After a 3-9 season and a nine-game losing streak to close the season, the honeymoon is over in Fayetteville. Head coach Bret Bielema's second season as the head coach of Arkansas means that it's time for the Hogs to get back to a competitive level in the SEC West.
There's a problem, though: That's a steep hill that's only getting steeper in 2014.
Arkansas has two things working against it this season: a brutal schedule and the lower-tier SEC West teams getting significantly better.
Let's start with the schedule.
The Hogs open the season on the road against defending SEC champ Auburn in one of the biggest games of opening weekend. That won't be easy for the Hogs, especially since Auburn's offense looks like it has added the extra dimension of an intermediate passing game based on quarterback Nick Marshall's spring game performance.
Arkansas' cross-division rivalry shifts from South Carolina to Missouri in 2014. That may have seemed like a blessing this time last year, but all the Tigers have done since then is win the SEC East and come within a quarter of winning the SEC title. That game is at Missouri at the end of the season, when depth—something Arkansas lacks—is usually of utmost importance.
|Arkansas 2014 Football Schedule|
|Aug. 30||at Auburn||Auburn, Ala.|
|Sept. 6||Nicholls State||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Sept. 13||at Texas Tech||Lubbock, Texas|
|Sept. 20||Northern Illinois||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Sept. 27||at Texas A&M||Arlington, Texas|
|Oct. 11||Alabama||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Oct. 18||Georgia||Little Rock, Ark.|
|Oct. 25||UAB||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Nov. 1||at Mississippi State||Starkville, Miss.|
|Nov. 15||LSU||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Nov. 22||Ole Miss||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Nov. 29||at Missouri||Columbia, Mo.|
It's rotating cross-division rivalry games is in Little Rock against Georgia. While the jury is still out on the Bulldogs, particularly because of their defense, they have all of the pieces and the schedule to make a run at a national title.
Even if they don't, Arkansas gets them fresh off a visit from Alabama. Over the last three seasons, SEC opponents are 7-11 the week following playing Alabama, with only three of those wins being against SEC competition. Teams are worn out after playing the Crimson Tide, which makes them ripe for the picking the following week.
What's more is that the lower-tier teams in the SEC West—Mississippi State and Ole Miss—are loaded with returning talent with 16 and 15 returning starters, according to Phil Steele, respectively.
Sure, Arkansas will benefit from a healthy quarterback in Brandon Allen, another year of experience from running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and a defense that should be more consistent with new coordinator Robb Smith and senior defensive end Trey Flowers.
But the lower-tier SEC West teams should take leaps forward, which means that unless Arkansas catches lightning in a bottle with a few key players, the gap it's facing at the bottom of the division is actually widening.
Toss in a tough road game against Texas Tech in Week 3, and Arkansas' schedule is simply brutal. That will spell doom for the Hogs, even if they do improve and become more consistent in 2014.
Another 3-9 or 4-8 season is likely for these Razorbacks based on the current landscape of the division. That won't put Bielema's job in jeopardy by any means, but it will make 2015 quite interesting in Northwest Arkansas.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report.
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