SEC Media Days has come and gone, so it’s now socially acceptable to talk about the 2017 football season.
The media was optimistic about the Hogs, picking them 4th in the West. Let’s take a closer look at what Arkansas’ 2017 opponents are bringing back.
This is a simple total offense graph showing how much rushing and passing yards are coming back for each of Arkansas’ Power 5 opponents. Let’s break it down.
The heard of contenders is thinning
Alabama returns more than 400 rushing and passing yards per game, which just isn’t fair. Quarterback Jalen Hurts and top running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are back, and it’s hard to see how anyone in the SEC competes with that.
Auburn and LSU are the clear 2 and 3. Auburn brings back quarterback Sean White and top rusher Kamryn Pettway, while LSU returns quarterback Danny Etling and top rusher Derrius Guice. The rich get richer.
The bad get better
Among the middling SEC teams, it’s easy to see why Missouri fans are giving Barry Odom some patience after a 4-8 start. The Tigers return basically everyone among quarterbacks and running backs. QB Drew Lock led the SEC in passing yards per game, and former Little Rock Christian standout Damarea Crockett rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Mizzou should be much better.
Mississippi State also stands to improve on offense. Dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald and starting RB Aeris Williams are back, though State’s receiving corps will take a hit and the defense probably won’t be very good.
The middle collapses
Arkansas stands to gain ground in the middle of the SEC. South Carolina (6-7) brings back almost everyone - eventual starting QB Jake Bentley and top RB Rico Dowdle - but didn’t generate much offense in the first place, hence the low numbers.
Texas A&M (8-5) still doesn’t have a quarterback, although the Aggies do have 1,000-yard rusher Trayveon Williams.
Ole Miss (5-7) is primed to bottom out under Hugh Freeze, if they didn’t in 2016. Without Chad Kelly, replacement Shea Patterson was serviceable when forced into action late in 2016, but the Rebel offense is so quarterback-dependent that the entire thing sinks or swims with him.
Before the unfortunate loss of Rawleigh Williams III, Arkansas was near the top of this list in returning production. But now the offense is just Austin Allen, four offensive linemen, Jared Cornelius, and a number of new faces.
Paul Rhoads needs to fix the defense quick
It’s hard to expect a miracle in a 4-3 to 3-4 transition year, but with 7 of 9 Power 5 opponents returning their starting quarterback, and 9 of 9 (!) returning their starting running back, the Hogs will almost certainly see better offense in 2017 than what they saw in 2016.
The good news is that, based on this chart that takes a very small look at the opponents, there seem to be enough beatable teams on the docket for Arkansas to get to 7 wins without overachieving. Ole Miss and Texas A&M are beatable. So is South Carolina. Missouri had a lot of ground to make up, and even though they’ll be better, they may not be good enough to win in Fayetteville. Mississippi State also comes to Fayetteville. Win 4 of those 5 and the Hogs are 7-5 before you consider TCU’s trip to Fayetteville.
It’s not unreasonable to think Arkansas could go 9-3 with all losses (Alabama, LSU, and maybe Auburn) in blowout fashion. Such is the nature of Alabama’s death-grip on this conference.
Future posts will look at receiving and defense stats. At some point I hope to find a statistic that I can use to “combine” them all for a comprehensive look.