All photos: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
With the No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks’ Sept. 5 season opener barreling at us, it’s a time when sports writers, columnists and know-it-alls are expected to make their season predictions. I’ve never been good at predictions. I’m generally too optimistic concerning the team that I follow, but I can’t help being a know-it-all like the rest.
My struggle is that I want the Razorbacks to have a great season, and by this time of year, I usually talk myself into believing they can. However, as a sports writer, it’s engrained into your fiber that one of the worst thing you can be is a “homer” or one who fails to be objective about the team they cover. For a journalist, that’s the way it should be, but the problem is that humans find it really hard to be objective. In the attempt to be objective, some even overcompensate by taking a more cynical view, while others view the upcoming season with rose-colored glasses.
I like this Razorback team, and I like the Hogs’ coaching staff. I personally believe Arkansas’ defense is going to pick up where it left off last year and be even better. Though I don’t see Arkansas’ offense being a true powerhouse, I have little doubt it will be better than last seasons’ even with the unfortunate loss of starting tailback Jonathan Williams for most if not all the season.
I believe in head coach Bret Bielema and the way he runs his football program. He’s a player’s coach who sees the big picture but also has a love for the details. He understands people and what motivates them, and it truly seems that he has built a foundation of family and brotherhood within the Razorback program that’s rock solid.
In many ways, he reminds me of former Miami and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, a UA graduate. Bielema’s mentor is Iowa coaching legend Hayden Fry, who was on Frank Broyles’ Arkansas staff in 1961 when Johnson was a freshman, so there is a connection.
Like Johnson, Bielema has a swagger and charisma that engenders confidence among his players, but he doesn’t just rely on his personality either. He has an astute mind for the game, too, that becomes more and more clear the longer he’s at Arkansas. His approach to football may be too conventional for him to be labeled as a genius or a guru, but who wants be known by those terms, anyway?
Bielema and his staff did an incredible job holding the football team together through incredible circumstances the past two years. Losing generally tears teams apart, but the Razorbacks improved game by game, and the breakthrough the Hogs had last November in upsetting nationally ranked Ole Miss and LSU in back-to-back games was truly triumphant. Couple that with their dismantling of Texas in the Texas Bowl, and there is reason for optimism for the upcoming season.
What I appreciate most about Bielema is his respect for his assistant coaches. Bielema knows that he’s only as strong as his assistants, and while he no doubt is paid handsomely, it showed how he valued his coordinators when he negotiated his contract with Arkansas and allotted a considerable amount of cash that could have gone into his personal banking account to enhance their pay. It’s also a credit to UA athletics director Jeff Long that he has allowed Bielema to pay his assistants better than previous Arkansas coaching staffs.
Arkansas probably has its best defensive coaching staff it’s had since Monte Kiffin headed the Razorbacks defense from 1977-79 for Lou Holtz. The improvement Arkansas’ defense made under Robb Smith’s coordination last season was nothing short of fantastic. I think it was the best Razorbacks defense since 1988, when Wayne Martin and Steve Atwater headed up Arkansas’ first SWC champion since 1975.
The Razorbacks jumped from 76th in total defense in 2013 to 10th in just one season. If there is a better secondary coach in the nation than Clay Jennings, who also joined the staff last season, I’d like to see him. Rory Segrest, another 2014 hire, has worked his defensive linemen into a two-deep unit that will be a strength of the team, according to Bielema, even if no one knows their names when the season starts.
With just one open scrimmage, I’ve not seen enough of new offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ play-calling and actual offensive philosophy to even make a reasonable guess of how much it will affect the Razorbacks, but he has a great reputation. I do know offensive line coach Sam Pittman is respected as one the best in the business, and it’s easy to see the improvement the Hogs have made up front.
Barry Lunney Jr. is an asset, coaching the Razorbacks’ tight ends. He’s one of the smartest Razorbacks players I ever covered, and I could see him being a head coach at some point in the next decade if that’s the direction he wants to pursue. The jury is out on Jemal Singleton as the Razorbacks’ new running backs coach, but his emphasis on ball security and the results he had at Oklahoma State are predictors of Arkansas possibly being even more efficient in the run game. Wide receiver coach Michael Smith has more experience, depth and talent at his position since he came to Arkansas with Bielema in 2013, and it should show up on Saturdays.
I firmly believe this Razorback team starts the season better than it ended the season last year even with key losses to the defense, but you’ll find analysts that might say that about every team in the SEC. Being better doesn’t necessarily translate into more wins, and no matter how knowledgeable one may be, there is no telling how well the Razorbacks or any SEC squad will be playing in November.
Eight wins would be a really good if not great year for the Razorbacks, but I could see them winning nine or maybe 10 games if everything lines up just right. But then again, I could see them winning seven or just six if injuries pile up.
I can’t help myself. I’m going with nine wins. The Hogs will sweep their nonconference schedule, and the five SEC wins will be against Texas A&M, Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri. If I think about it too long, I’ll be picking Razorbacks over LSU and Ole Miss, too.
So 9-3 is my call at least for right now. Ask me tomorrow and it might be different.