This week on the SEC blog we're looking back at the regular season for the bowl-bound teams in the conference. This morning we took a closer look at Alabama, now we take a look at Arkansas, who finished 7-5 overall but 5-3 in SEC play, tying for third in the SEC West, a nice step up for the Hogs -- who were last in the division in 2014. Let's look back at the highs and lows of the Razorbacks' 2015 before they take on Kansas State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl later this month:
Best moment: There were several great moments in Arkansas’ 2015 season but none better than the Razorbacks’ dramatic 53-52 overtime win at Ole Miss on Nov. 7. Fourth-and-25 will forever live in Razorback lore as tight end Hunter Henry threw a lateral 15 yards backward that was wisely picked up by Alex Collins, who ran for a first down. After Brandon Allen’s touchdown pass to Drew Morgan, Allen ran the ball in on a keeper for a two-point conversion to give the Hogs a win they’ll never forget and knock Ole Miss from controlling its own destiny in the SEC West – which opened the door for Alabama, the team that eventually won the division and is now in the College Football Playoff (You think Nick Saban sent Bret Bielema a thank you note?)
Worst moment: The Razorbacks’ three-game losing streak in September provided several lows, but the most embarrassing was probably their Sept. 12 loss, 16-12, to Toledo. The Rockets, who later found themselves in the College Football Playoff top 25 rankings twice, proved to be a good team, but a MAC team beating an SEC team in its own backyard (the game was at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, but still basically a home game for Arkansas) is a bad look. Worse, it came just days after Bielema noted the toughness of the Hogs’ schedule compared to Ohio State’s. The loss deflated much of the buzz that surrounded Arkansas in the preseason, a team many outsiders were high on. Even though the Razorbacks proved to be solid, at the time the Toledo loss made Arkansas look like fool’s gold.
Offensive MVP: Allen. No SEC quarterback threw for more touchdowns or had a higher pass efficiency rating against SEC competition than the fifth-year senior. His Total QBR (87.3) was second nationally only to Baylor’s Seth Russell. And the biggest criticism fans had of Allen early this season – his inability to make big plays in crucial late-game situations – became a huge strength in the second half of the season, evidenced by his performances in a four-overtime win over Auburn, the victory over Ole Miss and even in a 51-50 loss to Mississippi State, where he put the team in position for the win before a blocked field goal stifled the Hogs’ chance. Allen had to endure as much fan criticism – or more – than most college quarterbacks but continued to plug away and finished with an impressive 3,125 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 65.1 percent of his passes this year.
Defensive MVP: Brooks Ellis is probably the most valuable because of all he does for the Hogs, and he had a strong season (team-high 101 tackles, seven tackles for loss), but the biggest impact might have been defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. He finished the season leading the Razorbacks in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (10.5) and saved his best performances for some of the biggest games. He had 2.5 sacks vs. LSU, two vs. Missouri, 1.5 vs. Mississippi State and one apiece vs. Alabama and Ole Miss. Both played valuable roles for the Razorbacks on defense this season, so there’s no harm in choosing both Ellis – a leader on defense who is versatile enough to attack and cover – and Wise.
Biggest question for 2016: Will the defense get better? The Hogs, who could attribute their late-season 2014 rise to a dominant defense, took a step back this season. They allowed 6.12 yards per play, worst in the SEC. Their red zone defense was one of the league’s worst (touchdowns allowed on 65.3 percent of opponents’ red zone trips, 13th in the SEC), they were 12th on third downs (45 percent conversion rate allowed) and they were 12th in the league in sacks, with 18 and 14th in pass defense. They clearly missed the players they lost in the offseason (Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight, Alan Turner), but that was a mighty drop-off and they have to get better in 2016.
Reason for optimism in 2016: There were only two seniors on Arkansas’ defensive two-deep at season’s end so some of the growing pains experienced by the younger players – such as true freshman linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who had a good season, or safeties Josh Liddell and Santos Ramirez – will benefit them in 2016 on what should be an experienced unit. Offensively, while the Hogs do lose Allen (and perhaps Collins, who seems like a decent possibility to enter the NFL draft) there is still offensive talent returning. Only two offensive line starters were seniors (Sebastian Tretola and Mitch Smothers), and most of the skill position players were sophomores or juniors. If Austin Allen, Brandon’s younger brother, can pick up where his older brother left off, that would go a long way in helping the offense make a smooth transition. One thing that is clear: The Razorbacks have improved every season under Bielema, and if that pattern continues 2016 should be a good one for the Hogs.