It seems a little odd for a team that has won four SEC games in the last three seasons combined to be a trendy pick to be a breakout team in 2015, but nothing is conventional when it comes to either Arkansas or Bret Bielema.
The conventional thing would not have been to hire an outside guy like John L. Smith to serve as interim head coach in 2012, but hiring Bobby Petrino 13 games into his NFL career wasn't conventional either. Nor was Bielema's choice to leave a program he guided to three straight Rose Bowls for a new one that hasn't won a conference title since 1989.
Even Bielema's preferred old school power rushing attack is an odd duck when we just had an SEC Media Days where Nick Saban was critiquing how his team did with its hurry-up package from last year. Butch Jones in his media days presser labeled the Razorbacks' attack "a different kind of offense", and not only did it not cause a stir, basically no one even bothered to highlight it as a notable quote. Yeah, in 2015, of course an offense that takes its time, leans on the run, and uses a fullback is the weird one in the SEC.
It also feels strange to say this given that dismal recent SEC record, but Arkansas might actually, kinda, sorta, a little bit have some real pressure to win this year.
A raise pushed Bielema up to the $4 million annual salary club. While every SEC West head coach is now in said club, that's still an awful lot of money even with the SEC Network riches pouring in. The dramatic turnaround from the defense, highlighted by late season shutout wins over Ole Miss and LSU, has raised expectations rather quickly despite the losses of Trey Flowers and Darius Philon. After all, Steve Spurrier just tried to get people to believe in his new defensive coordinator hire by citing how much better Robb Smith made Arkansas's D in one year.
And even with that defensive improvement, the focus is all on an offense that appears ready to roll. The Hogs might have the best running back tandem in the country with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Senior quarterback Brandon Allen has improved each year and takes very good care of the ball through the air. Hunter Henry is one of the nation's best tight ends, and leading receiver Keon Hatcher is now a senior as well.
It's likely that every one of those names I just mentioned will be gone next year, most of them to the NFL. It's a bit early to be doing 2016 season previews, but it's hard to imagine that team not taking a step or two back from where the 2015 team will be. Absent a big 2015, the end of 2016 will mean four years without a whole lot to show for it. Everyone knows that Bielema walked into a major rebuild, but in this day and age, that's a long time to not have a big season to point to. It's especially so when you're making $4 million a year.
Even if the broader picture shows that Bielema isn't playing with quite as much house money as you might think, he's still got a chance at getting that big year. Williams and Collins are sure handed, with each having fewer than five fumbles last year despite each having over 200 carries. Allen will need help from the line to keep the pressure off as he had too many fumbles last year, but he had the lowest interception percentage of any SEC starter. The Hogs probably won't fall into early holes due to turnovers, and no team is better equipped to hold second half leads with a rushing attack. Nope, don't even bring up Alabama, because remember: Lane Kiffin is calling plays for that offense.
The losses of Flowers and Philon hurt, considering that D-line was a major part of last year's defensive leap forward. It might be offset some by it being the second year under Smith, as he can now install some more advanced things that he couldn't in his first. If the unit can push its turnovers gained number upwards from a middle-of-the-pack 24 last year to something approaching 30, that can be the difference in more than one win.
Things could easily fall into place for a big season. They could also fall apart if the team can't figure out a way to win a conference contest away from home. Its last such win was over Gene Chizik's terrible final Auburn team in 2012, and its last non-home win over an SEC team that finished above .500 in conference play was over South Carolina in 2010. The Hogs have five such contests in 2015, with road tilts against Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU plus a neutral site game with Texas A&M at JerryWorld. If the team even goes 2-3 in those, a match against Auburn plus swing games against Mississippi State and Missouri on the home slate means 7-5 is a real possibility. That's technically an improvement over 6-6 last year, but it's probably not what a lot of Razorback fans have in mind.
Which, I then can't help but think of the consequences of another six or seven-win campaign in 2016. A run of 3-9, 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6 won't get Bielema fired, but it's enough to ratchet up the pressure for four million reasons per year. After all, being different with a throwback system is brilliant if you're winning but it's falling behind the times if you're not.
No one else in the SEC is quite in the place Bielema and Arkansas are in. These are interesting times in Fayetteville, indeed.