- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Year 2 of the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas figures to be a tough go of it as the Razorbacks must traverse a schedule that’s difficult from top to bottom.
Sept. 6: Nicholls State (4-8)
Sept. 13: Texas Tech (8-5)
Sept. 20: Northern Illinois (12-2)
Oct. 25: UAB (2-10)
SEC home games
Oct. 11: Alabama
Oct. 18: Georgia (in Little Rock)
Nov. 15: LSU
Nov. 22: Ole Miss
SEC road games
Aug. 30: Auburn
Sept. 27: Texas A&M (in Arlington, Texas)
Nov. 1: Mississippi State
Nov. 28: Missouri
Gut-check time: Can you have a gut-check moment the very first week of the season? If you’re Arkansas, you can. The Razorbacks come right out of the gate against defending SEC champion Auburn. Talk about no time to stretch your muscles or warm up your hammies. We’ll know right away whether Bielema’s squad has made strides after going winless in SEC play last year. The offense should improve with Brandon Allen a year wiser under center and a talented group of running backs to lean on, but the defense is another story. Trey Flowers and Darius Philon are bright spots on the defensive line, but they have a new position coach and a new coordinator. Against Gus Malzahn’s uptempo offense, that could be a scary combination. A blowout loss to the Tigers could knock the Razorbacks on their heels from Day 1, setting a troubling tone for the rest of the season.
Trap game: If you won three games last season, there’s no such thing as a trap game. You simply have no business overlooking an opponent. But it does happen, and if a monumental slip up is going to happen for Arkansas, maybe UAB can pull off the upset. Look at it this way: You’re coming off a run of games against Texas Tech, Northern Illinois, Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia that makes you question whether the scheduling gods have conspired against you, and then here comes a plump UAB team that won all of two games a season ago. You think, Here’s the win we’ve needed. You take the game for granted and might even look ahead a week to Mississippi State. But UAB shouldn’t be overlooked. The Blazers can beat you. They played a tough game against LSU on the road last season, scoring 17 points in the second quarter. With new coach Bill Clark at the helm, UAB could jump up and scare a team like Arkansas.
Snoozers: Give Arkansas credit because there really aren’t any. The Razorbacks took scheduling quality nonconference games to heart this season. Going to Texas Tech isn’t something many SEC programs would even consider. Welcoming a Northern Illinois program that won 12 games last year to Fayetteville is just as unthinkable. Arkansas may lose both games, but it should be applauded for having the guts to schedule them in the first place. As previously stated, UAB is no slouch either. Nicholls State is one Hogs fans can afford to miss, but it may be the only one.
Telltale stretch: It could be over before it begins. Arkansas could easily enter the bye week in October at 1-4 and in search of anything that works before it hosts Alabama and Georgia. That’s part of the give and take of going all in on your nonconference schedule. Getting Auburn to start the season couldn’t be helped, but tacking on Texas Tech and Northern Illinois was brutal. That said, pay more attention to how Arkansas plays than the final scoreboard. There may not be many wins to be had in September, but there’s room to show the Razorbacks are indeed becoming the strong, physical, mentally tough program Bielema set out to build when he took the job in 2012.
Final analysis: It's hard to argue against Florida having the toughest schedule in the SEC, but Arkansas’ isn’t lagging far behind. The Razorbacks could make significant improvement from last season and still end up with fewer wins overall, which is saying something since it finished 3-9 in 2013. The only gimmes on the calendar are Nicholls State and UAB, and one of those has the feel of a trap game. So what do you do if you’re Bielema? You embrace the role of underdog, that’s what. Create turnovers, take chances on offense and try to knock off someone you shouldn’t. If Arkansas can win the few games it's supposed to, beat either Texas Tech or Northern Illinois, and upset a favorite SEC team like Alabama or LSU, the season should be considered a success. It’s not exactly what you want to hang your hat on, but for a team that’s rebuilding amid a bear of a schedule, you have to take what you can get.
14hAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
2dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf