GRUNTING AND GRINDING
When coach Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in 2012, SEC watchers were doubtful that his grunt-and-grind, pro-style scheme would work against like-minded bullies LSU and Alabama. After shutting out the Tigers and coming within a fumble of beating the Tide last year, the Razorbacks turned many of those skeptics into believers. Arkansas finished 7--6 but had more heartbreaking misses than Dustin Johnson at the majors. Four starters are back on an offensive line that was the conference's best, as are senior Jonathan Williams and junior Alex Collins, the country's only tandem of 1,000-yard backs last year. Most SEC quarterbacks need name tags, but third-year starter Brandon Allen gives Arkansas consistency (20 TDs to just five interceptions in 2014) and experience (25 starts). He and new offensive coordinator Dan Enos will be limited in what they can do downfield, however, because the Hogs' receiving crew is the weakest in the league.
Look for second-year coordinator Robb Smith's defense to recalibrate after losing five starters. Immediate help comes from an unexpected place: freshman Hjalte Froholdt, a 6'5", 311-pound tackle from Svendborg, Denmark. He's got huge upside, just like Bielema's Hogs.
It's realistic for Arkansas to start 5--0 and enter the national title conversation. After noshing on UTEP, Toledo and Texas Tech, the Hogs have a manageable stretch by SEC standards—erratic Texas A&M in Arlington (Sept. 26) and a trip to rebuilding Tennessee (Oct. 3). Win those and the stakes will be high on Oct. 10, when the Hogs head to Alabama.
Brandon Allen's view was frequently frightening last year. "A lot of defenses," he says, "lined up nine guys in the box." Can junior wide receiver Dominique Reed (6'3", 4.3 speed) force teams to deploy more troops downfield? Reed, who had 16 TD catches at Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College last year, must quickly become a skilled route-runner.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
The offensive line revels in being the strength of the team; they'll push you until you surrender. To me, they show the value of having an identity and not wavering from it, even when the results aren't there [such as during their 17-game SEC losing streak]. It will be interesting to see, with Dan Enos calling the plays, how they evolve on offense.... Those two backs [Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins] are as good as any pair in the country. Brandon Allen is solid, and his best receiving threat is [junior tight end] Hunter Henry, who made ridiculous catches and is perfect for their play-action game. They love to get him lost behind the linebackers in space.... The D struggled against Auburn and A&M's pass games last year; as the season went on, they played faster and more confidently, but they're not designed to win shootouts.
RYAN A. MILLER/ICON SPORTSWIRE (WILLIAMS)
COURTESY OF COFFEYVILLE COMMUNITY COLLEGE (REED)