MSU plays its fourth and final road game of the year, at a place where it’s had no success. The Bulldogs are 0-6-1 in Little Rock, which has become the traditional meeting place for these two teams. State hasn’t played in Fayetteville since 2003.
Arkansas has a new coach, though, so who knows what kind of team MSU will be facing by this late point in the season. Let’s take a look at what we know about the Razorbacks.
Arkansas Razorbacks (Nov. 23, in Little Rock)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 4-8 (2-6, 6th Western Division)
• Coach: Bret Bielema (first season)
• Returning starters: 13 (4 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist)
• Last meeting: MSU, 45-14 (Nov. 17, 2012, in Starkville)
• On the Web: arkansasrazorbacks.com
Bielema just wants to play some “normal American football,” as he so eloquently put it at SEC Media Days last month. That style worked quite well at his previous stop, Wisconsin, which went 68-24 during his seven-year tenure. The Badgers reached the Rose Bowl each of the last three seasons.
By “normal American football,” Bielema meant traditional sets, bruising offensive linemen and a strong running game. The quarterback is often a mere accessory in his offense. Witness last season, when Wisconsin ranked 13th nationally in rushing (236.4 ypg) and 111th in passing (156.9 ypg). The Badgers averaged 29.8 points per game, which was usually more than enough for a defense that allowed just 19.1 ppg (17th nationally).
So will it matter much that the very talented Tyler Wilson is no longer under center for Arkansas? We’ll see. Stepping into his shoes this year is sophomore Brandon Allen, although senior Brandon Mitchell could push him for playing time. Allen completed 21 of 49 passes for 186 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions last season; Mitchell had just eight pass attempts.
OK, so how about that running game? Sophomore Jonathan Williams (231 yards on 45 carries) is the lead horse but should get plenty of help. What will make this work (or keep it from working) is the offensive line. Arkansas is replacing three starters from last year, but Bielema has a strong history of developing offensive linemen. In fact, Phil Steele said he expects that unit to be better this year despite the personnel losses. The returnees are both seniors and both play critical positions: left tackle David Hurd and center Travis Swanson.
Arkansas ranked 104th in rushing offense last year (118.7 ypg), but having such an emphasis on the passing game was part of the reason – 55.6 percent of the offensive plays were passes.
It might be easier for Bielema to make immediate headway on the defensive side of the ball, where eight starters return. That group is led by senior defensive end Chris Smith, a third-team All-SEC pick last year. He had a team-high 9.5 sacks and tied for the team lead with 13.5 tackles-for-loss. The Hogs’ other end, Trey Flowers, also had 13.5 TFLs along with 6.0 sacks. Arkansas ranked 25th nationally in sacks (2.58 per game), and the pass rush could be the strength of this defense.
Will that pass rush help the pass defense? Because the Hogs gave up 285.8 passing yards per game (113th nationally). But they were stiff against the run, giving up just 124.1 ypg (19th nationally). The linebackers are replacing three starters. A.J. Turner (53 tackles) and Otha Peters (32 tackles) have experience but were hampered by injuries in the spring. Also in the mix is senior Jarrett Lake (11 tackles in nine games).
The secondary returns four starters, which given the aforementioned pass defense numbers might not be a good thing. Arkansas made just six interceptions last year, part of the reason it tied for last in the country in turnover margin (minus-19).
So what can Bielema do in Year One? Given the recent success Arkansas has had, you’d figure there’s still some talent on that roster. And bringing in a Big Ten coach who’s going to totally change the offensive style should prove interesting, no matter the result.
Up next: Ole Miss