Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
A year ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 31-7 thumping of the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl created an off-season euphoria that is not likely to be repeated this year, despite the Hogs’ 45-23 shellacking of the Kansas State Wildcats in the Liberty Bowl last Saturday.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Because of the Hogs’ strong finish to the 2014 season and Bret Bielema’s engaging personality, Arkansas became somewhat of a media darling during the months between spring practice and its season opener.
Many summertime prognosticators made the Razorbacks their dark horse pick to win the Southeastern Conference, and analysts far and wide felt the Hogs had a chance to win nine or 10 games. Even ESPN’s top college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said he was leaning toward picking Arkansas to win the SEC West before Jonathan Williams suffered a season-ending ankle injury in an early scrimmage.
Of course, we know those predictions did not come to fruition. Arkansas finished the season a respectable 8-5 in the middle of strong SEC pack.
The Hogs stumbled to a 2-4 start as the offense reacted to a vicious spate of injuries and adjusted to the tweaks new offensive coordinator Dan Enos made to the offense. Those tweaks paid big dividends as the Hog rebounded to win 7 of their final nine games.
Defensively, things never quite came together for the Razorbacks as most expected after the Razorbacks had a top-10 ranked defense in 2014. The Hogs’ depth and talent in the front seven wasn’t great enough to reload after losing end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon and linebacker Martrell Spaight to the NFL.
SEC offensive coordinators also exploited the soft middle of the Razorbacks’ pass defense that Toledo and Texas Tech exposed in back-to-back September upsets of the Hogs.
That weakness was still apparent in the third quarter of the Liberty Bowl when Wildcats quarterback Kody Cook connected with Winston Dimel for a 48-yard touchdown pass when the Razorbacks middle linebacker and safety bit on a play-action fake to pull Kansas State within 24-20.
With that in mind, don’t expect the Razorbacks to be the media darlings this spring and summer that they were last year. First, even though I’m convinced that Kansas State of 2015 is a better football team than Texas was in 2014, blowing out a mediocre Wildcats team doesn’t carry the same clout as whipping a mediocre Texas team.
Second, media guys, especially the national ones, don’t like being wrong, and they won’t give the Razorbacks the benefit of the doubt that they did a year ago when making their picks. They will question more and pick at the perceived questions and trouble spots more.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
Alex Collins / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
It’s better to have a team with a chip on its shoulder than one struggling to live up to preseason hype. It won’t hurt anything for the Hogs to go into the 2016 season a little bit under the radar.
Now, the Razorbacks could still be picked to be in the top 25 once again, but that has a lot to do with the decisions of several Razorbacks juniors.
Conventional wisdom is that All-American tight end Hunter Henry and three-time 1,000-yard rusher Alex Collins are headed to the NFL (Update: Henry said Monday he’ll enter the 2016 NFL Draft).
There has also been speculation about offensive tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper and even pass rushing specialist JaMichael Winston, who closed the regular season strong (Update: Kirkland said Monday he’ll enter the 2016 NFL Draft). That trio has more to gain by returning for their senior seasons than they have to lose.
It’s a bit different for the other two. There’s not a lot left for Henry, the MacKay Trophy winner for the nation’s top tight end, to prove on the college level, but no doubt the Hogs would love to have him back as a safety valve for Austin Allen or whomever earns the starting quarterback spot. Henry could return for personal reasons and goals, but his NFL stock is probably about as high as it can get after his outstanding junior year, punctuated by his five-reception, 92-yard performance in the Liberty Bowl.
The same pretty much goes for Collins, though if he returned for his senior season, he would likely become the Razorbacks’ all-time leading rusher and could possibly find himself as a dark horse in the Heisman race.
Running backs aren’t as highly regarded in the NFL as they once were. Collins will likely be a mid-round pick if he comes out this year, and unless he did go the distance and become a Heisman finalist next December, his draft status might not change. For him to be a Heisman finalist, Collins would not only have to have another great season, but the Hogs would also need to finish the regular season with 10 or 11 wins.
Also, LSU’s Leonard Fournette would have to be out of Heisman contention for Collins to garner enough SEC support in the Heisman voting, and it’s hard to believe the Tigers’ bell cow won’t be near the front of the Heisman race, just behind Stanford’s outstanding Christian McCaffrey going into the season. As fine a back as Alabama’s Derrick Henry is, McCaffrey probably should have won the award this year.
With the injury to Williams also in mind, Collins would also have to have goals beyond football in mind to return for his senior season, but again, it would be great to see him run the ball again for the Hogs.
If it was his last game as a Razorback, Collins left a lasting impression in the Liberty Bowl, gaining 185 yards and scoring an Arkansas bowl-record, three touchdowns in the game. His final touchdown run was a true thing of beauty as he used all his considerable tools to fight his way into the end zone.
Collins was fantastic and earned the Liberty Bowl MVP trophy, but if anything the 2015 season was a validation of senior quarterback Brandon Allen.
The Fayetteville grad did not face the racial vitriol that Razorbacks quarterbacks Greg Thomas and Quinn Grovey faced in the 1980s that Arkansas was able to keep mostly under wraps thanks to the lack of social media and the internet at that time, but Allen was roundly criticized throughout the bulk of his college career.
Allen certainly provided a model of perseverance for anyone in the state seeking inspiration. As one who watched Allen grow up from afar — as he ran around Razorbacks practices as a kid when his dad was an assistant coach through the various in pee-wee sports leagues and in junior high, high school and now college football — it was great to experience his growth, courage, character and competitive spirit. Allen truly defined the Razorback Spirit throughout his tumultuous career.