Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Simply put, the 2012 season was nothing short of disastrous for Arkansas. After going 11-2 in 2011, the squad had high hopes for an SEC Championship run in 2012, but following the unexpected firing of Bobby Petrino last offseason, it was left in a state of flux and responded by going just 4-8 (2-6 in SEC).
After winning its season-opener over Jacksonville State (49-24), the Razorbacks slipped up in four straight games, with a pair of embarrassing losses in that stretch to SEC West heavyweights Alabama (52-0) and Texas A&M (58-10). They earned back-to-back wins in early October over conference bottom-dwellers Auburn (24-7) and Kentucky (49-7), but ended the season by losing four of their last five bouts. They did not qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2008.
With John L. Smith's lone season at the helm being a disappointing one, the school decided to move in a different direction with Brett Bielema, who was 68-24 in seven seasons with Wisconsin with three straight Rose Bowl appearances from 2010-12.
OFFENSE: A season ago, Arkansas had very little problem moving the ball down the field, racking up 420.2 ypg, but due to penalties, turnovers and efficiency issues, it only averaged 23.5 ppg.
One of the biggest challenges the Razorbacks face this season is how they're going to replace the production of Tyler Wilson, who threw for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago. Brandon Allen is slated to be the starter, although he failed to impress in limited opportunities last season (.429 completion percentage, 186 yards, one TD, three interceptions).
Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis combined for over 1,000 rushing yards in 2012, but neither returns, leaving the inexperienced Jonathan Williams, Nate Holmes and Kody Walker battling for carries.
The team will also be without its top wideout from a season ago in Cobi Hamilton (90 rec, 1,335 yards, five TDs). Javontee Herndon (304 yards, three TDs) is the top returning threat at receiver.
With nearly a complete overhaul on the offensive side of the ball, Bielema can start over and implement his style of offense without much outside influence. Bielema, a disciple from the much more traditional Big Ten, isn't interested in conforming the spread formation craze but will instead employ an old-school smash-mouth style of football.
"We want to play a little bit of normal American football," Bielema said. "We want to line up with a tight end and a couple of wideouts, a tailback and a fullback, see what we can do."
DEFENSE: While the offense didn't do the team a ton of favors last season, the defense was just as big a problem, allowing opponents to put up more than 30 points per game while forcing a meager 12 turnovers.
Arkansas' biggest strength defensively in 2012 was its ability to get to the quarterback, and with talented linemen Chris Smith (13 TFL, 9.5 sacks) and Trey Flowers (13 TFL, six sacks) returning, the sacks should continue to pile up. Defensive tackles Byran Jones (52 tackles) and Robert Thomas (five TFL) are also back, bringing plenty of continuity to the front four.
Defensive backs Tevin Mitchel and Eric Bennett retain their starting spots and the hope is that they can help a pass defense that ranked last in the SEC a season ago.
Braylon Mitchell, Jarrett Lake and Daunte Carr are all first-year starters at linebacker.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Zach Hocker will once again be the primary placekicker, but his junior season was a lackluster one, making good on only 11-of-18 field goal attempts. Hocker is also listed as the team's top punter on the preseason depth chart.
Nate Holmes will act as the primary return man. He ran back 11 punts last season for 70 yards.
OUTLOOK: Arkansas built its program to be one of the best in the SEC under Petrino only to see it all come crashing down last season, and after a patchwork job in 2012, the team appears resigned to start from scratch in 2013.
The SEC is certainly no cake walk, and the Razorbacks will have a treacherous road to navigate from late September through early October when it plays Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in consecutive weeks. With all the player turnover and the installation of a new coaching philosophy, an ugly year is expected in Fayetteville, but Bielema claims that he enjoys the lack of hype.
"The lower (the expectations) the better," Bielema said. "I think our kids are carrying a tremendous chip on their shoulder. The same group that's going to vote us a certain place (in the polls) is the same group that a year ago had us in the top five."
Optimism is one thing, but realism is another, and with nearly half its schedule coming against elite programs, it will be considered a success if the Razorbacks finish anywhere near .500 in Bielema's first year.