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Arkansas aims to pick up where it left off last season in a big way

Arkansas aims to pick up where it left off last season in a big way
While Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen (10) fields questions from reporters, senior centerMitch Smothers (65), all 322 pounds of him, sits patiently in the locker room with teammates. (Samantha Baker / Associated Press)

The Times' annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick today for No. 21.

There is a reasonable explanation as to why Arkansas would choose to put five offensive linemen on the cover of its 2015 media guide.

Six wouldn't fit.

Coach Bret Bielema, who probably hasn't tucked his shirt in since 1984, is inching closer to building a program in his full-figured image.

Putting five "Hogs" on the cover was a brilliant high-caloric statement to illustrate Bielema's belief that, in football, it's what's up front that counts.

The third-year coach thinks the way to turn a program upside-down is to build it from the inside-out. Shining a spotlight on the line — Denver Kirkland, Sebastian Tretola, Mitch Smothers, Frank Ragnow and Dan Skipper — should be all the motivation those players need through training camp.

For what it's worth, the 10 offensive linemen listed on the Razorbacks roster average 319.2 pounds.

People were skeptical Bielema could replicate Wisconsin's cheese wheel template in the heart of Southeastern Conference grazing grounds, but it has taken Bielema only three years to get there.

Arkansas ended last season as a "team you didn't want to play" and begins this season as a legitimate threat in the rugged SEC West.

Arkansas is like Utah in the Pac 12 Conference's South Division, a top-25 team that could finish first, or fifth, in its division.

A corner in Fayetteville was turned Nov. 15 when Arkansas beat Louisiana State, 17-0.

It ended the Razorbacks' losing streak in SEC play at 17 games and was quickly followed by a 30-0 victory over Mississippi.

"LSU is a special one in my heart just because it was our first SEC victory," Bielema said this summer.

After a 21-14 loss at Missouri, the Razorbacks closed with a 31-7 victory over Texas in the Texas Bowl.

You could convincingly argue that Arkansas, by far, was the best 7-6 team in the country.

It raised all sorts of forward-thinking hopes, dreams and Churchillian-sounding oratory.

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"Seven and six is by no means a landing point," Bielema said. "It's more of a launching point."

Arkansas is hellbent on fighting against a tide of modern, spread offenses. Bielema insists you can still win with game management, a plowhorse run game and good defense.

Arkansas ran 60% of the time last year, averaging 218 yards rushing per game. Behind a mammoth offensive line returns starting quarterback Brandon Allen and two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

The Arkansas defense gave up only 28 points in its last four games but lost a core of major players in Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight and Alan Turner.

The fine line between winning and losing will continue to be Razorback thin. Arkansas still hasn't won an SEC road game since 2012 and this year faces huge tests at Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana State.

Arkansas needs a few receivers to emerge to take some pressure off the running game.

There is no disputing, though, that Bielema has been established as the fleshy face of Arkansas football.

Opponents are going to feel Arkansas days after the game has been played. The Razorbacks are going to run the ball on first and 10 and also third and one.

"I believe in a foundation," Bielema said.

Also, in ice cream sundaes, lard and fried chicken.

Napoleon knew the importance of well-fed troops: "An army marches on its stomach," he said.

The top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri.

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