2016 season preview: Arkansas Razorbacks

Bret Bielema enters his fourth season at Arkansas and the Razorbacks have seen improvement in the win column each of the last two years. Will that happen again in 2016? It will be interesting to see. We continue our week-long look previewing SEC teams on the SEC blog with the Razorbacks:

Key question heading into Week 1: How will Arkansas’ offensive line shake out? Throughout spring football and training camp, the Razorbacks have tinkered with different lineup combinations to try to find the right mix after losing three starters from the 2015 unit. After spending time at right tackle last season, it looks like preseason All-SEC selection Dan Skipper will move to left tackle and Colton Jackson, who worked at left tackle in spring, will move to the right side. Frank Ragnow, who has played center and guard, likely ends up at center, but it’ll be interesting to see who is in the final group of five that trots onto the field on Sept. 3 and how well they play.

Most important player: Brooks Ellis. The Razorbacks defense needs to improve from last season and the unit’s efforts start with Ellis, who is entering his third full season as a starter. He’s their best linebacker and was their top tackler last season (102 tackles) -- a leader from the middle linebacker spot and a guy that defensive coordinator Robb Smith trusts. He’s important in the run game when it comes to getting to the ballcarrier but also in the passing game, tasked with covering guys over the middle, especially against spread teams. Of course, Ellis must have help from the defensive line and the secondary, but his play will have a significant role in how big a step forward the unit takes.

Breakout player: It’s Jeremy Sprinkle’s time to shine. He had a solid junior season (27 receptions, 389 yards, six touchdowns) but now that Hunter Henry is gone and Sprinkle is the No. 1 tight end, look for another jump in production and potentially an All-SEC season from the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Sprinkle. New starting quarterback Austin Allen will certainly lean on Sprinkle in the passing game as Allen tries to get adjusted to his new role.

Instant-impact freshman: Devwah Whaley comes in with high praise from coaches and big expectations. The 2016 ESPN 300 running back is who Bielema called the “best high school running back” he has ever coached. There are returners at the position, like Rawleigh Williams III and Kody Walker, but Whaley has the kind of talent that will get him carries immediately and there’s no running back on the roster who has produced to the point that he can be considered a shoo-in starter, meaning there’s a chance for Whaley to make a big splash as a true freshman this season.

Make-or-break stretch: The Hogs have a five-game stretch that might be as tough as anybody’s nationally, starting Oct. 8 when they host Alabama. That’s followed by games vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 15), at Auburn (Oct. 22), vs. Florida (Nov. 5) and vs. LSU (Nov. 12). Four of those games are at home, which is a plus, but those four are all against preseason top 25 teams.

Best-case scenario: If the Razorbacks can get off to a better start than they have the last two seasons, things bode well for them. Under Bielema, they’ve gradually gotten better later in the season and seem to peak in November. If they can win the early non-conference game at TCU and finally get over the hump against Texas A&M (the Aggies have beat them in overtime twice in consecutive seasons), this team could be in for a double-digit win season; a 10-2 year would be a huge step for this program.

Worst-case scenario: Because the schedule is difficult and the Razorbacks have new faces in the offensive backfield and offensive line, it’s not out of the question that they take a step back in the win column. If they stumble out of the gate at 2-2, don’t finish quite as strong as they have in recent years and that five-game stretch gets the best of them, they wind up settling for a six- or seven-win season.