Before I begin with the Arkansas game preview, let's quickly run through my projections so far.
Now, on to the...
2012 season: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
Coach: Bret Bielema, first season (0-0)
Last result vs. Florida: Florida 23, Arkansas 20 (2009).
Series record vs. Florida: Florida 8, Arkansas 1
Game date: Saturday, October 5, 2013
Game location: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, FL
Who Are You?
Perhaps, on the morning of this game, every Gators fan, player, and coach should have a warning on their phone, the type of sound you usually hear for a fire or warning of an impending air strike: A siren. This is biggest trap game of the season for Florida, to my mind, although you could argue the home game against Vandy is if you wanted. Arkansas is a team with plenty of raw talent, and a first-year head coach who had incredible success in the Big Ten, and you never know how that's going to translate over to the SEC. If nothing else above made sense to you, this one word should sum it all up: Beware. The Hogs did go just 4-8 last year, and they did lose lots of talent from that 4-8 team, but this game just smells like trouble if the Gators aren't absolutely ready to play.
The 2012 Razorbacks didn't have a whole lot of firepower left from the squad that made a Sugar Bowl and won a Cotton Bowl in 2010 and 2011. Now, they have zero of that firepower remaining, because what was left of it (QB Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and receiver Cobi Hamilton highlight the eight departed starters) is gone, leaving Arkansas with just three starters on offense returning from a year ago.
Ironically, offense will still be this team's strong suit, because Bobby Petrino (and John L. Smith, I guess) left Bret Bielema a decent QB to work with in Brandon Allen, as well as several explosive wide receivers, including Julian Horton, MeKale McCay, and Jevante Herndon. With their leading returning rusher (Jonathan Williams) barely eclipsing 200 yards last year, this figures to be a pass-first offense, essentially what Arkansas has been for several years now. However, the arrival of highly-touted running back Alex Collins could complicate things.
One area of major concern: The offensive line must replace three starters. Their ability to do that effectively is essential if this promising young offense wants a quick boost off the mat.
Arkansas's Offensive Strategy
It's simple: Throw the ball. Petrino may not have stopped to think about the potential dangers of a motorcycle ride with his mistress (and, also, having a mistress), but he did always make a note to keep the cupboard loaded at receiver. Bielema is going to live off of that, though he may curse Petrino out now and then because he left the offensive line in shambles. But he's going to try to hide that glaring weakness about as much as one possibly could, with lots of quick, sure passes to get Allen some confidence early, and to let his receiving playmakers try to work some magic against Florida's defense. That's not to say the Razorbacks won't give Collins a try against this Florida defense, but when Arkansas faces a key play, they're likely going for it through the air.
Florida's Defensive Strategy
Allen may be promising, but unless he breaks out in the first month of the season, he's still just a young greenhorn without any accomplishments to merit confidence. Translation: The Gators' front seven is going to make his life a living hell.
Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell will come at him from all angles and take away the dump-off screen, essentially daring him to beat them under pressure. And if he can, then so be it: Will Muschamp will make adjustments and try something else. But I'm betting he can't, and so will Muschamp. He'll take his chances with one-on-one coverage with the Razorbacks' explosive receivers if it means flustering the guy responsible for getting them the ball.
Arkansas Offensive Grade: B
On the surface, this defense doesn't appear to be so horrible, because any defense that returns eight starters in the SEC has to be good, right? Well, not when that defense surrendered 30 points or more in seven of its 12 games. The defensive line won't be bad, with Trey Flowers and Chris Smith returning, but when your leading tackler is a defensive back, that's a bad sign. That leading tackler, safety Rohan Gaines, is back, along with talented corner Will Hines, but they just haven't done anything yet to prove themselves to be a respectable unit. The Hogs' defense needs to make big plays against the Gators, or they're in trouble
Arkansas's Defensive Strategy
Most of the 410 yards per game Arkansas surrendered last year was through the air, so you'd figure they would start there. But the Gators are a physical team, and like to run the ball, so they'd better be able to stop that first. Look for Arkansas to load the box, and try to challenge Florida's offensive line and stuff Matt Jones.
In order to not get burned, Arkansas will probably disguise their coverage schemes as much as they can: Maybe a little zone blitz, possibly even corner or safety blitzes to really try to rattle Jeff Driskel. Bielema and defensive coordinator Chris Ash will figure the more off balance Driskel and Brent Pease are, the better chance he has to win ... and they won't be wrong.
Florida's Offensive Strategy
None of this is a huge concern for Florida. Arkansas employed a horrendous defense last year, and Florida dressed up a very physical offense. The units don't change over a year like that. Until Arkansas proves otherwise, Pease has every reason to be confident in his group's ability to do what Muschamp wants to do, and will try to bully the other team around in the trenches.
You're probably used to reading this by now: Expect a run-heavy game plan, with a deep shot here or there to try to steal seven points from the Hogs. Matt Jones will be used to the drill by now, but this may be the game where Kelvin Taylor or Mack Brown really breaks out. If Jones has the type of success Muschamp and Pease are counting on him to have, there's no need to stop running; when he needs a rest, Florida can sub in Taylor and/or Brown and give them a shot to show what they can do against a team from the SEC.
Arkansas Defensive Grade: C-
Arkansas Overall Grade: C+
The turnover battle. The formula for upsets of this magnitude is turnovers. There's no way Arkansas should be able to hang with the mighty Gators based on pure talent and coaching, but turnovers can be any team's Achilles heel. The last time Arkansas came to The Swamp, they forced four, and the Gators had to survive that game, their closest win of the 2009 season. Do they really want to try their luck again, especially without Tim Tebow on the sideline to bail them out in crunch time?
If all the warnings get through to the players, then this is all for naught, we all have a good laugh about how much of a trap game this was supposed to be, and Florida moves on to LSU with a goose egg in the loss column. But that is a HUGE if. If Florida gets caught looking ahead to what could very well be a top five battle with LSU, they're in trouble.
Now that I've got that final warning out of the way, I'll sit back and say that I doubt Muschamp will take this game lightly. However, I do expect Bielema to get this team back on track and eventually contend for the SEC West. In 2014. Which is not this year. Barring naptime in The Swamp and a series of freebies like the Gators gave Arkansas in 2009, Florida will take care of business for its ninth straight win over the Hogs.
Florida 38, Arkansas 24.