Too much is made of momentum during games, let alone during the offseason.
So let’s not be oversimplistic when looking at the case for Arkansas to make a New Year's Six bowl (read more from this series here). Let’s not say that finishing 4-2 will lead directly to the Razorbacks ending up in a New Year’s Six bowl, because we know that football doesn’t work that way.
No, the reason many people have Bret Bielema’s Hogs in their preseason top 25 polls is not only that they beat Texas in the Advocare Texas Bowl. That was Dec. 29, and while finishing over .500 was nice, you don’t get to take that with you into 2015.
More than its record or its supposed gains in momentum, the reason you can believe in Arkansas is because of the product on the field and the way it steadily has improved since Bielema took over the program late in 2012.
Beyond the hype is substance and an identity that is poised to trouble more and more opponents this season: heads-up, smashmouth football. It’s simple, but effective. And in an era of spread, uptempo teams, it’s unique.
The offense, led by its massive line and two terrific tailbacks (Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams), isn’t imaginative, but it’s productive. It’s also low-risk, and because teams lean more toward defending the pass and putting smaller players on the field, it’s harder to defend.
If new coordinator Dan Enos can coax any improvement out of quarterback Brandon Allen and find a few playmakers to complement tight end Hunter Henry, it might be even more difficult to deal with. And, frankly, isn’t there nowhere to go but up in the passing game? Maybe the signing of No. 6-ranked junior college wideout Dominique Reed is the answer.
On the flip side, the defense, even without Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, should be fine under Robb Smith. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter, Arkansas’ 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior college signee, could help plug the hole left on the line.
The schedule, meanwhile, is a big reason why Arkansas could do better in the win column in 2015. Instead of starting off with Auburn, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois and Texas A&M in its first month of play as it did last year, the Hogs get to ease into the season with UTEP and Toledo before facing the Aggies in Arlington, Texas. Auburn, meanwhile, doesn’t come calling until Oct. 24.
With even a marginal gain on offense and an easier schedule to navigate, why can’t Arkansas build off of last season and reach a New Year’s Six bowl?
What could go wrong
How long has it been since Arkansas was expected to win a meaningful game? How many coaches ago was it?
If there’s one hurdle the Hogs must clear, it’s a mental one: How to handle being the hunted?
If they can maintain their edge, they stand a chance of breaking through. But if they start believing they’ve arrived, they’ll go nowhere but down.
Because the issue still facing Arkansas is a talent deficiency. By playing a unique brand of football that teams don’t see every week, you miss those shortcomings. You fall in love with the offensive line and running backs, and neglect the rest. Allen isn’t asked to throw the ball much, so you aren’t blown away by his poor accuracy. In turn, you don’t see how average his receivers are.
Playing to your strengths is one thing. But in Year 3 of Beliema’s tenure, the roster as a whole needs to take a step forward in order to start beating the Alabamas and LSUs of the world.
Arkansas is capable of being a New Year’s Six team, but the margin for error is thin right now.
If they get complacent, they’ll lose. If they get behind and have to rely on a different mode of offense, it will be more of the same.
The Hogs have a clear identity. They are getting better. But until they broaden their horizons there’s a limit on how far they’ll go.