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5 thoughts about Arkansas, Missouri’s 12th opponent

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Arkansas might start slowly, then pick up steam.

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s impossible to know the story lines that either Mizzou or its given opponent will be facing three months from now. For that matter, it’s impossible really preview a matchup with any sort of confidence since we don’t know about injuries, young-player development, etc. But here we are! We finish this 11-part preview of the schedule with a look at Bret Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks, who ... well ... might actually be facing the same story lines that they have in each of the past two seasons.

Here’s my 2016 SBN Arkansas preview, and here are some Mizzou-relevant slices.

1. Slow starts, killer finishes

The Razorbacks began 2014 with a 3-4 record before hitting fifth gear, then began 2015 2-4 before doing the same. They have been one of the best November teams in the country but have sabotaged their goals with shaky Septembers. 2015 saw them solve one problem just in time to watch another emerge.

So for the second straight year, the Razorbacks had to settle for knowing they were very good, without the record to prove it. [...]

It might be nice to know you are taking on the best, but winning more than eight games is nice, too. In two years, the Hogs have played 12 games against teams that finished with at least nine wins. That they've won five is proof of their caliber. But that means they've still lost seven others.

So does this cycle ever end? In the most competitive environment, can Bielema ever break through with the type of win totals he managed at Wisconsin (12 wins in 2006, 11 in 2010 and 2011)? And if so, might it happen in 2016?

In a way, the answer depends on assumptions. In terms of experience, perhaps the biggest questions the Razorbacks have to answer this year are at running back and on the offensive line.

Arkansas was one of the best teams in the country at the end of both the 2014 (despite the loss to Mizzou) and 2015 seasons. But the Hogs started 3-4 in 2014 and 2-4 in 2015 before hitting that stride. With early tossups against TCU and Texas A&M and a new offensive backfield to break in (one that might feature Rock Bridge grad Hayden Johnson at fullback, by the way), it might be the same story.

That said, we probably shouldn’t overstate the shakiness. Arkansas is pretty decent at the beginning of the year, too.

Now, these starts are only so shaky. Arkansas outgained Toledo by nearly 200 yards in one of the flukier losses of the season, and while the performances against Texas Tech and Texas A&M left something to be desired, the fourth loss in the 2-4 start was by 13 points in Tuscaloosa (minimal shame in that). And it followed a win in Knoxville.

2. An either/or backfield

It appears three backs could be in line to split carries this fall: sophomore Rawleigh Williams III, sixth-year senior (and former fullback) Kody Walker, and four-star freshman Devwah Whaley.

Walker was a best-of-all-worlds back with good size and speed. Williams proved reasonably explosive in the open field but was dreadfully inefficient as a freshman. Walker was nearly as efficient as Collins but showed no top-end speed. Whaley might have both but is just a few months removed from prom.

Perhaps Williams will prove well-rounded with more experience, or perhaps Whaley really is ready from day one. (It should be mentioned that Walker has dropped about 15 pounds since last year, which could give him an extra boost in the speed department.) But this could turn into a situation where Enos must make pretty clear, situational choices -- Walker in short yardage, for instance. That can make the offense a bit more predictable.

Alex Collins was a best-of-all-worlds back, above average (at worst) in terms of both efficiency and explosiveness. The top three backs heading into this year are either efficient (Walker), explosive (Williams), or a true freshman (Whaley). Whaley has come along very quickly, and by the end of the season he might be ready for a feature role. It will be interesting to see how quickly Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos bring him along.

Arkansas v Mississippi State Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

3. Fear the deep ball

The offense was good [in 2014], but as adaptable and solid as coordinator Jim Chaney can be, when he left for Pittsburgh, he left successor Dan Enos with a clear way to improve things.

To his everlasting credit, Enos did just that. Arkansas completed 24 passes of 30-plus yards in 2015 (27th in the country), up from 10 (114th) the year before. In 2014, the top six wideouts combined to average 12.8 yards per catch; in 2015, that improved to 15.3. [...]

I shouldn't understate the importance of the quarterback change, but I think the passing game should be fine if the run game is doing its part.

Veteran Austin Allen (Brandon's brother) has been around for a while and has by most accounts had an excellent offseason. And he basically has two No. 1 receivers returning: Keon Hatcher was Brandon's security blanket before suffering a foot injury last year, and Drew Morgan exploded in Hatcher's absence. They're both back, and the next two wideouts on the list (Dominique Reed and Jared Cornelius) combined for 928 receiving yards at a whopping 11.2 yards per target in 2015.

Arkansas moved the ball on Missouri without too many deep shots, but if they’re there for the taking, the Hogs will take them.

4. Stopping the run was a problem

The run front was a strength of the 2014 unit; Arkansas ranked fifth in Adj. Line Yards, 34th in power success rate, and ninth in stuff rate. In 2015, those rankings fell to 23rd, 123rd, and 46th, respectively. The Razorbacks were still reasonably invasive but were pushovers in short-yardage situations. Meanwhile, they basically had a one-man pass rush -- if Deatrich Wise Jr. wasn't getting to the quarterback, no one was.

In theory, there won't be any more short-yardage oomph in 2016. Perhaps enormous tackle Bijhon Jackson is ready to play a larger role, but the top two returning tackles, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Taiwan Johnson average just 282 pounds. They are quick and active but don't pack a lot of mass. But short yardage only matters if your opponents are creating third-and-2s instead of third-and-6s. The front seven is full of veterans and could indeed be supplemented by youngsters like Jackson and blue-chip end McTelvin Agim.

Granted, Missouri was in no shape to take advantage of a bad run defense last year (Ish Witter, Tyler Hunt, and Russell Hansbrough combined for 71 yards on 18 carries, 3.9 per carry), but it really wasn’t very good. Consider this yet another 2016 game in which Mizzou’s improvement on the ground directly dictates the Tigers’ chances for an upset.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

5. A young secondary is older

Eleven Arkansas defensive backs averaged at least half a tackle per game; seven were either freshmen or sophomores. Unless you're loaded with blue-chippers, that's going to hurt you. The cornerback position, fronted by Henré Toliver, Jared Collins, and DJ Dean (combined: 6 TFLs, four INTs, 20 break-ups), showed quite a bit of potential. But while the SEC is loaded with exciting safeties, Arkansas' were lacking in both play-making and play-prevention.

As with the defensive front, the Arkansas secondary lacks in size compared to its peers, but you can get away with that if you can take full advantage of your speed. The Razorbacks did not. And they really might have the weakest set of safeties in the conference.

Again, Missouri was in no condition to take advantage of the weaknesses Arkansas offered last year. We’ll see if that changes. I’m not really worried about the Hogs’ cornerbacks this time around, but safety could be a concern.

Almost all of Missouri’s schedule can be broken into basically two categories, per S&P+: Probable wins (Delaware State, EMU, MTSU, Kentucky, Vandy, all of whom Mizzou has at least a 65% chance of beating) and probable losses (WVU, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, all of whom Mizzou has at least a 65% chance of losing to), with only one tossup in between (South Carolina).

Your two paths to a bowl, then, are to sweep the likely wins and beat South Carolina ... or pull an upset or two along the way. WVU, Georgia, and Arkansas are the three most likely within reach, I think, though because of timing along I might put Arkansas as the least likely of the three.

S&P+ projection: Arkansas by 6.6 (Mizzou win probability: 35%)