What started as a season that included several close SEC losses finished as one that has Arkansas playing in a bowl and feeling a sense of optimism for the first time in a while. With a throwback Southwest Conference battle against Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl looming on Dec. 29, let’s take a look back at the 2014 season for the Razorbacks:
Best win: Arkansas’ 17-0 victory over LSU probably felt the best because it ended the Razorbacks’ 17-game SEC losing streak, came over a rival and ended with fans storming the field, but the most impressive win came the following week over then-No. 8 Ole Miss. The Hogs shut out the Rebels 30-0, became bowl-eligible and dominated a team that was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally at one point. The Razorbacks forced six turnovers and it was the first time they shut out a conference team in back-to-back weeks since joining the SEC in 1992. It's hard to go wrong with either, but we’ll go with the victory over the Rebels on Nov. 22.
Worst loss: Every Razorbacks loss came to a team that was ranked in the Top 25 at the time, so it’s hard to nitpick about any of them, but the defeat that looked the worst was a 45-32 loss to Georgia. As Arkansas kept knocking on the door of an SEC win, the Razorbacks were a popular upset pick against the Bulldogs on Oct. 18 in Little Rock, but Georgia quickly erased such thoughts by racing out to a 38-6 halftime lead. The Hogs tried to rally in the second half but never trimmed Georgia’s lead to single digits. They surrendered 202 rushing yards to freshman Nick Chubb.
Players of year: Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. It’s hard to pick just one, and because the Razorbacks named them both team MVPs, we’ll do the same. Flowers finished the year with 63 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, six pass breakups and nine quarterback hurries. Spaight led the SEC with 123 tackles and had 8.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one recovery, a sack and an interception. Both players were critical to the Razorbacks’ defensive success.
Breakout players: There are a couple good choices here: Darius Philon and A.J. Derby. Philon, who was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2013, collected 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and five quarterback hurries en route to AP All-SEC second team honors. Derby, who was a quarterback before this season, switched to tight end and did an admirable job, becoming the team’s No. 3 receiver with 22 receptions for 303 yards and three scores. He had his best games against Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia.
Play of year: There’s zero doubt about this one: It’s the “fat guy touchdown pass” from offensive guard Sebastian Tretola to long snapper Alan D’Appollonio on Oct. 25 vs. UAB. It was a thing of beauty for offensive linemen everywhere who only dream of getting the glory that’s usually reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The Razorbacks lined up in a swinging-gate formation on fourth-and-goal, but rather than shifting into traditional field goal formation, the Hogs snapped the ball to Tretola whose pass – while leaning back away from pressure -- was picture-perfect to D’Appollonio for the 6-yard touchdown. The Razorbacks put together a Heisman Trophy campaign video for Tretola after the fact and Bret Bielema said afterward: “Come to Arkansas ... if you’re [an offensive] lineman, we’ll make you famous.”
2015 outlook: Though the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC West, the future seems bright. They were within seven points or fewer in losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri, so another year of development and experience could turn some of those close losses into victories. Arkansas ended its SEC losing streak and became bowl-eligible for the first time in three seasons, generating strong momentum for the program as Bielema enters his third season. And he seems committed to hanging around; he was rumored to be connected to the Nebraska opening, but Bielema stated he’s “All Hog.” The Hogs will have to replace some key defensive pieces, particularly Flowers and Spaight, next season, but the returning players’ experience gained in Robb Smith’s scheme as he enters his second year as defensive coordinator will help. Most of the offense returns, led by the backfield duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who both surpassed 1,000 rushing yards this season.