We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Most important game: Sept. 13 at Texas Tech
Key players: Arkansas should have a quality running game again with its two leading rushers from 2013, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, returning for 2014. Collins and Williams make up a quality rushing duo, with Collins compiling 1,026 rushing yards last season and Williams checking in with 900.
The Razorbacks also have a promising young tight end in Hunter Henry. He had a quality freshman season (28 catches, 409 yards, four touchdowns) and will be looking to build on that as he establishes himself as a premier SEC tight end and perhaps one of the better tight ends in the country.
On the defensive end, the Razorbacks return one of the SEC’s best defensive ends, Trey Flowers. The 6-foot-4, 267-pound Flowers had five sacks and three forced fumbles last season and bypassed the NFL draft to return for his senior season. Defensive tackle Darius Philon, a sophomore, returns after a 2013 campaign when he had 46 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Those two should combine to be a solid duo for the Razorbacks on the defensive front.
The secondary has a lot of upperclassmen, led by Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season.
Why it matters: Traditionally, the most important games involve a conference opponent and have an impact on the division race, but we’ll make an exception here for several reasons. When you’re coming off a tough season (Arkansas was 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC in 2013), finding success early is important. Bret Bielema is entering his second season as head coach, and though the reclamation project is a marathon and not a sprint, positive results go a long way toward accelerating the growth process.
The Texas Tech game could be a springboard game if the Razorbacks are to win. Nobody outside of Fayetteville is going to expect the Razorbacks to open the season by beating Auburn on Aug. 30, but Texas Tech is a quality nonconference opponent that the Razorbacks should be competitive with. The game is on the road, it’s on national television (ABC) and is against a team that plays a style that Bielema isn’t enamored with: the hurry-up no-huddle offense, led by offensive guru Kliff Kingsbury. Arkansas will have already faced an up-tempo offense in Auburn and will be due to see another two weeks after the Red Raiders, when the Razorbacks meet Texas A&M.
The trip to Lubbock, Texas, kicks off a tough stretch of games for the Razorbacks. It is followed by games against Northern Illinois, Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia. A victory at Texas Tech could generate some much-needed positive momentum going into this schedule stretch, and who knows what could happen from there? The Razorbacks were pretty competitive with Texas A&M last year and perhaps a key victory in Lubbock could trigger some confidence for Bielema’s bunch that they can carry into the games against NIU and A&M. Four of the five games that follow the Texas Tech game are home games for the Razorbacks and the other (against A&M on Sept. 27) is a neutral-site game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
A loss would likely leave the Razorbacks at 1-2 at that point and staring down that mean schedule stretch, and it could start a snowball in the wrong direction.