Arkansas team preview

First-year coach Bret Bielema takes over at Arkansas, and the Hogs are on the docket today in our SEC preview.

Coach: Bret Bielema (68-24 overall, first season at Arkansas)

2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC

Key losses: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Dennis Johnson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, S Ross Rasner

Key returnees: FB Kiero Small, C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, DE Trey Flowers, DT Byran Jones, CB Tevin Mitchel

Newcomers to watch: RB Alex Collins, OT Denver Kirkland, TE Hunter Henry, LB Martrell Spaight

Biggest games in 2013: Texas A&M, Sept. 28; at Florida, Oct. 5; South Carolina, Oct. 12; at Alabama, Oct. 19; at LSU, Nov. 29

Biggest question mark: Shoring up all three linebacker spots remains a priority. The three players projected to start right now have been in the program for a while -- senior Austin Jones in the middle, senior Jarrett Lake on the weak side and redshirt junior Braylon Mitchell on the strong side -- but none of the three has ever started a game. Much of their experience has come on special teams. The same goes for redshirt junior Daunte Carr, while sophomore A.J. Turner (wrist) hasn’t been fully healthy. The Hogs feel like junior-college newcomer Spaight and true freshman Brooks Ellis can be key contributors, but the search continues for the right combination among a group of players who have very little SEC experience on defense.

Forecast: Bielema jumped at the chance to be the coach at Arkansas because he believes the Hogs can compete for national championships. How long it will take for them to get there, or if they will get there, is anybody’s guess. But Bielema says confidently that he didn’t come to Arkansas “to be great in three years.” He’s reminded his players more than once that the Hogs were picked last in the Western Division at SEC media days, which was more a reflection of how badly they floundered last season following the Bobby Petrino scandal. But before Petrino set sail on that fateful motorcycle ride two springs ago, Arkansas had won 21 games in two years and played in the Allstate Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season.

So it’s not out of the realm that Arkansas could climb back into the SEC’s upper echelon. The dicey part will be doing it this season. Bielema believes deeply in running the football and being physical on offense, but he brought in Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator to help provide some balance. Junior quarterback Brandon Allen has been impressive throwing the ball this preseason, and the Hogs also like their one-two punch of Jonathan Williams and Collins, a true freshman, at running back. Get ready to see a lot of new faces, period, this season. Bielema said as many as 10 true freshmen could play.

The strength of the team should be the defensive line. Ends Smith and Flowers are big-time pass-rushers, and there’s also some experience on the interior of that line. Getting off to a good start and building some momentum is critical. Remember what happened against Louisiana-Monroe in the second game last season? Plus, the Hogs face a brutal league schedule. In a four-week stretch from Sept. 28-Oct. 19, they face Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Florida and Alabama are both on the road, and there are also trips to Ole Miss and LSU later in the season. Winning championships might be the goal, but a more realistic goal this first season would be getting to a bowl game.