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Previewing the Hogs’ Opponents: Defense

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SEC defenses won’t be much better and may regress in 2017. Can the Hogs capitalize?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part II of our stats-based look at Arkansas’ 9 Power Five opponents for 2017. (See Part I here.)

To look at defense, I decided to who is bringing back the most sacks per game and the most interceptions per game.

There are some similarities to our Rushing and Passing chart. TCU is bringing back a lot of production. South Carolina is not bringing back much. Overall, three teams finished higher than Arkansas on both charts: Alabama, TCU, and LSU. Two teams finished lower on both: South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Obviously, returning production only gets you so far. Texas A&M will have a hard time replacing the sacks of Myles Garrett. Mississippi State, on the other hand, lost a number of average contributors, but not any star power (largely because they didn’t have any to begin with), so despite the low amount of production, returning, I don’t expect the Bulldogs to be much worse on defense. Then there’s Ole Miss, which brings back only 4 starters, but one of them is star end Marquis Haynes, so if they can just be average everywhere, they may not regress.

Taking it team-by-team

Here’s a more detailed look at who’s coming back for each of Arkansas’ nine Power Five opponents. I’ve divided them into categories based on returning production.

Will be better (or still really good)

Alabama

  • 2016 Record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC), SEC Champs
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 1st
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 9th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 7
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 1st
  • Returning Defense Starters: 6

Stopping an Alabama repeat will be a challenge. The Tide bring back starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, along with top rushers Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and top wideout Calvin Ridley. And that’s just on offense. The defense was gutted by the NFL draft, but elite linebackers Shaun Hamilton and Rashaan Evans are back, along with cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, who intercepted six passes 2016. The defensive line might be slightly worse, but that’s about it. Unless Hurts has a major sophomore slump, it’s hard to see Alabama losing even once.

Auburn

  • 2016 Record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 13th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 31st
  • Returning Offense Starters: 4
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 9th
  • Returning Defense Starters: 8

For Auburn, the difference between 8-4 and 11-1 seems to be whether Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham pans out. He’s hoping to unseat the experienced-but-pedestrian Sean White at quarterback. Top rusher Kamryn Pettway is back, but that’s about it on offense. The receiving corps was gutted and the line loses two starters. But Auburn’s defense should be elite. It was surprisingly good in 2016 and eight starters are back, including all three linebackers and excellent free safety Tray Matthews. If Auburn has quarterback problems, they could end up as a bad offense carried by an elite defense that limps to 8 wins. And that’s worst-case scenario.

LSU

  • 2016 Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 6th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 22nd
  • Returning Offense Starters: 7
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 3rd
  • Returning Defense Starters: 6

There is obviously the potential that Ed Orgeron torches LSU like he torched Ole Miss a decade ago. But LSU is trying to remake itself like Clemson (recruiter/motivator head coach with two elite coordinators), and the Tigers have the recipe, with the creative Matt Canada (one-time OC for Bielema at Wisconsin) as offensive coordinator and the incredibly-talented Dave Aranda at defensive coordinator. LSU’s defense takes the heaviest personnel losses, but elite pass-rusher Arden Key is the top player along with several talented role players. Offensively, the Tigers are a wildcard. Quarterback Danny Etling is mediocre, but that’s probably all LSU needs. Derrius Guice is an elite running back, and the Tigers have a devastating mix of experience and talent on the line and with the receivers. Unless Coach O burns the whole thing down, LSU should sleep-walk to 10-2.

TCU

  • 2016 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Big XII)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 51st
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 45th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 10
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 51st
  • Returning Defense Starters: 7

After stringing together several 10- and 11-win seasons, the Frogs fell back to Earth in 2016, but they should rise again in 2017. Twice-benched quarterback Kenny Hill is erratic but talented, and he’s got pretty much everyone back: running back Kyle Hicks, all four receivers (including KaVontae Turpin, who went wild against the Hogs), and four of five starters up front. Scary. Defensively, it’s up in the air. The Frog secondary improved after getting torched by Austin Allen in Week 2, but wasn’t ever elite. Safety Nick Orr (4 interceptions) is one to watch, along with linebacker Travin Howard. They don’t scare me defensively.

Missouri

  • 2016 Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 73rd
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 42nd
  • Returning Offense Starters: 9
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 88th
  • Returning Defense Starters: 5

Is it too early to call it a do-or-die season for Barry Odom? Hired from Memphis in 2015, Odom’s defense was much improved but the Tigers were a disappointing 5-7 in Gary Pinkel’s last season. Then as head coach, Odom’s defense collapsed and the team went 4-8. Obviously, he won’t be on the hot seat anytime soon, but with 14 returning starters, he should probably make a bowl. Quarterback Drew Lock is above-average as a classic spread quarterback, while Little Rock native Damarea Crockett had an impressive freshman season at running back (1,000 yards in 11 games). The Tigers may struggle once again to finish drives (a classic complaint against spread offenses), but should be better. The defense, however, will still be pretty bad. Only five starters are back, and outside of defensive end Marcell Frazier (8.5 sacks), there’s not much to get excited about.

Will be worse (or stay bad)

Ole Miss

  • 2016 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 35th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 13th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 2
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 72nd
  • Returning Defense Starters: 4

Ole Miss was already marked for regression when Houston Nutt torpedoed them for the second time. Now without Hugh Freeze, the bottom could fall completely out. We’ll start with the good: defensive end Marquis Haynes (7.0 sacks) is pretty good. That’s it for the good. Ole Miss’ below-average defense will be the same or slightly worse with only four starters back. The offense should take a huge step back from 13th. Last year, the Rebels burned quarterback Shea Patterson’s redshirt and he played really well in a stunning upset of Texas A&M. Then he played really poorly in blowout losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. He won’t have much help, as Ole Miss returns only one starter on the offensive line and only one experienced receiver (Demarkus Lodge). Ole Miss looks headed for 4-8, or worse, if they collapse John L. Smith-style.

Will be about the same

Texas A&M

  • 2016 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 26th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 29th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 7
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 36th
  • Returning Defense Starters: 7

The Aggies will have a hard time replicating their standard “start hot and then fade fast” routine, because now they’ve got big holes to fill. Quarterback Jake Hubenak is likely the starter, and he’s 0-3 in previous starts (2015 Music City Bowl vs. Louisville, 2016 Ole Miss, and 2016 Texas Bowl vs. Kansas State). He lacks the running ability of Trevor Knight, the passing ability of Kenny Hill, and the, well, everything of Johnny Manziel, meaning that head coach Kevin Sumlin is going to have to win without an elite quarterback, something he doesn’t do well. But this may be the team to try it with. Speedy running back Trayveon Williams and excellent receiver Christian Kirk form a nice skill position duo. The defense must replace elite pass-rusher Myles Garrett but will be solid on the back end, with safety Armani Watts leading the way. The Aggies could sink to 6-6 if the offense can’t get going, but they could also be sneaky-good (think 9-3) if the defense takes a step forward under DC John Chavis.

South Carolina

  • 2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 84th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 107th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 10
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 50th
  • Returning Defense Starters: 7

South Carolina doesn’t bring back much production but that’s because they didn’t produce much in the first place. The Gamecocks’ 17 returning starters are among the most in the FBS, so they’ll probably be better, although they may be approaching their ceiling. A pitiful offense brings back almost everyone, and an occasionally-pretty-good defense should be about the same. The offense is paced by quarterback Jake Bentley, who is basically Casey Dick but without Darren McFadden to hand off to (that’s not an insult, but it’s not a compliment). Running back Rico Dowdle (764 yards) is back, along with all three starters in a sub-par receiving corps (although Deebo Samuel is pretty talented). The defense loses its top sack artist but returns most of the rest of the unit. The secondary, which is pretty good at not giving up big plays, could be slightly better.

Mississippi State

  • 2016 Record: 6-7 (2-6 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 63rd
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 32nd
  • Returning Offense Starters: 6
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 73rd
  • Returning Defense Starters: 5

Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is an excellent dual-threat quarterback who got better by the end of 2016. That’s a good thing, because he won’t have much help in 2017. Mississippi State could be slightly better if everything clicks, but will likely be slightly worse. Top receiver Fred Ross is gone, but Donald Gray is pretty good. Running back Aeris Williams is pretty average. Defensively, a bad unit may regress. Three of four linebackers are gone, along with half the secondary. Sophomore Jeffrey Simmons, a former 5-star recruit, is probably the best player up front.

For comparison

Arkansas

  • 2016 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)
  • 2016 F/+ Ranking: 56th
  • 2016 Offense S&P+ Ranking: 39th
  • Returning Offense Starters: 7
  • 2016 Defense S&P+ Ranking: 63rd
  • Returning Defense Starters: 6

With quarterback Austin Allen returning, the Hogs have a chance to be pretty good, but there are a lot of question marks. Running back depth is one, as starter Devwah Whaley is pretty good but no one else has any experience. Receiver depth behind Jared Cornelius is another. Four offensive line starters - including potential all-American Frank Ragnow - mean the offense should be slightly better. Defense is a total wildcard, with lineman Sosa Agim, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, and cornerback Ryan Pulley providing a solid player at each level of the defense. The secondary will be better than the front, and if the front is really bad, we could be looking at a defense that can’t stop anyone.

So what can we learn from all this? Here are some conclusions:

  1. Arkansas’ 2017 opponents don’t have a lot of great linebackers. That bodes well for the running game. Auburn looks like it could be the only team that gets better linebacker play in 2017 than it got in 2016.
  2. Three big need-to-win opponents (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, South Carolina) have pedestrian quarterback play. The lineup of Shea Patterson, Jake Hubenak, and Jake Bentley isn’t terrifying. The problem is that the other six opponents have good quarterback play, including two other need-to-wins (Missouri, Mississippi State).
  3. If Arkansas can’t stop the run, this will be a bad season. Eight of Arkansas’ nine Power Five opponents return their starting running back. Not all of them use running backs very often (Ole Miss, Mississippi State), and not all of them have very good running games anyway (South Carolina), but everyone except maybe Ole Miss has the potential to torch Arkansas’ defense if it can’t stop the run.