When you talk about the top programs in the SEC West, the Arkansas Razorbacks don't immediately jump to mind. Not in a division that Alabama has dominated, LSU regularly challenges and in recent years has produced standout teams ranging from Ole Miss to Mississippi State to Texas A&M. But Bret Bielama has quietly been making the Razorbacks competitive and he won eight games in 2015. If he does it again this year, it will make Arkansas backers in Las Vegas very happy.
Arkansas has an Over/Under of 7.5 for wins in 2016. While taking the Over does come at a price, it's a modest (-120) cost. Is it worth the modest risk?
Success is going to start with defense. This unit was young last year and Arkansas started 2-4, including embarrassing losses to Toledo and Texas Tech. The defense returns seven starters and is heavily laden with upperclassmen. While the Razorbacks only ranked 68th in the country defensively last season, they should make significant improvement this time around.
It's the offense that's where the question marks are. Bielama has built his Arkansas teams the same way he built his three straight Rose Bowl teams in Wisconsin (2010-12)--with a power running attack not often seen in this era of spread football. Arkansas ranked 27th nationally last year in scoring, but there's substantial rebuilding to do, starting with a new quarterback and three new starters on the offensive line.
Here's the good news - Bielama always excelled at quickly rebuilding his offensive lines in Wisconsin and there's no reason to think it will be any different in Arkansas. He's also recruited well - the Razorbacks have ranked in the Top 30 each of the last four years. The new starters on the roster are being drawn from a pool of quality talent.
If new quarterback Austin Allen can simply be a game-manager, Arkansas can look to win games with its defense and a stout running attack. In any other conference - or even in the SEC East - we'd quickly be optimistic they could get eight wins. But life in the SEC West has to make us a little cautious, so let's break down the schedule.
Wins: Louisiana Tech, Texas State, Alcorn State - upsets are possible, but if you don't have confidence in Arkansas to sweep these three home games, forget about an eight-win campaign.
Losses: Alabama, LSU - both of these games are at home and we don't rule out that the Razorbacks could pull an upset. But we wouldn't want the success of an Over wager coming down to it.
That puts us at 3-2, needing four wins in the seven key swing games that will define the year. They are…
Road: at TCU, at Texas A&M, at Auburn, at Miss State, at Missouri,
Home: Ole Miss, Florida
Arkansas will be an underdog at TCU on September 10, but we're never going to rule out a a respectable SEC team in any non-conference affair. A split of the other four games (lets say wins at dysfunctional programs in Texas A&M and Missouri) is very doable. Beating offensively-challenged Florida at home is a reasonable bet. And while Ole Miss is a highly regarded opponent with Heisman candidate Chad Kelly at quarterback, the Rebels have question marks of their own. Arkansas won at Ole Miss last season - there's no reason to think they couldn't do the same at home here.
That makes the eight-win season very realistic and a reasonable bet at (-120). Even having said that, if the story ended here, we'd say there are probably better wagers on the board. But the story doesn't end there - if Arkansas stumbles, but finishes at least 7-5, there's still an opportunity in a bowl game. Bielama has won bowls each of the last two years. The strength of the SEC works against you all season long, but the conference cleans up at bowl time. It's a nice insurance policy to have in your back pocket if you're an Over bettor.
The bottom line - Arkansas is a good bet to win eight games and go Over in 2016. It might not be a slam dunk or call for a max bet, but it's a solid percentage wager that belongs in the arsenal.
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