverage, but question marks remain with the safeties, who lost Rohan Gaines to graduation.
At quarterback, Louisiana Tech hopes to turn things over to Ryan Higgins, who will replace the graduated Jeff Driskel, the transfer from Florida who shone last year. Higgins started for the disastrous 2013 team, throwing for 1,700 yards with six touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He spent two seasons behind Cody Sokol (2014) and Driskel (2015) and is now ready to reclaim his title.
However, he was arrested on DUI charges in August. Coach Skip Holtz says he won’t start - but he may play. Redshirt freshman J’Mar Smith will make the start, and Higgins comes up second on the depth chart. Obviously, there’s no tape on Smith so I don’t know what to expect from him.
Arkansas was blitzed by short passes, spread runs, and quarterback scrambles in 2015. Louisiana Tech will do at least two of those. Short passes out of four-receiver sets are a major component of their offense, and the run game operates by spreading the defense out and rushing in space.
The Hogs’ only strength was stopping pro-style rushing attacks, but that won’t help here.
Don’t expect Louisiana Tech’s run game to do much damage. Kenneth Dixon, the Strong, Ark. native that the Hogs probably missed on back in 2012, graduated after totaling 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in his senior season. The current Baltimore Raven rushed for 4,200 yards and 72 touchdowns in Ruston.
In his stead, Tech will rotate speedy junior Boston Scott (275 yards, 8.1 yards per carry) with the more powerful junior Jarred Craft (230 yards, 4.0 yards per carry). Scott is tiny (just 5-foot-6) but elusive. Also on the depth chart is sophomore Jaqwis Dancy, who played for Junction City, Ark.
Three starting offensive linemen are also gone for Tech.
Arkansas should be pretty good straight up the middle.
Three starters are back up front, and the front is the strength of the defense. Jeremiah Ledbetter moves inside, where the coaches think he can be more disruptive, a la Darius Philon in 2014. This will help against a spread time like Tech, where the Hogs can effectively have three defensive ends out there on standard downs.
Taiwan Johnson starts at 1-tech defensive tackle, while Deatrich Wise (weakside defensive end) and Karl Roesler (rush end) round out the starting lineup. Expect Tevin Beanum to take over the RUSH spot as soon as he’s up to speed, while senior JaMichael Winston and freshman McTelvin Agim (on the depth chart as the backup 3-tech) will also play. Inside, junior Bijhon Jackson and freshman Austin Capps can play the 1-tech, while redshirt freshman T.J. Smith will also play the 3-tech.
Brooks Ellis (mike) and Dre Greenlaw (will) are back at the linebacker spot. The Hogs still haven’t found a sam linebacker, but they won’t need one against Tech’s spread.
Arkansas was actually better in passing downs than standard downs, due mostly to a lack of big plays given up. The passrush in these situations absolutely has to improve.
If there’s any reason to fear this game, this is it. Obviously, there are last year’s numbers, and Tech has a new quarterback while Arkansas has improved in most facets of pass defense, by experience if not talent. Still, 8th versus 125th in passing success rate is an incredible gulf, one that Arkansas must hope personnel and coaching changes have closed this offseason.
Top wideout Trent Taylor’s numbers (99 catches, 1,282 yards) look scary, but keep in mind his most important stat (yards per target, 9.8) would place him fifth among Arkansas’ receivers last year, behind Morgan, Reed, Henry, and Cornelius. He’s a volume receiver who is fed short passes that he can occasionally turn into big gains. This is a problem, though, as we’ve previously noted: Arkansas’ pass defense success rate is its biggest weakness. Disrupting Taylor is going to be important.
I’m not as worried about Carlos Henderson, the other returning starter. He’s a big play threat (14.6 yards per catch), but he only has a 55% catch rate, making him boom-or-bust, and I think Arkansas can contain the boom, especially with a quarterback roulette in the Tech backfield. Senior Conner Smith (four catches last season) and redshirt freshman Alfred Smith are projected to take over the other two spots, which were vacated by graduates. Tech does not use a tight end, at least as a receiver.
Arkansas’ secondary returns all of its cornerbacks and nickelbacks. Jared Collins returns to lock down one cornerback spot, while Kevin Richardson is back at nickel and Josh Liddell at free safety. Returning starter D.J. Dean will take the other cornerback spot if he’s healthy (hamstring), but if not, junior Henre Toliver will start. A key spot to watch is the other safety spot, where Santos Ramirez replaces the graduated Gaines.
Three Bulldogs to watch
- Trent Taylor. Tech’s 5-foot-8 wideout was targeted 10 times per game last season and averaged nearly 100 receiving yards per game. With a fresh quarterback and limited experience at running back and the other receiver spots, expect Tech to try to get him the ball as much as possible.
- Xavier Woods. Tech’s star free safety is its best defensive player, and the only defensive player standing between Austin Allen and an easy 300 passing yards. The rest of Tech’s pass defense is atrocious, but can one player save the Bulldogs?
- J’Mar Smith. A redshirt freshman quarterback makes his first career start. He’s a former three-star recruit from Mississippi who is also dual-threat. The dual-threat thing is understandably scary to any fan who watched Arkansas’ defense last year.
Keys to the Game
- Winner stays in standard downs. New quarterbacks for both sides mean that both offensive coordinators will be looking to stay out of third-and-longs. Key stat: leverage rate, which is the percentage of offensive plays in standard downs. 80% is a nice target.
- Shore up the short pass. Arkansas’ run defense is probably fine, and Tech is unlikely to hit more than a couple big plays, so short passing defense will be the difference between Tech constantly driving and keeping things uncomfortably close deep into the second half, and Arkansas getting the jump and putting this thing away before the fourth quarter. Key stat: defensive passing success rate
- Sizing up the new running backs. Walker, Williams, and Whaley are all looking to make an impression in the first game of the season as Arkansas looks for a leader in its running back committee. Consistency with this position will help towards Key #1 and will help the coaches determine who should get the most touches headed into TCU game prep. Key stat: three of them, and I’ll compare each back on all three in the recap: line yards per carry (defined above), opportunity rate, or the percentage of runs that gain at least six yards (that is, an opportunity for a big run), and highlight yards per opportunity, or the number of yards gained beyond six for each opportunity (that is, the actual ability to translate opportunities into big yards). Last year, Walker had a high opportunity rate but few highlight yards, while Williams was the opposite. We’ll see if that changes.