SEC Countdown: No. 12 Arkansas

Arkansas running back Alex Collins eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark during his freshman season.

Beth Hall/Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Bret Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville went downhill in a hurry.

Arkansas dished out one of the largest coaching contracts in college football history to bring the successful Wisconsin coach and his vaunted rushing attack into the SEC, but after three straight wins to kick off his inaugural campaign — against middling opponents Louisiana-Lafeyette, Samford and Southern Miss — Bielema did not deliver a single win the rest of the way. The Razorbacks finished 3-9 on the year, going winless in conference play for the first time since joining the SEC in 1992.

That sounds like a negative outlook, but that’s basically the type of optimism that goes hand-in-hand with such a disappointing stretch of football. However, Arkansas does have some weapons, particularly offensively, and they wouldn’t be the first SEC team in recent memory to bounce back from a down year

The Razorbacks return quite a bit, notably their entire backfield that was one of the few highlights last season. Quarterback Brandon Allen had an up-and-down year as a sophomore (1,552 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs) but he’s back and Bielema has said he’s the clear No. 1 guy on the team. He’ll need to improve against rugged SEC defenses — he built up his numbers in those first few games — but he’ll have plenty of help.

The running back duo of rising sophomore Alex Collins and rising junior Jonathan Williams, one which helped Arkansas finish 21st in rushing, is back in the fold and should be better than last year. Those two combined for nearly 2,000 yards and eight touchdowns on a bad offense, and that’s not including 6-foot sophomore Korliss Marshall, who many are tabbing as a potential breakout player. Bielema should have the usual stable of backs to choose from. Who will be clearing space on the offensive line and stretching the field at receiver remains another matters.

Overall, Arkansas returns 16 starters, including eight on defense. Defensive end Trey Flowers, who finished second on the team in sacks last season, should be a leader on a unit that was extremely young in 2013 and could utilize another influx of young talent. Considering how much the Razorbacks return, there’s reason to believe improvement is in store.

The Razorbacks two best players on the offensive and defensive lines from a year ago — center Travis Swanson (third-round pick of the Detroit Lions) and defensive end Chris Smith (fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars — are no longer around. Top receiver Javontee Herndon (437 yards, four TDs) is also gone, as is kicker and NFL draftee Zach Hooker. That’s the bad news, though practically every team in the conference lost playmakers to the draft and/or graduation.

The Razorbacks are a young team and, other than the offensive line, which is being restocked on the recruiting trail but likely a year or two away from where Bielema wants it, should have some questions addressed through a maturing roster and top straight top-30 recruiting classes. The receiver corps will probably be led by Hunter Henry and Keon Hatcher, and though that’s not an overwhelming group, it’s going to be difficult to put up lesser numbers on the outside this season. (When your leading pass-catcher was held under 500 yards receiving, that’s probably a reflection of both your offense’s run-first philosophy and overall inefficiency.)

A name to watch? Athletic 6-foot-6 junior Deatrich Wise who steps in for Chris Smith at defensive end, who many expect to complement Flowers well in the pass rush. He’s logged three sacks in a backup role over the past two seasons.

Alex Collins quickly made his mark on the SEC as a true freshman. As a late addition to Bielema’s first recruiting, he looked like the most important one in Season No. 1 in Fayetteville, blending in with the long list of successful running backs — Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, P.J. Hill, John Clay, James White — to come out of the physical style of offense the former Badgers coach subscribes to. He eclipsed 1,000 yards on 190 carries, and he’s one of the keys to the program’s turnaround.

But out of the spring came some unclear but unfortunate news concerning Collins.

First it was reported that he was suspended for a week during offseason workouts, then came the rumors of unhappiness due to his role within the program. The former Ft. Lauderdale product was rumored to be looking to transfer — something that plenty of big-time programs would certainly welcome.

And while the Razorbacks’ rushing attack would be in good hands with Jonathan Williams, this two-headed rushing attack — perhaps three-headed with Marshall in the mix — is one of the best things the Arkansas program has going for it at the moment. It’s a similar blueprint to how Wisconsin became a churning machine in the Big Ten. Collins’ satisfaction within Bielema’s system will be something to watch closely, not because the system needs to accommodate Collins more but because he is an important piece to the puzzle.

The offense is much more balanced and explosive. The passing offense was anemic last season, and in turn it limited the big-play ability of the running game. Overall, Arkansas finished 106th in scoring despite its backfield options. If defenses — especially good defenses — can simply key on the running game and don’t have to respect Allen going down the field, it’s going to be another season of frustration regardless of any improvements from Year 1 to Year 2. The Razorbacks will remain a run-first team, but run-first teams are harder to stop when there aren’t nine players in the box.

That being said, a little more luck in close games wouldn’t hurt. Arkansas was one the doorstep of two or three SEC wins last season. If Bielema’s team can get to bowl eligibility and two conference wins, that’s a step forward, all things considered.

The schedule is not near as manageable in the early going this time around, as it opens on the road against the national runner-ups, the Auburn Tigers. Gus Malzahn’s group lost a couple pieces, but that’s a tall task.

The second conference game on the schedule is a bit more intriguing. After a so-so non-conference slate that does include Texas Tech, it’s another Texas team that grabs the attention. Kevin Sumlin’s high-powered Texas A&M team should be good once again, but they still an unknown commodity after losing three first-round picks from the offense (Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, Johnny Manziel) and a difficult season on defense. How good will the Aggies be? Good enough to come out ahead of an Arkansas team on the road, one looking for its first SEC win in two years?

The air raid versus ground attack wasn’t a lopsided affair last season — Texas A&M won 45-33 — and an improved Arkansas team will look to return the favor.

To be honest, last season’s record is a little deceptive. The Razorbacks were competitive in more than just three games, losing by 10 points or fewer in four of its nine losses, including the final three games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU. That appears to be a nod to improvement, but working through an SEC West schedule isn’t easy.

Overall, 4-8 is a conservative estimate. Texas Tech and Texas A&M look like potential early swing games, while the Razorbacks will need to take a game from one of the Mississippi schools. With Georgia and Missouri on the schedule as crossover opponents, there will be very little wiggle room. Bielema’s program will need to show significant improvement to win two or more SEC games.