NCF Nation: Robb Smith
Why aren't the Hogs on my spoiler radar? Well, I think they might deserve more than just dark horse status in 2015.
But Edward, Arkansas won just seven games last season and didn't have an SEC win until Nov. 15 (after 17 straight league losses). The Hogs have sleeper written all over them, right?
After losing three straight in the middle of the season, Arkansas won four of its last six games, including shutting out No. 17 LSU 17-0 and pummeling No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0. The season culminated with a decisive 31-7 romp of Texas in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.
After a very strong finish to 2014, Arkansas should enter the new year oozing the type of confidence exhibited by its head coach. The Bret Bielema tenacity showcased in games and on social media has bled into his players. What was a relatively soft group before he took over has transformed into one of the league's most physical teams on both sides of the ball. Teams hurt and will continue to hurt against Arkansas.
The brawny, pound-you-into-the-ground running style Bielema used at Wisconsin has become a sledgehammer of a tool for the Razorbacks. The Hogs finished the 2014 season averaging 218 rushing yards per game (10 games with 150-plus yards) and 5.1 yards per carry. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who return in 2015, both eclipsed 1,100 rushing yards, and each had 12 touchdowns.
Returning with that dynamic duo are four starting offensive linemen, starting quarterback Brandon Allen, and four of Arkansas' top six receiving targets. That is a lot for a coach going into his third year at a program. And though Allen, who threw for 2,285 and 20 touchdowns this season, absolutely must be more consistent, he has those running backs to lean on, making his job much easier.
It's almost unfair when you consider both backs averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry.
Defensively, please proceed with caution when you play the Hogs. I really can't stress that enough.
Outside of returning four starters along the defensive line and a relatively experienced secondary, Arkansas signed first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith to an extension. He really was the driving force behind Arkansas' complete defensive transformation in 2014. The Hogs climbed to 10th nationally in total and scoring defense, after finishing the 2013 season ranked 76th in total defense.
Arkansas ranked second in the SEC in total defense and held opponents to 17 points or less eight times, with six of those coming against eventual bowl teams. The Hogs capped the season by holding Texas to 59 total yards on 43 plays (1.4 yards per play), the lowest offensive output by any FBS team this season.
And only a few defensive starters are leaving, so watch out.
Let's not forget that Arkansas currently has the No. 21 recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN's RecrutingNation. Five commits are ESPN300 members, and Bielema won't hesitate to play any of those guys early.
Arkansas isn't perfect, far from it. Allen has to improve and the Hogs need a top-flight receiver (are you ready, Keon Hatcher?). Replacing Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight on defense won't be easy. Oh, and that whole SEC West thing.
Still, there is no reason to sleep on Arkansas. Next year's nonconference games are all winnable. And Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Texas A&M -- who beat the Hogs in 2014 -- have to play in Fayetteville.
Bielema is building for a legitimate SEC run in 2015, and it shouldn't surprise anyone.
Four of the seven SEC West teams will have new defensive coordinators next season, which is fitting, given the carnage we saw in that division during the bowl season.
It's a carnage particularly glaring on the defensive side and yet another reminder that times are changing -- or, more precisely, have changed -- in college football.
Remember when the SEC was known for its defense?
Well, there is no defending how the five Western Division teams that lost in bowl games played, defensively, last week.
The numbers were abysmal, the kind of cataclysmic meltdown that only lends credence to the biggest criticism of SEC defenses over the past few years: They rack up most of their numbers against offenses within the league that aren't very explosive.
Now, before we go any further, not everybody in the West suddenly forgot how to play defense during the postseason.
Arkansas crushed Texas 31-7 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and made the Longhorns look even worse than they really were offensively, which took some doing. The Hogs held the Longhorns to 59 total yards on 43 offensive plays, which marks the fewest yards by any FBS team this season.
It wasn't just that Texas was that bad, either. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith did an amazing job of transforming the Hogs' defense all season. They held opponents to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 13 games, and six of the eight were against bowl teams.
With only the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T remaining, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and 12th in rushing defense. The only other SEC team in the top 12 in all three categories is Alabama.
Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all gave up more than 30 points each in their games. The Aggies were able to escape with a 45-37 win against West Virginia, though their biggest win might have been prying away defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU a few days later.
It wasn't a memorable final game for Chavis' LSU defense. The Tigers gave up 263 rushing yards to Notre Dame in a 31-28 loss and were especially vulnerable on third down. The Irish converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities and drove 71 yards in 14 plays for the winning field goal.
As it was, LSU's defensive performance might have been the best one of the bunch among the five West teams that lost bowl games, which underscores what a shoddy three days of defense it was for those five teams.
The final damage: Averages of 39.6 points allowed, 501.4 total yards allowed and 314.6 rushing yards allowed, not to mention a combined defensive third-down percentage of 55.4 percent.
The rushing totals were most incriminating. Mississippi State was gashed for 452 yards on the ground by Georgia Tech's option attack and gave up 49 points.
Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin did a number on Auburn, to the tune of 400 rushing yards, and Alabama allowed 281 rushing yards -- including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- in its 42-35 playoff loss to Ohio State.
That's two bowl games in a row in which Alabama has laid an egg defensively. The Tide gave up a combined 87 points and 966 yards in losses to Oklahoma a year ago in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State this year in the playoff.
Does that mean Alabama has lost it defensively? Of course not. The Tide are always going to be a force defensively as long as Nick Saban is around.
But it is fair to say they haven't been nearly as dominant defensively on some of the biggest stages as they were during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
In their 55-44 win against Auburn this season, they gave up a school-record 630 total yards. In the 34-28 loss to Auburn last season, they gave up 296 rushing yards, and earlier in that year, they allowed 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a wild 49-42 win over the Aggies.
Spotty play at cornerback has been a recurring problem for the Tide the past two seasons. They've had trouble covering people, which has been magnified by their inability to consistently get to the quarterback.
Nobody's writing off the Tide defensively. Teams all over the country would gladly take their numbers -- and certainly their talent. But mobile quarterbacks have tormented them, and the way they've finished seasons defensively each of the past two seasons has been a concern.
Last impressions are what they remember in college football, and that also goes for Alabama's brethren in the West.
Reputations are earned. Right now, the entire SEC -- specifically the West -- has some work to do in earning back its reputation on the defensive side of the ball.
Spring start: March 15
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
- What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
- Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
- A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
- Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
- Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
- Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Jennings next at QB?: Anthony Jennings engineered a memorable, game-winning drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas, leading the Tigers 99 yards downfield, capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass. His performance in the Outback Bowl was far from impressive, though, as he went 7-for-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception in the Tigers’ win over Iowa. Still, he is considered the favorite to replace Zach Mettenberger. Competing with Jennings is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Brandon Harris.
- Starting over at WR: LSU loses two 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, plus a senior (Kadron Boone). That’s a lot of production to replace. Travin Dural, who made the game-winning catch against Arkansas, is back, as is Quantavius Leslie and Armand Williams. The Tigers have a host of redshirt freshmen joining the mix (John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears) and bring in several freshmen (Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark) to compete for playing time. But replacing 72 percent of the 2013 receiving yardage will be challenging.
- Finding safeties: Craig Loston has moved on, and the Tigers don’t have a returning starter at safety. But they do have Jalen Mills, who slid from his cornerback spot to safety to start in the Outback Bowl. Corey Thompson, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson all return, and ESPN 300 recruit Edward Paris Jr. is already on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
- Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
- Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 5
What to watch:
- Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
- Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
- A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
Spring start: Feb. 28
Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)
What to watch:
- Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
- Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
- New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.
Perhaps folks did not notice so much because that group has been playing at a high level.
For the fourth straight season, somebody new will be calling the defensive plays. In 2011, coach Greg Schiano did it while Bob Fraser retained the defensive coordinator position. After Schiano left for Tampa Bay, his protege, Robb Smith, took over as coordinator and play caller in 2012.
With Smith off to join Schiano, Dave Cohen takes over those duties.
Fortunately, the players' adjustment level has been minimal. There has been no real scheme shift to speak of, no wholesale changes to the playbook, no different way of doing business. Cohen served as an assistant on staff last season, so he is well versed in the Rutgers way of doing business on defense.
"When we went from Coach Schiano to Coach Smith, they had the same philosophy because they worked with each other for so long, so not many things changed," linebacker Kevin Snyder said in a recent phone interview. "When Coach Cohen came, he took on the same philosophy that Coach Smith instilled in our defense. He has continued to preach the same thing. There is some continuity in what we’re doing. We’re not just bringing in brand new people and starting over. It’s a continuing process on our defense with the same thing."
Cohen has served as a defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, Delaware and Fordham so he knows what it takes to get the job done. About the only thing expected to change is players seeing him now as the guy in charge.
"They’re seeing a different side to coach Cohen, but I worked with him for three years in that role so I knew exactly what we were going to get and how that was going to look on the field when we promoted him. There is always a little bit of an adjustment period when the voices change, but again with the system being intact, that will go a long way in helping," head coach Kyle Flood said.
Still, Cohen has plenty of work to do this spring, as the Scarlet Knights go about trying to replace so many key players on defense. There is no question he is going to be in the spotlight this season because the defense has been the backbone of this program over the last several years.
Randy Edsall, head coach (to Maryland)
Todd Orlando, defensive coordinator/inside linebackers (to Florida International)
Lyndon Johnson, outside linebackers/special teams coordinator (to Maryland)
Terry Richardson, running backs (to Miami)
Paul Pasqualoni, head coach
George DeLeone, offensive coordinator
Don Brown, defensive coordinator
Clayton White, special team coordinator/running backs
Former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is now quarterbacks coach
Pasqualoni, the Connecticut native, comes aboard with two new coordinators (three if you count special teams). But the rest of the staff stayed intact. Edsall took only one assistant with him to Maryland, which is strange. There should be more continuity in this coaching change than most. The trick will be getting the old and the new styles to mesh.
Mike Groh, quarterbacks (to Alabama)
Shawn Watson, quarterbacks
Charlie Strong scored a victory by keeping his staff almost fully together after a successful first year. Watson, the former Nebraska offensive coordinator, looks like a great addition to coach a position in flux.
Dave Wannstedt, head coach (forced resignation)
All of Wannstedt's assistants
Todd Graham, head coach
Paul Randolph, executive associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/defensive line
Calvin Magee, assistant head coach/co-offensive coordinator/running backs
Mike Norvell, co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers/director of recruiting
Keith Patterson, defensive coordinator/linebackers
Tony Dews, tight ends
Todd Dodge, quarterbacks
Tony Gibson, cornerbacks,/recruiting coordinator
Spencer Leftwich, offensive line
Randall McCray, safeties/special teams coordinator
It's certainly a sea change at Pitt, with an new staff and a whole new philosophy. The presence of several West Virginia assistants lends a little more spice to the Backyard Brawl, as well. Graham has done a good job of building some excitement after the whole Wannstedt/Mike Haywood mess.
Kyle Ciarrocca, co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks (not retained)
Randy Melvin, defensive line (not retained)
Ed Pinkham, co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs (to Elon)
Frank Cignetti Jr., offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Brian Angelichio, tight ends
Jeff Hafley, defensive backs
Phil Galiano moves from tight ends to defensive line
Robb Smith will coach linebackers as well as special teams
After a 4-8 season, Rutgers needed to make some major changes. Head coach Greg Schiano took advantage of the Pitt staff turnover to hire three former Panthers assistants. Hafley's ties in New Jersey already helped in recruiting. Cignetti will be charged with fixing a stale offense.
Bob Casullo, assistant head coach/special teams (parted ways)
Tim Daoust, defensive end
Nathanial Hackett was promoted to offensive coordinator
John Anselmo becomes assistant head coach and will work with linebackers
Dan Conley will concentrate on inside linebackers
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer will work with defensive backs
Jimmy Brumbaugh will coach defensive tackles
Special teams will be divided among the staff
Casullo left before last season ended, so Syracuse had already moved on. The changes in responsibilities reflect the areas of concentration for the Orange this summer, as they have many young players who need tutoring.
Jeff Mullen, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks (not retained)
Lonnie Galloway, receivers (to Wake Forest)
Dave Johnson, offensive line (not retained)
Chris Beatty, running backs/slot receivers (not retained)
Dave McMichael, tight ends/special teams (not retained)
Dana Holgorsen, offensive coordinator/head coach in waiting
Shannon Dawson, receivers
Bill Bedenbaugh, offensive line
Robert Gillespie, running backs
The entire offensive staff was let go except for Galloway, who left for Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago. West Virginia hasn't named a replacement for Galloway yet, but Dawson and Holgorsen will likely coach the receivers, with someone coming on board for special teams. The defensive staff remains intact, and Bill Stewart will coach his final year before handing the reins to Holgorsen. It will be a fascinating chemistry test.
Catching up on some weekend Big East headlines ...
• Maine defensive coordinator Robb Smith is expected to join the Rutgers staff in an unspecified defensive assistant's position, Tom Luicci writes in The Star-Ledger.
• Luicci also has five questions that need answering this spring for the Scarlet Knights.
• Rutgers has several holes to fill on offense, but Greg Schiano isn't worrying too much, Keith Sargeant writes in the Home News Tribune.
• Brian Kelly has agreed to a contract that would keep him at Cincinnati through 2013, Bill Koch reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
• Bill Stewart likes the West Virginia schedule, Dave Hickman says in the Charleston Gazette.