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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: Arkansas Razorbacks

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How successful Arkansas is at replacing Rawleigh Williams III and improving its defense will determine the Razorbacks’ fate in 2017.

Belk Bowl - Arkansas v Virginia Tech Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Record Last Year

7-6 (3-5 SEC)

Key Returnees

HC Bret Bielema and most of his staff, QB Austin Allen, RB Devwah Whaley, WR/PR Jared Cornelius, WR/KR Deon Stewart, TE Austin Cantrell, TE C.J. O’Grady, OL Hjalte Froholdt, OL Johnny Gibson Jr., OL Frank Ragnow, DL McTelvin Agim, LB Dwayne Eugene Jr., LB Dre Greenlaw, LB Randy Ramsey, DB Josh Liddell, DB Ryan Pulley, DB Santos Ramirez, DB Henre’ Toliver, K Cole Hedlund, K Connor Limpert, P Blake Johnson

Key Departures

DC Robb Smith, RB Rawleigh Williams III (medical retirement), RB Kody Walker, WR Keon Hatcher, WR Cody Hollister, WR Drew Morgan, WR Dominique Reed, TE Jeremy Sprinkle, OL Dan Skipper, DL Tevin Beanum (medical retirement), DL Taiwan Johnson, DL Jeremiah Ledbetter, DL JaMichael Winston, DL Deatrich Wise Jr., LB Brooks Ellis, LB Khalia Hackett (transfer), DB Jared Collins, K Adam McFain, P Toby Baker

Key Arrivals

QB Daulton Hyatt, RB Chase Hayden, RB Maleek Williams, WR Maleek Barkley, WR Jarrod Barnes, WR Brandon Martin (JUCO), WR Koilan Jackson, WR Jonathan Nance (JUCO), WR De’Vion Warren, TE Jeremy Patton (JUCO), OL Kirby Adcock, OL Shane Clenin, OL Dalton Wagner, DL David Porter, LB Kyrei Fisher, LB Derrick Munson, LB Gabe Richardson (JUCO), DB Montaric Brown, DB Chevin Calloway, DB Kamren Curl, DB Jarques McClellion


What Happened Last Year

It became apparent early on in 2016 that Arkansas had the offense to keep up with most of the country. It was also clear that the defense couldn’t be trusted to hold a lead of any size. More or less bail out the offense if it struggled.

A 41-38 win over TCU in double overtime showcased this perfectly. The Hogs carried a 20-7 lead into the 4th quarter of its second game. The Razorback defense allowed the Horned Frogs to storm back and take a 28-20 lead before quarterback Austin Allen helped force OT. They then won the game with his hard-nosed TD run in the second OT period.

Allen finished the season as the leading passer in the SEC with 3,430 yards. Rawleigh Williams III (1,360 yards) finished third in the league in rushing. It’s hard to understand how this team wound up eighth in the SEC offensively—whether you went by yards (428.4) or points (30.3).

The defense, though, proved to be an Achilles heel too difficult to overcome. The unit finished 76th in the country in average YPG allowed. The ugly numbers broke down to an unreal 6.75 yards per play. In conference games, Arkansas allowed 45, 49, 30, 56, 10, 38, 42 and 28 points, respectively. Only three of those resulted in victories—the only thoroughly convincing one being a 31-10 win over Florida.

The unquestioned low point came in the form of a 56-3 shellacking at the hands of Auburn. The Tigers racked up 543 yards rushing—not total, rushing—and that was with Kerryon Johnson sitting out. Even the normally self-sufficient Arkansas offense sputtered. Williams managed just 22 yards after running all over Ole Miss the week before.

The uneven season came to a close in a stunning tale-of-two-halves game against Virginia Tech. The Razorbacks led 24-0 at halftime in the Belk Bowl before the Hokies scored 35 unanswered for their largest comeback win in school history.

With the defeat, Arkansas wound up 7-6, having lost three of its final four games. Two of those came against the Razorbacks’ rivals—well, one rival and Missouri.


3 Key Players

1. Devwah Whaley

In a perfect world, Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams III would be as dangerous a one-two punch as the SEC could boast. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a neck injury—the second of his career—and he made the sensible decision to give up football. That puts the onus on Whaley to carry the load. He had 602 rushing yards in 2016. The pair averaged nearly the same per carry (roughly 5.5 yards), meaning Whaley could easily challenge for 1,500 yards. The sophomore from Beaumont, Texas, will go a long way in determining the success of the Arkansas offense in 2017.

2. Santos Ramirez

The Arkansas defense struggled mightily at times in 2016, while showing flashes of brilliance. Ramirez was somewhat of a microcosm of that inconsistency. The junior safety started seven of the 12 games he played in last year. Ramirez had 43 tackles, two forced fumbles and returned his only INT for a touchdown. He has been named a team captain after impressing in the spring. Razorback fans can only hope that will lead to Ramirez being a calming presence in the secondary. If the Arkansas defense can improve, even marginally so, it’s not difficult to see a win-or-two jump up from last season.

3. McTelvin Agim

One of Bret Bielema’s highest-rated recruits, Agim earned preseason Third Team All-SEC honors from Athlon Sports after landing on the Coaches’ SEC All-Freshman team last season. Agim was a five-star recruit by 247Sports.com and the site’s No. 18 recruit in the country.

He performed well in 2015, seeing action in all 13 games while starting the final five of the season. Agim totaled 27 tackles (5.5 for loss) and added 2.5 sacks. The sophomore will be looking to make up for the lost production on the defensive line. Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. combined for 98 tackles, 13 TFL and nine sacks in 2016.

They are no longer in Fayetteville and neither are JaMichael Winston nor Tevin Beanum, who each had 21 tackles. Agim will need to put up monster numbers (and get plenty of help) if the defensive line is going to improve on last year’s production.


Best Case Scenario

10-2 (6-2 SEC)

Austin Allen makes up for the loss of leading rusher Rawleigh Williams III by leading a passing attack that puts pressure on defenses at every level. He again finishes as the top passer in the SEC, while Devwah Whaley lands in the Top 5 in rushing.

Arkansas carries a 5-0 start into a showdown at Alabama. Despite losing a tight game against the Crimson Tide, the Razorbacks bounce back with wins over Auburn and Ole Miss thanks to a much-improved defense.

Even a loss at Death Valley doesn’t dampen spirits, as UA closes with convincing home wins over Mississippi State and Missouri.

The Razorbacks get to play on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl.

Worst Case Scenario

4-8 (1-7 SEC)

Even in this nightmare scenario, Arkansas has little issue dispatching the trio of Florida A&M, New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina. The group makes up three-fourths of what CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm recently tabbed as the worst nonconference schedule in the SEC.

However, early losses to TCU and Texas A&M set the stage for just a single conference win. The late season home win over Mississippi State matters little, aside from preventing a winless SEC mark.

Bret Bielema gets fired as a result.


Prediction

8-4 (5-3 SEC)

Austin Allen and the offense keep the Razorbacks in most games, but a defense that struggles for consistency can’t figure out how to get over the hump against the upper-echelon teams.

An early home loss to TCU is all but forgotten by the time a 4-1 Arkansas team gets blasted in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The sting from that loss carries over into a home game against Guz Malzahn and Auburn. A road win at Ole Miss kicks off another 4-1 stretch—the only loss coming at LSU—to close the season.

Arkansas winds up in the Music City Bowl.