Arkansas Football: Ranking the 5 Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

Bryan Heater@@BHeaterRivalsCorrespondent IMarch 22, 2014

Arkansas Football: Ranking the 5 Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

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    Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema found out firsthand just how tough the SEC is compared to the Big Ten in his first years as the "head Hog."

    After winning his first three games, the Razorbacks were humbled the rest of the way, losing the next nine games to finish 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC, the Hogs' first winless season in conference play since their first year in the league in 1992. 

    As painful as it was to watch for not just Bielema, but also the fans, the road ahead doesn't get any easier. Such is life in the SEC.

    The 2014 schedule is once again loaded with tough tests that will challenge every aspect of the Hogs' game. Bielema and his staff have a lot of work to do this offseason to get the Razorbacks ready for another brutal slate.

    Though there are many tough games, some are going to be much tougher than others. Here, we rank Arkansas' five hardest games for next season in ascending order to the most daunting gridiron matchup of 2014.

5. at Texas Tech, Sept. 13

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    Kliff Kingsbury got the Texas Tech Red Raiders off to a great start last year at 7-0 before losing the next five games. The Red Raiders avoided finishing 2013 on a six-game losing streak by beating Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl to make Kingsbury's first year a success with an 8-5 record.

    The Razorbacks travel to Lubbock for a showdown with Texas Tech in the third game of the season on Sept. 13 in what is the Hogs' toughest nonconference game in 2014. Bielema will quickly learn how improved the secondary is against a prolific Red Raiders' passing attack that ranked No. 2 in the FBS in passing yards per game at 392.8.

    Texas Tech started the season with Baker Mayfield (2,315 yards, 12 touchdowns, nine interceptions) under center, but he lost his job to Davis Webb (2,718 yards, 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions) after five games. Combined, the two threw for 5,033 yards, 32 touchdowns and 18 picks. 

    Arkansas had all sorts of problems stopping the pass, giving up 235.0 YPG—No. 72 in FBS—through the air. The key to a win for Arkansas in Lubbock is finding a way to slow down Texas Tech's air raid.

    Kingsbury's squad was equally as bad as the Hogs on defense, ranking 84th nationally in total YPG allowed at 418.5. An Arkansas win will also greatly hinge on whether it can move the ball down the field and capitalize on scoring opportunities.

    Jones AT&T Stadium certainly isn't the biggest or loudest field, but the Red Raiders are always tough at home and should give the Hogs a very stiff test early on.

4. vs. Georgia Bulldogs, Oct. 18

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    You know the Razorbacks have a tough 2014 slate when a home game against the Georgia Bulldogs is just fourth on the list of Arkansas' hardest games.

    The last meeting between the Hogs and Bulldogs came in 2010 in Athens, a game Arkansas won, 31-24. The big factor not just for this game, but also for Georgia's whole season, will be how the team adjusts to life without quarterback Aaron Murray

    Murray finished his career last year as the SEC's all-time leading passer with 13,166 yards, and there's no doubt the Bulldogs have a difficult task of replacing him.

    Though the game falls toward the end of Oct. and Georgia will have had some time to get acclimated to a Murray-less situation, him being gone should still have a profound impact on the result.

    However, what will also largely factor in is Arkansas' ability to slow down Georgia running back Todd Gurley. The Razorbacks' rush defense was respectable to begin 2013, but as the season progressed, rushers began to have their way against it. Arkansas ranked 78th nationally in YPG allowed on the ground at year's end, giving up 178.4. 

    Of course, home-field advantage will also come into play as a factor, but the Hogs have to stop Gurley. If they can do that and force the Bulldogs to make plays through the air, as well as get good quarterback play themselves, then the Hogs could emerge victorious. 

    That's easier said than done.

3. vs. LSU, Nov. 15

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    One of the best, not to mention most underrated, rivalries in the country is the Battle for the Golden Boot between the Hogs and LSU Tigers. As last year showed, you can throw records out the window when these two programs meet.

    Arkansas and LSU have a long history of close, hard-fought games. The Razorbacks took the Tigers down to the wire last year despite a horrible season. 

    The Hogs have to match LSU's physical, grinding style if they want to win the Boot for the first time since 2010. The Tigers are notorious for their physical run game and defense. Like Georgia, the Hogs will have to minimize LSU's success on the ground.

    At this point, Arkansas' offense isn't built to come back from an even moderate deficit. Controlling the ball and clock is going to be huge for the Hogs when the Tigers visit Fayetteville next Nov. 

    The Razorbacks have a similar approach in that they rely on the running game to open up the passing attack. How well Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams run the ball will be a telling sign on whether the Hogs will have a chance to win the game. 

    LSU won't have quarterback Zach Mettenberger or SEC leading rusher Jeremy Hill to help its cause, but you can fully expect for LSU and head coach Les Miles to have filled those voids entirely by the time Arkansas welcomes the Tigers to Razorback Stadium.

2. vs. Alabama, Sept. 25

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    Once the 2014 season starts, it will have been eight years since the Razorbacks have beaten the Alabama Crimson Tide. That's a long time by college football standards, but it seems like it's been ages.

    The last two meetings haven't even been remotely competitive, with Alabama outscoring the Hogs, 104-0. Ouch indeed. Even coming within two touchdowns would probably suffice with most fans after the pure, unadulterated beating the Crimson Tide have put on Arkansas the last two years.

    Just like Georgia and LSU, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has the monumental task of replacing quarterback AJ McCarron, who won two national championships as the starter. Also just like Georgia and LSU, a huge key for the Hogs will be containing Alabama's ground attack.

    Though McCarron is gone, the Crimson Tide are loaded at running back with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry and Little Rock native Altee Tenpenny. Arkansas was absolutely demolished by Alabama's run game in 2013, allowing a total of 352 yards and two 100-yard rushers with Yeldon also nearly breaking the century mark. 

    If the Razorbacks are going to have any chance of pulling off the upset, they must do better in the trenches and not allow Alabama's backs to get to the second level.

    However, perhaps the biggest factor for an Arkansas win, or just keeping it competitive, will be the Hogs' offense. They mustered a mere 393 yards in the last two meetings combined, with 256 in 2013 and 137 2012. Arkansas' passing game is far from where Bielema wants it to be, and there won't be one if the Hogs can't establish the run game. 

    Alabama's defense is in the top five nationally year in and year out, and it has stymied the Hogs on the ground. Their lack of success running the ball has allowed the Crimson Tide to completely shut down the passing attack. Factor that in with the Hogs' inability to slow down Alabama's rush attack, which has opened up receivers, and the score, 104-0, in the last two meetings is understandable. 

    As long as Saban is running things in Tuscaloosa, playing the Crimson Tide is going to be one of Arkansas' toughest games every year.

1. at Auburn, Aug. 30

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    To sum up just how tough the Hogs' schedule is next season, we give you Arkansas' first game of 2014. The Hogs open up next year with a road game at the Auburn Tigers, who had a magical season in head coach Gus Malzahn's first year leading the program. 

    Auburn made it to the BCS National Championship Game with their high-powered offense before ultimately falling to Florida State. You really don't have to follow the Hogs closely to know that beginning the season with a road game at Auburn is going to be a huge challenge. 

    Alabama, Georgia and LSU all have great rushing attacks, but the Tigers' is on another level. Auburn was No. 1 nationally among D-I schools in YPG on the ground with 328.3. 

    There's no doubt that the biggest factor for the Razorbacks will be limiting the damage done by the Tigers on the ground. Auburn lost Tre Mason, who opted to enter the 2014 NFL draft, but they still have Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and quarterback Nick Marshall, who had over 1,000 yards rushing.

    Stopping the Tigers' run game would force them to make plays through the air, something they aren't great at. Auburn finished 2013 ranked 106th in the country in passing YPG with 173.0. Marshall has gotten better at making plays with his arm, but he still isn't good enough to win a game passing the ball if the run game isn't moving the ball.

    Because it's on the road, the Hogs will also need to avoid allowing Auburn to get up by a couple of scores early. The longer Arkansas stays in the game, the better its chances are for taking the game down to the wire.

    The fact that it's the first game for both teams could also play a huge factor as the first few games are when teams are ironing out the wrinkles and upsets happen. It's an extremely difficult game to start the season with, but winning or even keeping it close could make for a much better season in Bielema's second year.

    With another loaded schedule, Arkansas has a lot of work to do this offseason to turn its fortunes around.


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    Bryan Heater the Featured Columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.