How Arkansas will disrupt the SEC title race

The fact that Arkansas was recently projected to finish behind only Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West illustrates two things: The Razorbacks are making progress, and their progress is being recognized and respected.

But are they good enough to finish ahead of those three teams in 2015, the standard-bearers in college football's most vaunted division? It's unlikely. Despite all the goodwill at the moment, the Hogs were still a .500 team in the regular season in 2014. A leap to 10-plus wins and the conference title game would be a stretch.

However, Arkansas could directly determine the SEC West champ, which means it will likely shape the conference and national championship races. And that is definite headway for a program that lost its final nine games in 2013, Bret Bielema's first season.

"They're coming," one Power 5 head coach told me over the weekend. "That first year, I wasn't sure whether [Bielema] could survive in the SEC. He was a fish out of water. Give him credit. He stuck to his plan. He believed in his system, and he's adapted [with the new hires of assistant coaches]. He has a lot of confidence, and you can see that spreading with his players and their fans."

Arkansas leads a discussion of Power 5 conference spoilers for 2015. For now, these teams are mere role players in the bigger championship picture -- not equipped to seriously challenge, yet dangerous enough to upset the established contenders -- but they're trending toward legitimate conference contention in the near future.

By adopting an offensive scheme that can be described as "old-school" or "classic," Arkansas has become college football counter culture, even in the SEC West. Heck, even Alabama has incorporated some tempo. That absolutely isn't going to happen at Arkansas.

"I think the kid, [Brandon] Allen, is a better quarterback than people give him credit for," the Power 5 coach said. "But if someone [on the offensive staff] wants to throw more, [Bielema] is going to veto it. He's committed to the run."

Think about it: If the Razorbacks didn't abandon ground-and-pound after going 3-9 in 2013, they weren't going to abandon it. Then it started to pay dividends in Bielema's second season.

"When I watch them, I'm impressed with how patient they are," said a coach who faced the Hogs last year. "They play their style, stick to it and wait until you start to wear down. They're a really disciplined team."

The coaches acknowledged, too, that the Arkansas defense was dramatically improved in coordinator Robb Smith's first season, and it improved over the course of the season, too.

The front seven set the tone early in the season, and one coach said the secondary evolved greatly toward the end of the season. He noted that the Hogs were running almost exclusively zone looks in September; by November, they were playing far more man coverage, challenging receivers at the line.

The results indicated a defense playing with confidence; Arkansas shut out LSU and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks.

"Any time you have two straight shutouts in the conference, especially in that division, you're doing something right," the coach said.

The Hogs also took Alabama to the wire in the game most Arkansas fans would most like to have back from 2014. They lost 14-13, but they outgained the Tide by 100-plus yards and they held a fourth-quarter lead.

An Arkansas win on Oct. 10 in Tuscaloosa would define the SEC West race.

Here is a potential spoiler in each of the other four Power 5 leagues, and key dates to watch.

ACC: NC State Wolfpack

Spoiler date: at Florida State, Nov. 14

The Wolfpack have played spoiler for FSU on a semi-regular basis, including the 2012 season. Going back to 2001, NC State has won six of the 14 meetings and eight of the games have been decided by 10 or fewer points.

The Pack have proven to be a pesky nemesis for the Seminoles, to be sure. This year's game is in Tallahassee, so that's something of a deterrent since State hasn't won at FSU since 2005. But the Wolfpack are under the radar in the ACC, considering it returns as many starters (14) as any contender in the Atlantic Division and that includes potential all-conference QB Jacoby Brissett. "They're dangerous," an ACC assistant said, "and no one talks about them." With Brissett finding his footing following his transfer from Florida, NC State won three of its final four games, including a 35-7 evisceration of rival North Carolina and a bowl win against UCF. There's momentum. FSU should beware.

Big 12: Texas Tech Red Raiders

Spoiler date: vs. Baylor, Oct. 3

The Red Raiders have flat-out stunk at creating turnovers, gaining only 34 combined the past two seasons. Solution: New coordinator David Gibbs is a takeaways master; his Houston defenses created 73 the past two seasons. Additionally, coach Kliff Kingsbury sees Gibbs -- who has spent time in the NFL and the SEC -- as a unifying, veteran voice in the meeting room.

On offense, Texas Tech cannot really miss whichever quarterback wins the job -- Davis Webb or Patrick Mahomes. Both have proven capable, and they're driving one another in practice. Heck, Texas would give most anything to have one of them.

Remember, the Raiders took Baylor to the wire last November despite having nothing to play for beyond pride. There will still be plenty to play for the first weekend in October.

Big Ten: Wisconsin Badgers

Spoiler date: vs. Ohio State, Dec. 5

Picture this: Come December, Wisconsin and Ohio State are again playing in the Big Ten title game. Motivated by last season's embarrassment, the Badgers catch the Buckeyes coming off an emotional win against Michigan and upset the Bucks, thwarting their chances to repeat in the playoff.

The conventional wisdom shifts to the Big 12 for not having a title game, even though it hurt that league in 2014. There are on-field reasons to believe this could actually happen. A defense that was young in '14, especially up front, is a year older and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda stuck around through the coaching change. And if you're a program looking to mitigate the transition phase of a new head coach, bringing back Paul Chryst, the popular and likeable offensive coordinator from the not-too-distant past reign of success, is a smart hire.

Wisconsinites were seemingly slow to buy in to Gary Andersen, but they believe in and trust Chryst from his stint as Bielema's offensive coordinator.

Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

Spoiler date: vs. USC, Sept. 26

Most pundits will lean on either USC or UCLA to win the contentious South Division, and likely the conference, but don't overlook Arizona State.

The Devils bring back 16 starters -- and that doesn't include fifth-year senior QB Mike Bercovici. He played well in a pinch-hit role last fall when starter Taylor Kelly went down, to the point that some close to the program believe he should have kept the job. Coach Todd Graham was loyal to Kelly, but it's Bercovici's turn.

At 6-foot-1 and around 200 pounds, he isn't physically intimidating, but his arm strength is deceptively powerful and he's accurate. USC's Cody Kessler will get more love, but Bercovici might wind up being the best QB in the league this fall.

Even though it's early in the year, that head-to-head battle could well shape both the Pac-12 South and Heisman races. And the last time USC visited Tempe, the Devils put up 60 points and prompting the firing of Lane Kiffin immediately after the game.