Razorbacks’ schedule is full of toss-up games

In a column last week, I wrote that it was hard for me to pick the Arkansas Razorbacks to win more than six games based on what I know about the squad in the middle of the summer.

I felt guilty about the pick since writing it. Going into the season, I’ve always felt fans should be optimistic about their team’s possibilities for the upcoming season. The more I thought about it, calling for a 6-6 season sounded mighty pessimistic. So, I thought, why not rethink things a little bit?

We know 2016 was not the type of season the Razorbacks, coach Bret Bielema, and his coaching staff wanted. From meltdown losses against Texas A&M, Missouri, and Virginia Tech to not even showing up for the Auburn game, the Hogs suffered through a rough season.

There were some highlights. Holding on to beat TCU in overtime at Forth Worth was a point of pride.

The 31-10 rout of Florida in Razorback Stadium was Arkansas’ first victory over the Gators since joining the SEC.

It’s always nice with sweep the state of Mississippi, and a close 34-30 win over Ole Miss and a 58-42 shootout victory over Mississippi State accomplished that.

All four of those were solid wins, not spectacular but still solid.

Of course, any credit the Hogs gained went out the window with the losses to Missouri in the regular-season finale and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.

It’s going to take some time for Arkansas fans to wash that bitter taste from their mouths, if they ever do. Some losses stick with fans for the duration. I have a feeling those two just might.

However, maybe the Razorbacks can use them constructively.

In an interview with the SEC Network that aired recently, senior quarterback Austin Allen said those losses became a rallying cry for the returning players after senior center Frank Ragnow took a vocal stand in the locker room about not letting something like that happen again.

In the spirit of optimism, I’ll give Ragnow and Allen the benefit of the doubt. Both played their tails off last year. Maybe their leadership will pull the rest of the offense along.

Receiver Jared Cornelius is another senior than not only must be productive catching the ball but also in leading the Hogs’ green receiving corps this season.

It would certainly be easier to believe the Hogs could reach eight or nine wins if Rawleigh Williams weren’t out of the picture after his neck injury. Players like sophomores Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammons and freshmen Maleek Williams and Chase Hayden need to make the most of the opportunity Rawleigh’s misfortune left them.

I frankly don’t know what to expect with the defense. A change in coordinator and a change in scheme, I don’t know what to think? Maybe Paul Rhodes and the 3-4 defensive scheme will make all the difference in the world, or at least some?

In breaking down a schedule quickly, I categorize games as should-win, tossup or should-lose.

The Razorbacks should beat Florida A&M, New Mexico State, and Coastal Carolina. While there are other teams I think the Hogs will beat, the rest of the games fall in to the toss-up or should-lose category. So that makes the Razorbacks 3-0.

Based on what I saw last season and what these teams return, I believe Alabama, Auburn, and LSU will be clearly more talented than the Razorbacks this season. That makes the Razorbacks, 3-3.

I consider the six other Razorback games toss-ups. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Razorbacks beat any one of TCU, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Missouri, or if they lost to any of them.

When I threw out that 6-6 prediction last week, I just split the difference. Of the six, I think Arkansas is most likely to beat South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Missouri, even though Arkansas travels to Columbia, S.C. and Oxford.

Of the six toss-up games, I think South Carolina is the weakest talent-wise. Ole Miss has talent, but with NCAA sanctions looming over the program, the Rebels’ season is going to unravel.

Missouri will be improved this season, but I think the Razorbacks ambush star quarterback Drew Lock and the Tigers this year at Fayetteville. That would make the Hogs, 6-3.

Let’s be honest, the Razorbacks aren’t talented enough nor have they proven to be consistent enough under Bielema to run the table against opponents of the same caliber or just a little better.

While I hope that changes this year, I just don’t see Arkansas going 9-3 with all the questions on defense and the uncertainty at wide receiver and offensive line on offense, as well as lack of game experience at tight end and running back.

I could see this being the year when Bielema breaks through and finally leads the Razorbacks over Texas A&M, but still falling to TCU and quarterback Kenny Hill and Mississippi State and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.

I could see the Razorbacks winning two of those three games, but getting upended by Ole Miss or Missouri.

I think Arkansas’ legitimate range is between six and eight wins this year. Anything above that should be considered a very good or even great season under the circumstances. Anything less than six wins should be considered a disaster.

I hope Arkansas surprises me. If the offensive line comes together, the Razorbacks have a good chance of not only being more consistent but also more potent than last season.

If the defense can rebound to being just in the middle of the pack in the SEC, it would greatly improve the Razorbacks’ chances of making it to eight or even nine wins greatly.

After last season, it’s just a little bit hard to believe all of that is going to happen. However, over the course of history, the Razorbacks have tended to rise up for a solid season when it was least expected.

Maybe the Hogs and Hog fans will be that lucky this year.

2017 Arkansas Football Schedule

Aug. 31 – Florida A&M at Little Rock
Sept. 9 – TCU at Fayetteville
Sept. 23 – Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas
Sept. 30 – New Mexico State at Fayetteville
Oct. 7 – South Carolina at Columbia, S.C.
Oct. 14 – Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Oct. 21 – Auburn at Fayetteville
Oct. 28 – Ole Miss at Oxord, Miss.
Nov. 4 – Coastal Carolina at Fayetteville
Nov. 11 – LSU at Baton Rouge
Nov. 18 – Mississippi State at Fayetteville
Nov. 24 – Missouri at Fayetteville