Bret Bielema begins his third season at Arkansas with momentum. Head coaching hires in the SEC are almost always high-profile affairs, but they rarely are inspired. Bielema's hiring has accrued interest and is now poised to pay off in 2015. In fact, at least one respected football analyst is considering picking the Razorbacks to win the toughest division in college football. Who saw that being the case after the team finished 3-9 in 2013?
Arkansas's season isn't riding on any particular two games. The SEC West is a grind and getting any two wins on that murderers' row is laudable, especially after only finishing last season 6-6. That doesn't mean this team isn't capable of ruining the playoff hopes of an opponent or exacting revenge for a 2014 loss for a team that's projected as being equal to the Hogs in 2015. It's through that prism that the following are Arkansas's most important games in 2015.
September 26 vs Texas A&M
After three straight home games to start the season, Arkansas will travel to Texas to play A&M in Arlington. Last season, A&M beat Arkansas 35-28 in overtime after a 14-point fourth quarter rally. This game is an opportunity for Arkansas to get payback for last season while also setting the stage for the rest of the season. These two teams also project as being on the same tier in the SEC West, and the winner gets a tiebreaker in the division's pecking order.
If Arkansas opens the season beating UTEP, Toledo, and Texas Tech, it won't tell us much. Beating A&M will serve as the season's first real measuring stick. Texas A&M should be an improved team this season on both sides of the ball, and this game has the makings of another overtime thriller.
October 10th vs Alabama
This game has the dual opportunity to allow Arkansas to play spoiler to Alabama's season and also get revenge for last season's loss. Against Bama last season, Arkansas lost 14-13 despite having a fourth quarter lead and outgaining the Tide by 100 yards. It's a game that was almost certainly a blocked extra point attempt away from overtime at the least (not to mention a missed field goal too). Arkansas was plucky last season, and this game encapsulated that quality. They were outmatched at multiple positions, but they still almost knocked off the eventual SEC Champion.
This year will be different in several ways. First, it's on the road in a tough environment. Alabama will be a different team, some say slightly worse. Arkansas will also be a different team, most say better. At the date these two teams play, they could both be 5-0 and be top ten teams. If both teams are at least 4-1, this will be the week's CBS primetime game and the loser will most likely be out of the SEC West race.