State of the Hogs: Expectations

It should be a good 2015 for the Razorbacks, but first there's the matter of finishing off 2014 in style. Frank Broyles may have said they remember what you did in November, but what you did against Texas trumps all.

Sometime last summer, I did a column that was misunderstood. It was a look at the coming season with an eye towards potential victories. I came up with eight.

Immediately, I was chastised by some for being overly optimistic. I thought it clear in the commentary that it wasn't a prediction column, since I do that in August, not June. Eventually, I did put my prediction into print. I went with 6-6 for the regular season, with a victory in the bowl for 7-6.

That's humming along on track. And, the Hogs, so good against the spread all season, are favored to get to that number with a victory over Texas in Houston on Dec. 29. It's going to jump start an even better 2015.

However, what I wrote back in June that raised expectations with the mention of the number eight wasn't so far fetched. There were ways for the 2014 Arkansas team to get to eight victories, not that it would.

Looking back at a 6-6 season, it's pretty easy now to see how the Hogs could have eight or maybe nine without many breaks. Texas A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri all could easily have been in the victory column.

A couple of big penalties and a couple of big plays turned the Texas A&M game from a possible runaway into an overtime defeat. Two dropped interceptions and a fumble at the goal line snatched victory away against Alabama. The Hogs led Mississippi State 10-0 and had Missouri down 14-3.

The key word in all four of those defeats, finish. It was the motto of the 2014 Razorbacks because it's easy to see that this was a team that could have easily finished in the top 10. If you can whip No. 8 Ole Miss by 30-0 and lose to No. 1 Alabama, 14-13, it's clear how close these Hogs are to excellence.

That's the easy answer I had when some mentioned Bret Bielema for the Nebraska job a couple of weeks ago. Why? He's so close to getting to the goal that he shouted when he took the Arkansas job two years ago. He came here to win the SEC and I can see the Hogs doing that.

Next year? Not sure about that, but I think Bielema's third year will start with a much better roster. It keeps getting better in the UA locker room. Recruiting is going well. Player development is just starting to kick in at the level predicted by Bielema's first defensive coordinator.

Most are glad Chris Ash is at Ohio State and Robb Smith is the man at the controls for the Arkansas defense. But I do recall some of the predictions Ash made when he came with Bielema from Wisconsin.

“Give Ben Herbert a couple of years and then check out the roster,” Ash said. “It's not what Coach Herbert does in his strength and conditioning program in the first six months. It's after he's had them for two and three years. You'll see the difference.”

That video of Trey Flowers popping a 55-inch box jump has gone viral. It's that kind of feat that points to what Herbert can do with a committed athlete. It's the reason Flowers came back to Arkansas this season, instead of going to the NFL after his junior season. He wanted that development.

Yes, the Hogs are just now turning the corner in all of the right areas of development. That's why I knew Bielema wasn't going to Nebraska. He knows his 2015 Razorbacks are going to be much better than the one which almost shocked the nation with spectacular things this season.

I remember all of the national prognosticators saying over and over in August that this Arkansas team was likely better, but might not win any more games than the one that went 3-9 in Bielema's first year. Perhaps that was showing too much respect for the SEC West and not enough knowledge for what Bielema had done.

I knew the defense was better. So did Bielema. They were obviously better on defense in the spring when tackling was improved. The simplification of the system under Smith had taken hold by the spring game.

Bielema saw it coming, too. He mentioned this week both those areas that helped the Hogs on defense.

“I go back again to the commonality and the understanding of what we are asking as players and understanding our defense as players and coaches,” Bielema said. “Specifically on game day I think we just tackled with a lot more efficiency, which can help any defense.

  “The other thing I think is the games that we were able to have success we didn’t allow very many big plays, we didn’t allow the freebies, we didn’t allow the gifts, we made them earn everything,” Bielema continued. “That is a big thing.”

What I see in all areas of this team, it understands the physical nature of what Bielema wants. The Hogs practice with intensity and physical purpose every day. They'll have a physical presence against Texas, guaranteed, even after the layoff from the Missouri game. If anything, I expect the Hogs to have more physicality. It's the culture.

There has been no lull in bowl workouts. Intensity is the word players mention after every practice.

It's also clear that Bielema and his staff have embraced the history of the Arkansas-Texas game. The process of educating the players is full tilt.

“The good thing is that our kids love football,” Bielema said. “If you are going to play football, you have go to love it, you have got to like the physicality of what we do.

“It is going to be very, very apparent when we show up at practice if you like it or don’t like it. I think our guys understand they have a tremendous opportunity to be a part of history here – Texas and Arkansas history back to Coach (Frank) Broyles and every thing he was able to accomplish.

“The passion that Arkansas fans have to play Texas is very deep and very real and very apparent since we have been announced,” Bielema said. “I think it is pretty cool to be a part of that.”

It's going to be cool to watch Bielema push into the sweet part of his program. I knew year three was when everything would look right. That's when he'll have a senior quarterback with Brandon Allen. Don't minimize what proper depth at quarterback can mean, too. That's finally in place.

But more than that, Allen should finally have enough weapons. The offensive line will be improved with another year under Herbert, and the normal growth with Sam Pittman's fine recruiting. Do not underestimate what Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow will be like after their first spring with Pittman. Receivers should finally be a threat.

So what does all of that mean? Victories. I can see eight or nine in 2015. No, it's not prediction time. But expect another jump as far as success on the field in year three under Bielema.

I like the schedule. The nonconference games should be victories. That's UTEP, Toledo, Texas Tech and Tennessee-Martin. I don't see any SEC games that aren't winnable. Could you say that at this time last year? I don't think anyone could.

The tough part is the way the home schedule falls. There will be only three home games in Fayetteville next season: Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri. Texas A&M is the fourth home game, but the Hogs will play that one in Arlington.

Now it's about adding a Texas pelt to what is a good 2014 season. The Longhorns always make for a highlight.

Frank Broyles was famous for his line about remembering what you did in November. The shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss are hard to forget and are great November memories.

But Broyles also said, “Our fans tell me that you can lose the other nine games and beat Texas and it's a good season. And, if you won the rest and lost to Texas, they'd say and what about Texas?”

It's time to put the icing on the cake. If the Hogs have turned the corner, there's nothing like a victory over Texas to get down the straight away to a fine 2015.

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