LITTLE ROCK — Flat out, Arkansas’ football team will be better in 2014. Using the W-L record to document that improvement is a precarious proposition because of what is happening at the eight SEC schools on the Razorbacks’ schedule.
For now, any accurate assessment of where the program is headed is impossible. All I know is that Bret Bielema and his staff come with impressive resumes and a documented ability to recruit. So-called “coaching up” players only goes so far — the Razorbacks must beat LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, and others for some top high school athletes. Other than maybe Alabama, no school has cornered the market on the four- and five-stars.
The prediction of surefire improvement begins with the freshmen who contributed in 2013, banks on another solid season by proven playmakers, and includes immediate contributions from new faces.
A bump in fans’ positive outlook is understandable after the LSU game, but one competitive showing does not mean the coaches have solved the shortage of talent exposed previously. Arkansas was outmanned against at least five SEC opponents. Ole Miss had a slight edge and the Razorbacks were even with Mississippi State. LSU? Go figure.
Although Arkansas’ opponents are only seen in person once a year, I know that virtually every conference team on Arkansas’ schedule returns a quarterback who has won a big game. That is not a dig at Arkansas’ Brandon Allen who was injured much of the season, didn’t get needed help from his receivers, and was playing catch-up too often.
Chronologically, a reminder about the abilities and accomplishments of the SEC quarterbacks and some of their helpers supports the reasoning that conference wins will be hard to come by:
• Aug. 30, Auburn: Nick Marshall ran for 922 yards, more than any quarterback in the SEC, and his shot put pass for the tying touchdown against Alabama was not the first made easy by the threat of a Marshall keeper. After the coaches loosened the reins, Marshall had 774 rushing in the last eight games. Oh, and Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher, is only a junior.
• Sept. 27, Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel. If he opts for the NFL draft the Aggies are one of the few Arkansas opponents who could regress next year. A&M has recruited better than Arkansas, but losing a Heisman Trophy winner has to hurt.
• Oct. 11, Alabama: A.J. McCarron, 36-3 as a starter, is gone, but a step back at Alabama means 10 wins instead of 11 or 12. McCarron’s departure only results in a heavier workload for T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake.
• Oct. 18, Georgia: Aaron Murray will be missed. Next up is Hutson Mason who had thrown 35 passes all year before completing 22-of-36 for 299 yards as the Bulldogs rallied from 20-0 to beat Georgia Tech. Also, sophomore Todd Gurley, who missed three games and played sparingly in two others, rushed for 903 yards.
• Nov. 1, Mississippi State: Dak Prescott, who sat out against Arkansas, entered the Ole Miss game with 11 minutes to play and the Bulldogs trailing 10-7. He threw for 115 yards and ran for 29 more, including the winning touchdown. When healthy, he is the Bulldogs’ best.
• Nov. 15, LSU: Anthony Jennings. His 49-yard TD pass beat Arkansas, but his 21-yard scramble to midfield was also big. Zach Mettenberger could not do that. Besides, Jeremy Hill, who ran for 145 on 20 carries against Arkansas, is a sophomore.
• Nov. 22, Ole Miss: Bo Wallace threw for 3,000 yards, including 27-of-34 for 416 vs. Arkansas and 30-of-39 for 346 in a victory over LSU.
• Nov. 29. Missouri: James Franklin is a senior, but freshman Maty Mauk was 3-1 as a starter and helped the Tigers to a 17-point lead against South Carolina before Connor Shaw led a dramatic comeback.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.