State of the Hogs: Prediction Time

It's been a summer of 6-6 thoughts, but Bret Bielema provided the tipping point as he made his 70th speech since coming on board as Arkansas coach.

There are warning signs that 2013 won't go smoothly. The first is that schedule. Starting with a road game to finish the nonconference schedule, then a look at the murder's row of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama.

Those are five solid opponents with returning quarterbacks who have enjoyed success and some of that was impressive play against Arkansas. So much of the game is about quarterback play and the Razorback are breaking in sophomore Brandon Allen.

The second caution flag is the talent, short at linebacker and perhaps void of big-time playmakers at wide receiver in a league full of fine cornerbacks capable of lock-down man coverage to free safeties in the running game. And, does Arkansas have that kind of cornerback play yet? Maybe not.

So as I predict the record against this schedule, I tread carefully. However, there are things that are falling in place properly for this Arkansas team, Bret Bielema's first.

One of them is Bielema, so good at preparing players both physically and mentally. He's even great at fan preparation. I note the efforts earlier this week to involve the home crowd in a bigger way when the defense is on the field for third downs.

Bielema, in that deep, strong voice, urged Razorback Nation to make a difference when the offense attempts to change plays as Chris Ash, one of four with defensive coordinator experience on this staff, sets an alignment that might be in constant flux before the snap.

Bielema has the team right where he wants it. He's masterful at setting tone, building chemistry. He's tough. An oldtimer at practice this fall said, "He can flat out coach and so can every member of his staff. They will improve every step of the way because they will be coached, developed and learn to play the game the right way."

What does that mean? Just as Bielema told the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday, they will be good up front where it matters. The offensive line is coming together under Sam Pittman. The same goes for the defensive front under another great line coach, Charlie Partridge.

I'm convinced the Hogs are good up front on both sides. Grady Ollison needs to come through at right tackle on offense, but I think he's headed the right direction.

Ollison was right at 270 last spring. He's been as heavy as 312 during camp, but weighed at 304 after practice Wednesday. It's stories like his that push me above the .500 mark on this prediction.

If you want to watch a key man this season against Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns, focus on No. 50. He looks like an SEC tackle and it's my guess that Pittman is getting him dialed into that role.

There are no questions in my mind about the others up front. Brey Cook is a keeper at right guard. Mitch Smothers has improved at left guard. David Hurd was better at left tackle than most realized last year. And, Travis Swanson might be primed for an All-America season at center, if the team gets modest results.

The defensive front is top shelf. Robert Thomas appears to have turned the corner since Partridge arrived. It's not surprising. The man can develop defensive linemen. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers make a great tandem at end.

There is depth there, too. No one is talking about Darius Philon, LaMarcus Hodge, Taiwan Johnson inside along with the outside group of Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston.

There are no bellies anywhere. They have gained weight across the fronts without adding fat. It's in the legs because of the emphasis on squat lifts. Bielema explained that Smith, who played at 252 last year, is at 270 now because he squat lifts 585 now, not 425.

"For us," Bielema told the TD Club at his 70th speaking engagement since being hired in the Ozarks, "it's the fundamental lift. You look at our linemen, and a guy like Cook, they have changed their bodies."

So I'll go with one more victory than I figured for the summer when I thought .500 might be pushing it for Bielema's first team, still a little light on playmakers. I think seniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton are going to have solid senior finishes at wide receiver. And I think many have undersold tight ends in Bielema's system, with the big push from Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle as Austin Tate heals a shoulder for the first month.

There is help in this freshman class. Remember, Henry was the nation's top prep tight end last year and is tough and talented. Running back Alex Collins will be a perfect complement to starter Jonathan Williams, like Collins a blue chipper two years ago. Freshmen wideouts Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield add playmaking ability from that rookie group. Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, the first-year tackles, are as good as advertised.

I remember how poor Arkansas was in short yardage last year without Kiero Small. He may be the best fullback in the SEC, especially for what Bielema does.

Bielema is so good at events like the TD club. He's also been so positive in his visits with the media about development of the team. He refuses to call it rebuilding. He said he couldn't do that with this kind of quality in the senior class.

I heard him early on at Mountain Home last winter, just after recruiting was done. He was good then, but he seems to know Razorback Nation so much better. He was at ease Wednesday as he discussed a hairy moment coming back from a recruiting trip when the 1988 vintage Razorback Foundation airplane had a faulty warning light.

"I'd been asleep an hour and 15 minutes and I awoke with the pilot beside me," Bielema said. "He said, 'It's either a bad light, or it could be a landing gear malfunction as the worst case.' I can tell you what I wanted it to be."

Wisconsin didn't have a school plane, but Bielema was quickly wondering if it was great to own an old one.

"I realized how serious it could be when we landed -- and it was fine -- there were four ambulances and four fire engines, one for each person on board.

"I thought we might think about getting (a plane) in the year 2000s. I just don't think anyone is driving around in a 1988 Buick."

The place roared. They also seem to understand what he means when he says his goal is to play big boy football, or American football. Bielema's version arrives Saturday.

It comes out to seven victories. Where? I'm not sure about the SEC triumphs, but there will be three of them. Momentum is a nasty thing when it comes to trench warfare. One-on-one victories lead to wins on the scoreboard.

I look at Bielema's record and it all says take the over, not the under. Before it's over, seven may seem silly low. This guy is a winner. My gut says take the team with no gut. That's the 2013 Razorbacks this time.

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