LITTLE ROCK — An open week deep in a season that is going nowhere is the springboard for a look ahead at Arkansas football.
Flat out, the Razorbacks will be better in 2014. The tricky part is trying to guess how much Arkansas will improve vs. others in the SEC. There is no way that the Razorbacks pull even with the best in the Western Division by simply meshing some redshirt freshmen and sophomores and another recruiting class with the eight or so solid underclassmen on the 2013 team.
The immediate goal is to catch up with Ole Miss and Mississippi State to the point that the athletes are comparable. After that, Arkansas must improve enough on defense to force Auburn to throw more than nine passes, and threaten Texas A&M without Johnny Manziel — he is eligible for the 2014 NFL draft — and Georgia without senior quarterback Aaron Murray.
Like it or not, a 3-2 record against those five would be cause for celebration.
Top-quality athletes are a given at Alabama and LSU. New to the Arkansas schedule in 2014, Missouri hasn’t missed a beat with freshman Maty Mauk instead of James Franklin at quarterback. In November 2013, beating those three teams in 2014 is off the table.
Flirting with the Eeyore label, it also should be noted that the non-conference schedule includes Texas Tech, which started 7-0 this year in Kliff Kingsbury’s first year, and Northern Illinois, which is threatening to make a BCS bowl game for the second straight year. The silver lining is that NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, who might be invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony, is a senior.
The Arkansas defense should be solid again up front with Darius Philon, Trey Flowers, and Deatrich Wise, but the 2013 season is proof enough that down linemen are only a starting point. Somebody has to make tackles beyond the line of scrimmage and, to that point, linebacker Brooks Ellis is a singular answer. Although Ellis has made mistakes, I prefer an eager-to-learn freshman with some skills over an upperclassmen who is over his head athletically.
Lack of speed in the secondary is woefully obvious. Freshman safety Korliss Marshall can run. Enough said.
In the offensive line, where the learning curve is the steepest, freshmen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland should be productive after a head-to-head with eight SEC opponents. It is also clear that running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and tight end Hunter Henry are of SEC quality. The quarterback position will be a story unto itself in the spring.
For Razorback fans who attend in-state games, the 2014 schedule offers an opportunity to compare Collins and Williams with many of the SEC’s best. Although there is doubt whether the two Razorbacks have the extra gear to leave defenders behind, their willingness to mix it up is unquestioned.
Prior to Saturday’s game, LSU’s Jeremy Hill was No. 2 in the SEC in rushing yards per game at 107.1, Georgia’s Todd Gurley was next, and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon was No. 5. All three teams travel to Arkansas. No. 1 on the list is South Carolina’s Mike Davis, who made 128 on 19 carries in Fayetteville. All four are sophomores.
At this point, Arkansas has 17 commitments for 2014 and the recruiting class is No. 36, according to ESPN. Georgia and A&M have the same number of commitments and their classes are ranked fifth and sixth. Florida, LSU, and Auburn have fewer commitments and their classes are in the top 14. The number of commitments can skew the rankings, but Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Kentucky of the SEC also have classes in the top 20.
Landing a couple of players with national reputations changes everything. The sales pitch is to play immediately and be on the ground floor of a reclamation project.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.