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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Arkansas Is Still Dangerous to Most of SEC

They won’t show it, but the rest of the SEC can’t help but be relieved by the prospect of Arkansas failing to reach its lofty expectations in 2012. Ten days ago, the Razorbacks were considered a national title favorite for a reason: the offense was the league’s best, the defense in line for a nice improvement under new coordinator Paul Haynes and, in Bobby Petrino, the program had one of only a handful of coaches in college football capable of striking absolute fear into the competition — outside of Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, at least. The Razorbacks’ talent level hasn’t changed, but it’s hard to imagine this team making a B.C.S. run without the program’s prime architect in tow.

What direction Arkansas goes in from here doesn’t matter. There are several teams that will benefit from its projected slide, whether the program opts to name Taver Johnson as the head coach through this coming season or if it reaches out and hires a Garrick McGee, a coach who could theoretically keep the Razorbacks pointed on a Petrino-like course.

But the slide’s coming, though we’re not talking from potentially going 12-0 to battling for a bowl berth. Think more like eight or nine wins, especially with a smooth two-game start to the year — Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe — and a stretch of four very winnable games over five weeks from October to November. But the idea that this team can threaten Alabama and L.S.U. for SEC West supremacy takes a major hit.

Arkansas hosts the Tide and Tigers in September and November, respectively. It’s easy to see why each team is breathing a little easier: A slightly less intimidating Arkansas team means one less roadblock on the path towards a return to the B.C.S. title game. The Nov. 24 date with L.S.U. — once with a national title on the line, perhaps — no longer carries the same national ramifications.

The impact can be felt along Arkansas’ entire schedule. South Carolina’s potential for an at-large B.C.S. bid increases. After having the Razorbacks on the ropes last fall, Texas A&M must feel that its own coaching overhaul, along with Arkansas’ change, will be enough to push it over the top.

Auburn, Mississippi State, even Rutgers: each might have penciled themselves in for a loss prior to last week, but now, there’s reason for each to believe they have a shot against the Razorbacks. Especially the Tigers and Bulldogs, who get Arkansas at home. I take back what I said about Rutgers — the Scarlet Knights aren’t beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.

Before these teams get ahead of themselves, however, there’s still one pesky fact to reconsider: Arkansas is still good. The team itself remains loaded; Tyler Wilson wasn’t suspended, Knile Davis is still scheduled to be back at full strength come the fall, Alonzo Highsmith is still at linebacker and in all, 14 starters are back off last year’s 11-win team.

What Arkansas’ rivals need to keep in mind is that this teams remains extremely dangerous. I’m skeptical that this could occur, but let’s say that the school hires McGee; he keeps the status quo on offense; Wilson delivers a superb senior season; and Haynes has a hugely beneficial impact on the defense. In addition, the Razorbacks use the doubt and negativity to their advantage, as motivation.

If these pieces fall into place, couldn’t the Razorbacks make another run towards a B.C.S. bowl? Here’s why Alabama and L.S.U. are the big winners: Arkansas already needed to hit on all cylinders to beat the two title frontrunners. Even if they regains most of their prior form, it’s hard to see the Razorbacks having enough in the tank to beat Alabama, beat L.S.U. and make a run towards 12-0.

Teams like South Carolina, Texas A&M, Auburn and the like can’t afford to take Arkansas lightly. Why? Because even when running at less than full capacity, the Razorbacks still have more than enough in the tank to run with every team in the SEC — minus the Tide and Tigers. Sadly, up until the minutes before Petrino’s accident, Arkansas was basing its entire season on how it fared against those two divisional powers.

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  1. DMK says:

    This mess really could be huge for South Carolina. To win the East (given UGA’s easy draw) USC realistically needs to beat Georgia and then either Arkansas or LSU. The task just got slightly less difficult.

  2. [...] Skipping past the salacious stuff, Paul Myerberg focuses on the important question about Arkansas – post-Petrino, how will that program fare in this year’s SEC West? [...]

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