Arkansas Razorbacks season preview

Previewing the 2014 season for the Arkansas Razorbacks:

2013 record: 3-9

Final grade for 2013 season: Finishing last usually calls for a failing grade but we'll give the Razorbacks the benefit of the doubt somewhat, with it being a transition year under a new head coach. Not only was it a regime change, but a scheme change in a new direction under Bret Bielema. These things take time. D-minus for the Hogs.

Key losses: C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, FB Kiero Small, DT Robert Thomas, DT Byran Jones, OT David Hurd, WR Javontee Herndon, K Zach Hocker.

Key returnees: DE Trey Flowers, RB Alex Collins, RB Jonathan Williams, TE Hunter Henry, S Alan Turner, P Sam Irwin-Hill, KR Korliss Marshall, G Denver Kirkland, DT Darius Philon, QB Brandon Allen.

Projected 2014 starters: QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins, FB Kody Walker, TE Hunter Henry, LT Dan Skipper, LG Cameron Jefferson, C Mitch Smothers, RG Denver Kirkland, RT Brey Cook, WR Keon Hatcher, WR Demetrius Wilson, DE Trey Flowers, DT Darius Philon, DT DeMarcus Hodge, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., OLB Braylon Mitchell, MLB Brooks Ellis, OLB Martrell Spaight, CB Tevin Mitchel, S Alan Turner, S Rohan Gaines, CB Carroll Washington.

Instant-impact newcomers: OL Cameron Jefferson, DT Bijhon Jackson, WR Cody Hollister, WR Jojo Robinson, LB Josh Williams, OL Sebastian Tretola.

Breakout player: Arkansas is not hurting for running backs, with Collins and Williams around, but Marshall has ability that should get him on the field more often. In eight games last year, he carried the ball only 17 times but averaged 8.6 yards per carry, which was best among the running backs. He also served on kickoff return duty and showed flashes there, averaging 22.2 yards per return including a career-long 87-yard return. He possesses great speed and is a nice change-of-pace option to Collins and Williams. Look for him to get the ball in his hands more.

Most important game: Take your pick. When you are coming off a three-win season, just about every game is big, especially the season opener against Auburn. Think of Texas Tech as a possibility because of the way the schedule sets up afterward, with Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia serving as three of the following four opponents. Arkansas could use some positive momentum heading into that stretch and a road upset against a good team would be huge. The Red Raiders had a strong showing in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona State and they will provide a tough test, but look at the way Arkansas competed with Texas A&M last season -- an explosive team that runs a similar offense -- and the Razorbacks competed down the stretch against Mississippi State and LSU. If they can continue to improve, being competitive against the Red Raiders shouldn't be out of the question.

Biggest question mark: Despite Bielema's public votes of confidence in him, starting quarterback Brandon Allen still has plenty to prove. In 11 games last season, he completed just 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,552 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. If Arkansas' offense is to improve, Allen has to do better. Bielema made it clear that Allen is the starter going into the season so Razorbacks fans better hope that Allen is on the rise.

Upset special: Last year, Arkansas went toe-to-toe with a Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M team, trailing by only four points at halftime and five heading into the fourth quarter. A pick-six thrown by Allen early in the third quarter proved to be pivotal as the Aggies never relinquished the lead in the second-half, but the Razorbacks were able to move the ball effectively against a struggling Texas A&M defense. This year, the Aggies don't have Manziel (or Mike Evans) and the defense still must prove it isn't as bad as it was a season ago. This game is at a neutral site (AT&T Stadium), so there's no “home-field advantage,” though it is in the Aggies' home state. Still, keep an eye on this one as a possibility.

Key stat: Arkansas returns virtually all of its production on offense. Players returning accounted for 95 percent of the Razorbacks' total offense in 2013, 91 percent of their rushing yards, 99 percent of their passing yards, 80 percent of their all-purpose yards, 60 percent of their receiving yards and 63 percent of their touchdowns.

They said it: “The reason I hired Robb Smith wasn't because we shared an apartment together for three months, not because I knew his wife, set him up, he still owes me money on that, it's because everywhere he went he got promoted. He went to Maine. The next year he was coordinator, assistant head coach. He goes to Rutgers, he's a corners coach, then a linebackers coach, then a defensive coordinator. Then they take him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he gets promoted. You don't promote people that you don't know are good.” -- Bret Bielema on hiring new defensive coordinator Robb Smith

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.9 wins

Bovada over-under: 4.5

Our take: It's an uphill battle for Arkansas but that's news to nobody. The SEC West is tough to get through and the schedule-makers did the Razorbacks no favors by giving them Auburn out of the gate. That being said, showing evidence of improvement is key for this group. They should be able to exceed their win total from last season. Improvement from quarterback Brandon Allen will be key, but there should be a comfort level with all the returning talent on offense. If the aggressive, attacking mentality instilled from new defensive coordinator Robb Smith can yield quick results, the Razorbacks have reason for optimism. The fight they showed late last season against quality SEC West teams is something to build on. However, while improvement is likely, bowl-eligibility is probably still a season away for this group.