Our ranking: No. 32 ARKANSAS
Coach: Bret Bielema (25-26, entering fifth season; 93-50 overall)
2016 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Southeastern Conference; tied for fifth in West Division
Look back: Bret Bielema’s fourth year at Arkansas had a chance to be his best one yet, despite a pair of ugly losses (56-3 to Auburn and 38-10 to LSU). Instead, the season unraveled with a pair of second-half collapses that would leave a bad taste in the mouths of Razorback fans.
Halftime leads of 24-7 against Missouri in the regular-season finale and 24-0 against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl evaporated as the Hogs were outscored 56-0 during the second half of a pair of stunning losses. The result was a 7-6 finish, the departure of defensive coordinator Robb Smith and a brutal offseason program that sent a strong message to players about closing games.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 5
Defensive starters lost: 6
Key losses: RB Rawleigh Williams, LT Dan Skipper, WR Keon Hatcher, DL Jeremiah Ledbetter, LB Brooks Ellis, TE Jeremy Sprinkle, WR Drew Morgan
Top returnees: QB Austin Allen, C Frank Ragnow, CB Ryan Pulley, LB Dre Greenlaw, WR Jared Cornelius, S Josh Lindell
Strengths: The Razorbacks’ offense is in good hands with Allen. He is now looking to take the next step and become more consistent quarterback. The key might be staying healthy. Until he suffered a sprained knee against Auburn, Allen was on pace to put on numbers similar to the ones big brother, Brandon, posted during a record-setting 2015 season. Austin Allen threw for 18 touchdowns and six interceptions during the first seven games of 2016, but just seven scores and nine picks post-injury.
This season, Allen will be protected by an offensive line with four returning starters, led by C Frank Ragnow, a first team, preseason All-SEC pick. Arkansas lost its top three receivers, but senior Jared Cornelius is poised to seize the lead role. He recorded three straight 100-yard games in 2016, including a 146-yard day against Alabama.
Arkansas’ defense returns just one starter in the front seven — playmaking LB Dre Greenlaw. The secondary returns three starters, including CB Ryan Pulley, who was third in the SEC as a sophomore with 15 passes defended. Free S Josh Lindell’s 63 tackles were the most by a returning player.
Weaknesses: The May retirement of TB Rawleigh Williams due to a history of neck injuries was a major blow to the 20-year-old and the Hogs’ running game. Williams averaged 105.8 yards a game in 2016 against SEC competition and was expected to team with Devwah Whaley to form one of the league’s top 1-2 punches. Whaley, a sophomore, now needs another sidekick.
But coordinator Dan Enos’ offense has few problems compared with new coordinator Paul Rhoads’ defense. Rhoads, who will switch to a 3-4, needs top 2016 signee McTelvin Agim to emerge as a force at end and 2016 junior-college transfer Michael Taylor to become the dominant force he was on the scout team. More pieces will need to emerge, too. The 2016 Razorbacks finished last in the nation in yards allowed per play (7.9).
Outlook: Bielema, who left Wisconsin for the SEC after reaching three consecutive Rose Bowls, enters a season that could shape his future in Fayetteville. Behind Allen and Enos, the Razorbacks should have enough offense to challenge most any opponent. Rhoads’ defense, though, will have to make major strides during the season’s opening month. Arkansas visits Alabama and hosts Auburn on consecutive October weekends.