Pivotal season for Bielema

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The long wait is almost over. Football season is just days away.

For Arkansas Razorbacks fans, the season actually starts a couple of days earlier than it usually would, with the Razorbacks opening on Thursday night at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Arkansas’ opening-night opponent is Florida A&M, of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Rattlers will actually be playing their second game of the season, after defeating Southern University 29-7 on Saturday.

It’s important for Arkansas to get off to a good start, which has been more difficult than might be expected in the past few years. Last year the Hogs barely got past Louisiana Tech, winning 21-20 in Fayetteville. In 2015, the Razorbacks opened with a 48-13 win over Texas-El Paso in Fayetteville but then lost to Toledo 16-12 a week later in Little Rock.

Whether head coach Bret Bielema is on the dreaded “hot seat” seems to depend on whom you ask, but UA athletic director Jeff Long remains publicly supportive. Still, with a record of 25-26 in four seasons at Arkansas, Bielema needs to win more, especially in the SEC. Bielema’s Hogs have gone 10-22 in conference play. Compare his four-year record with that of Bobby Petrino (34-17 overall, 17-15 in the SEC) and it’s clear that Bielema has some work to do.

So, how does this season shake out? That depends on a lot of factors, of course. On the plus side, the Hogs have an experienced, talented quarterback. Austin Allen led the SEC in passing yards and touchdown passes last season and completed 61.1 percent of his throws. But he also led the conference in interceptions and was sacked a league-high 34 times.

The offensive line has to do a better job protecting Allen, and the guess here is that it will. The Hogs return four starters on the offensive front, led by senior center Frank Ragnow — a preseason All-SEC selection who has started 26 consecutive games. If Ragnow and Co. can give Allen more time to throw, his interception rate should come down, especially with a year of experience under his belt. If he stays healthy and Arkansas finds someone to catch the football, Allen should have a big senior season.

Of course, Bielema’s offensive philosophy is built around a strong running attack. Arkansas certainly ran the ball effectively at times last season, with Rawleigh Williams III rushing for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns. Williams and sophomore Devwah Whaley were expected to be one of the most productive tandems in college football this fall, until a neck injury in spring practice forced Williams to give up football. That leaves Whaley with a lot more responsibility, and also puts Arkansas in the position of hoping a newcomer can step up in a supporting role. Like Allen, Whaley needs to stay healthy for Arkansas’ offense to produce.

Defensively, Arkansas was frankly atrocious last season. Nine of the Razorbacks’ 13 opponents scored at least 28 points, and seven scored 35 or more. The Razorbacks enter 2017 with a new base defense, shifting from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4. Ideally that will allow Arkansas to do a better job of defending against the run and allow

players like sophomore McTelvin Agim to better utilize their speed in rushing the passer. The Hogs also appear to have more depth on defense this fall, so perhaps we’ll see an improvement.

Arkansas’ schedule this fall is no cakewalk. Of course, it never is in the rugged SEC. The Hogs have road games at Alabama and LSU, plus the annual matchup with Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. The Hogs have not beaten the Aggies during Bielema’s tenure, and winning that game could give Arkansas some much needed momentum.

If Bielema isn’t on the hot seat yet, he may well find things getting a little warm if Arkansas doesn’t have a good season. Another 7-6 year would likely leave the fans a little restless and test Long’s patience.

My guess is the Hogs will go 7-5 in the regular season, with losses to TCU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn and LSU. If they can pull out one of those games, beat Mississippi State at home on Nov. 18 and win a bowl game, the Razorbacks would finish 9-4. That would certainly be enough to buy Bielema a little more time in Fayetteville.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County News. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.