After falling painstakingly short in a 42-35 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship game, the Hokies are back in action this week for an intriguing Belk Bowl matchup with Arkansas. Led by former Wisconsin head coach and staunch full-back advocate Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks' potent offensive attack promises to test Bud Foster's defense from the opening kickoff.
With Thursday evening representing the first ever matchup between the Hokies and Hogs, I spoke to Jimmy Carter, reporter at WholeHogSports, to get some first-hand insight on the recent happenings in Fayetteville.
JC: It's been another up-and-down year for the Razorbacks, a late November loss to Missouri capping Bielema's third sub-.500 conference record in four years in the SEC. What's the general feeling towards Bielema among Arkansas supporters? Is there confidence he can turn them into a contender in the SEC West?
WHS: A lot of Razorback fans took the early season win at a ranked TCU team as a sign that Bielema's program had turned the corner, especially given the strong close to the 2015 season, when the Hogs won six of their final seven games. Obviously TCU turned out to not be that good and Arkansas alternated wins and losses in its final nine games this year. The inconsistency was made worse by the way they lost: blowout defeats to Alabama, Auburn and LSU in which the Razorbacks were completely outclassed and a disheartening loss at Missouri, the worst team in the SEC, to cap the regular season. Arkansas fans understand the rigors of playing in the SEC West, but seem to be growing weary of the middle-of-the-pack finishes, especially after Bobby Petrino's highly successful on-field tenure. The seat isn't necessarily hot yet, but it's heating up. Arkansas has been able to close strong the last two years with bowl wins, but a loss Thursday could make for a long offseason full of questions, especially given the team will graduate a number of key playmakers in a talented senior class.
JC: Led by junior signal-caller Austin Allen, there's no shortage of talent on this Arkansas offense. The Razorbacks put up 30 points against the vaunted Alabama defense, second only to the 43 put up by Chad Kelly and Ole Miss. What makes this offense tick? Who are the most dangerous weapons Hokies fans need to know about?
WHS: Austin Allen makes the offense go. He's surpassed all expectations as a first-year starter. He's got a great ability to fit balls into tight windows and is a little underrated athletically. Maybe the most important part of his season is the way he's continued to hang in the pocket while taking a beating behind a young, often bad offensive line that has allowed 29 sacks. Rawleigh Williams isn't a flashy back, but has good vision and leads the SEC in rushing. True freshman Devwah Whaley probably has more raw talent and has allowed the offense to have a solid 1-2 punch. Jeremy Sprinkle is 6-6 and one of the best pass-catching TE's in the nation. He'll play in the NFL. WR Drew Morgan is a gritty playmaker who will make tough catches and is Allen's most reliable target. Keon Hatcher is a physical senior WR, while Jared Cornelius has big-play ability as a receiver and punt returner. If this offense had a typical Bielema offensive line, it would have put up huge numbers. As is, it has still been pretty good for the most part.
JC: While Arkansas has enjoyed some success offensively, the Razorbacks have been gashed defensively against the better half of their schedule. Where are the shortcomings on Rob Smith's defense, and how have you seen him try to overcome them?
WHS: The defense was supposed to be very good entering the year with nine returning starters, but has been mostly awful this year. The unit ranked No. 12 in the nation in run defense a year ago but is allowing 6.16 yards per rush this year, which is the worst mark in school history and last in the nation. The defensive line was supposed to be a strength, but has really been underwhelming even given the emergence of true freshman McTelvin 'Sosa' Agim. There are only two starting-level linebackers on the roster. One, sophomore Dre Greenlaw, missed the final six games of the regular season and may be rusty when he returns for the bowl game. Arkansas has struggled mightily against dual-threat quarterbacks this year, which makes it seem likely that Jerod Evans will have a big game. After the regular season ended, the staff decided to implement a 3-4 look, a scheme it's seen Alabama and LSU have success with. Bielema has said the Hogs will debut it in the bowl game. It may be a good move down the road, but it's hard to imagine the same personnel who have struggled so much all year will suddenly be markedly better with a few tweaks.
JC: What's the level of excitement around the Arkansas program for this Belk Bowl matchup? On the field, it certainly promises to be an intriguing game, but it's often hard for players -- and sometimes fans -- to get up for a middle-tier bowl game that ultimately carries little importance across the college football landscape.
WHS: Arkansas fans typically travel well to bowl games, but Charlotte is a long way from Fayetteville and the loss to Missouri didn't exactly leave fans feeling enthused about the team following the regular season. But I think the team is excited about the matchup. A lot of the players watched the Hokies nearly upset Clemson and view the game as a chance to earn a measure of redemption after laying an egg at Missouri. This team has a big senior class that's been through a lot of ups-and-downs the last few years and has talked at length about how they want to end their careers on a high note.
JC: What are your keys for this one? What must Arkansas do to pull off a mini-upset in Charlotte?
WHS: Arkansas is 7-1 when Rawleigh Williams runs for 96 or more yards this year and 0-4 when he fails to hit that mark. A lot of that has to do with the offensive line dealing with inconsistency and struggling against some of the elite defensive fronts they faced in the SEC. If Arkansas can establish the run, its offense becomes very difficult to stop. They'll need that to happen, because the defense may not get a ton of stops. If Greenlaw can be his usual playmaking self in his first game back — asking a lot — that'll be a huge boost. The run defense seems like a lost cause this year, but the Hogs' secondary has to be better than it was the last two games of the regular season when it allowed 298 passing yards per game to Mississippi State and Missouri. Arkansas' corners had been solid most of the year, but really struggled to close the season. The Hogs will have to do better against the pass.
JC: It's prediction time: who wins Thursday night, and why?
WHS: Virginia Tech wins 38-31. Both teams will score a lot of points, but the inexperience of Arkansas' offensive line can still rear its head at inopportune times, while Jerod Evans could have a huge game.