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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 13: Arkansas

There’s so much star power in the SEC West that it’s easy to forget about Arkansas, which has only been playing top-level college football since, oh, 1959 or so. Perhaps not tasting Alabama-like success or even L.S.U.-like success – definitely not over the last decade, at least – but certainly not anything less than extremely good: one national title, back in 1964, more than 10 double-digit win seasons, nearly a dozen conference banners and so on. Arkansas has never lacked for support for its football team, both spiritually and financially, nor have the Razorbacks ever given the fan base any reason to doubt that winning is not the be-all-end-all in Fayetteville. Arkansas is much like the rest of the SEC, in short. And that’s why it was with much anticipation – and with some fear from the rest of the conference – that Bobby Petrino took charge in 2008: Arkansas has the resources to win big, and now has the coach to take it there.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Fayetteville, Ark.

Nickname
Razorbacks

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 28

2010 record
(10-3, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 12

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Missouri St.
  • Sept. 10
    New Mexico
  • Sept. 17
    Troy
  • Sept. 24
    at Alabama
  • Oct. 1
    Texas A&M (in Arlington, Tex.)
  • Oct. 8
    Auburn
  • Oct. 22
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 29
    at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 5
    South Carolina
  • Nov. 12
    Tennessee
  • Nov. 19
    Mississippi St.
  • Nov. 26
    at L.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

It’s not going to be easy. Few teams will have a harder row to hoe in order to land in the Top 25. So that’s my little picture view for 2010: a one-win improvement on last season’s regular season win total, but I think only a 4-4 mark in conference play. I wouldn’t be surprised by 5-3, however; in fact, given Petrino’s track record and the potential of this offense, nothing would be surprise me — except anything worse than seven wins. And that brings me to the big picture. Stand back and take a look at this program in widescreen: Bobby Petrino, who has known nothing but success on the college level, given the keys to this kingdom? Makes you wonder what the ceiling is for Arkansas under his watch.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I’ve recycled this backhanded compliment all summer, so let’s dust if off one more time: Arkansas was the best three-loss team in the country — if you recall, Stanford was the best one-loss team, T.C.U. the best non-B.C.S. conference team and so on. This is truly the case with the Razorbacks, whose three losses came against Auburn, Alabama and Ohio State. The wins: at Georgia, Texas A&M at a neutral site, at South Carolina, at Mississippi State and L.S.U., the latter trio in November. In other words, Arkansas was no joke; these Razorbacks were legitimate, as that resume might suggest, and had the offense to play with any team in the country. We knew the offense would deliver, of course. What was the more pleasant surprise was the improved play of the defense, which allowed roughly a field goal less per game compared to 2009 while progressing from 89th nationally in total defense to 36th. If the idea of an Arkansas program combining Bobby Petrino’s offensive philosophy with a strong defense scares you, don’t be alarmed: it should.

High point A win over L.S.U. to end the regular season. Beyond serving as Arkansas’ third win in November over a ranked opponent, the 31-23 victory guaranteed the Razorbacks a B.C.S. berth at L.S.U.’s expense. Two for the price of one: not a bad Saturday in Fayetteville. Arkansas didn’t come there to paint — a statement since trademarked by the university.

Low point Losses to Auburn and Alabama. The latter hurts worse, even if the Razorbacks had a shot — a pretty slim shot — at knocking off Auburn. Arkansas led the Crimson Tide by 13 points in the third quarter but coughed up the lead thanks to a pair of interceptions over the final 15 minutes.

Tidbit Well, here’s a short list. There have been three coaches to lead two programs to a B.C.S. berth: Petrino, Saban and Meyer. I realize the B.C.S. is merely a teenager, but still: Petrino, Saban and Meyer. You can spin it however you want – it’s because these guys don’t stay still, it’s because there’s an SEC bias – but that’s a nice group of coaches. Arkansas’ Sugar Bowl berth last fall joined Louisville’s trip to the Orange Bowl in 2007; Saban led L.S.U. and Alabama to national titles; and Meyer led Utah to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and Florida to a pair of national championships.

Tidbit (hog call) How to properly make a hog call – “Woooooooo. Pig. Sooie!” – as described the Arkansas athletic department: one, slowly raise your arms from your knees to above your head during the “woo,” which should last roughly eight seconds, according to traditionalists; the younger fans, I assume, don’t have the patience for an eight-second call. Two, you should wiggle your fingers and raise the volume and pitch of the call as you progress through those eight seconds. Three, after completing the “woo,” both arms are brought straight down in unison, with fists clenched, upon completion of which draws a “pig.” Four, straighten and extend up your arm to accompany a “sooie,” which completes one hog call. Repeat twice, end with “Razorbacks,” and enjoy.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 DE Damario Ambrose (St. Louis), DE Jamaal Anderson (Indianapolis), CB Ramon Broadway (San Diego), OT Nate Garner (Miami), LS Brett Goode (Green Bay), OG Wade Grayson (Jacksonville), DT Marcus Harrison (Chicago), RB Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), CB Chris Houston (Detroit), RB Felix Jones (Dallas), LB Anthony Leon (Baltimore), OT DeMarcus Love (Minnesota), QB Ryan Mallett (New England), RB Darren McFadden (Oakland), OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia), OG Mitch Petrus (New York Giants), DT Malcolm Sheppard (Tennessee), FB Van Stumon (St. Louis), OG Jose Valdez (Atlanta), OG Bobbie Williams (Cincinnati), TE D.J. Williams (Green Bay), S George Wilson (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Bobby Petrino-coached quarterbacks in the N.F.L.
1. Jake Plummer.
2. Jason Campbell.
3. John Friesz.
4. Chris Redman.
5. Doug Nussmeier.

Coaching

Bobby Petrino (Carroll College ’82), 23-15 after three seasons with the Razorbacks. Though his 2008 finish marked Petrino’s first season under .500, the former Louisville coach did manage to lay the groundwork – especially on offense – for Arkansas to return to bowl play in 2009 before moving all the way up to the B.C.S. last fall. Arkansas fans expect more than five wins — see the frenzied reaction statewide to his hiring — but were willing to give Petrino a one-year grace period while he made drastic changes to the team’s offensive system. The patience paid off in 2010. Without question, Petrino is a talented enough play caller and game planner to make the rest of the SEC stand up and take notice. The 50-year-old has orchestrated top offenses at each of his college stops, most notably Utah State (1995-97), Auburn (2002) and Louisville (2003-6). His period at Louisville was Petrino’s first head coaching job, and it was an extremely successful one: a 41-9 record, including an 11-1 finish in 2004 and a 12-1 record in 2006. The Cardinals won the Big East crown and the Orange Bowl in his final season, capping off the finest season in the history of the program. His Louisville teams were annually among the finest offensive teams in the country: in 2004, the Cardinals led the nation in scoring (49.7) and total offense (539 yards per game) while setting an N.C.A.A. record by scoring at least 50 points in five straight games. After the 2006 season, Petrino signed a five-year, $24 million deal with the Falcons, and we all know how that went. It’s a good thing for Arkansas that his time in the N.F.L. didn’t work out: Petrino is bred for the college game, and with the facilities and support he will get with the Razorbacks, fans should be overwhelmingly excited for the future of the program.

Players to watch

It happens nearly every fall, whether in August or early September, though that’s of little consolation for the team that looks towards a season without its leading offensive figure. We knew – and kn0w – Arkansas could pass, both heading into 2010 and this coming fall; what came as a bit of a surprise was how well the Razorbacks ran the football when given the opportunity. So the opportunities weren’t overwhelming: tied for 90th nationally in carries, Arkansas ranked 69th in rushing and 37th in yards per carry. When you pass like Arkansas can pass, all the running game needs to do is help carry a slight amount of weight. The Razorbacks had that sort of offensive balance in 2010 – and there they were, in January, playing in the Sugar Bowl.

So it’s with some trepidation that the Arkansas running game moves ahead without all-American and Heisman contender Knile Davis, who will miss all of 2011 after suffering a knee injury earlier this month. It was Davis who constituted the vast majority of this team’s numbers on the ground in 2011, which explains in large part his blossoming national award candidacy heading into August: Davis rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 scores on 6.5 yards per carry, which are very scary totals when held against this offense’s prolific passing capabilities. So who replaces Davis? Last year’s second-leading rusher was Broderick Green (365 yards), but the bigger, short-yardage back will miss the 2011 season with a torn A.C.L., further clouding the situation in the backfield.

Who’s next? After suffering a painful of injury of his own, causing him to miss all of last season, Dennis Johnson is back at 100 percent and ready to reclaim a major role in the running game. He’s rushed for 609 yards over his career, highlighted by a big-time performance in Arkansas’s win over L.S.U. in 2008. But it’s more likely that the job falls to junior Ronnie Wingo (253 yards), who flashed greater ability to run between the tackles during the spring. If Wingo can combine his burst and receiving ability (27 catches) with a tougher running style there’s a possibility he can have a Davis-like impact running the football. But Davis will be missed, there’s no question about that.

Who’s next at quarterback? Well, that’s an easier question to address: Tyler Wilson’s next, that’s who, and here’s guessing he has an enormous debut season in the starting lineup. It was Wilson who went toe-to-toe with Cam Newton and Auburn over the second half of an October loss, hitting on 25 of 34 attempts for 332 yards and 4 scores in a game defined by Arkansas’ inability to get stops defensively. It was a small sample size, to be sure, but we saw enough from Wilson to expect the following: comfort, confidence, efficiency and production. The transition from Ryan Mallett to Wilson may not be a tough one, in short. What does Wilson still need to do? Well, he’ll still be learning on the job, by and large, and needs to show an ability to avoid costly turnovers. That’s really it, to be honest. With three years of experience in this system under his belt, Wilson is ready to shine. And no, I’m not buying the idea that Petrino has opened the competition for the starting job up to both Wilson and sophomore Brandon Mitchell. It’ll be Wilson on Sept. 3, Wilson in October, November and December — and possibly January, if all goes according to plan.

And he’ll have an extremely deep receiver corps at his disposal. There may not be a better leading quartet in the country; we know there’s no receiver corps in the SEC that quite matches up, it’s safe to say. It’s a four-headed monster: senior Joe Adams (50 receptions for 813 yards and 6 touchdowns), senior Jarius Wright (42 for 788 and 5 scores), senior Greg Childs (46 for 659 and 6 scores) and junior Cobi Hamilton ( 32 for 630 and 6 scores). Experience, explosiveness and production, nearly unparalleled across the country. I can’t say enough about this group: each on his own would be a menace, but combining the four makes Arkansas absolutely frightening in the passing game. The Razorbacks will miss tight end D.J. Williams, however, who took wonderful advantage of open spots along the middle of the field. Arkansas hopes junior Chris Gragg, a converted receiver, can help recoup some of his lost production.

From last in the SEC in total defense to fifth, from last in the pass to sixth, from fifth in sacks to second, from ninth in scoring to seventh, cutting off about a field goal per game – this is how Arkansas moved into the B.C.S., not just because of a prolific offense. Both sides of the ball came together to push the Razorbacks into the upper echelon of the SEC; this is a conference defined by its balance of offense and defense, and you’re not crawling into the Sugar Bowl by doing one and not the other. In the big picture, Arkansas is turning into a real football team, not merely one that will win eight games by outscoring the weaker teams on the schedule.

The defense might make another sizable improvement in 2011. All good defenses are strong up front: Arkansas is very, very strong up front, and the strength continues to include the front seven altogether. The star is end Jake Bequette (32 tackles, 7 sacks), who has started since his freshman campaign but seems now, as a senior, to be putting his complete game together. Part of that stems from his work in the weight room, as Bequette has put on enough weight to stand tall against the run while continuing to do a fine job getting to the quarterback. He’ll again be joined at end by Tenarius Wright (35 tackles, 6 sacks), giving the Razorbacks a pair of tough – mean, even – and experienced bookends along the four-man front.

And the interior of the line looks even stronger. It’s deeper, that’s for sure, with as many as six tackles at Arkansas’s disposal. It’ll be a terrific rotation to put up against the run-first, run-heavy teams dotting the schedule, like L.S.U. and Alabama, most notably. There are two returning starters in D.D. Jones (38 tackles) and Alfred Davis (24 tackles), and both will hold major roles up front. But one will be unseated in the starting lineup by JUCO transfer Robert Thomas, who tilts the scales at anywhere between 300 and 400 pounds, depending on who you believe. The expectations surrounding his arrival are immense; it’ll be hard for Thomas to live up to some of the hype, but he’s going to be a huge presence in the middle of the line. Rounding out depth are sophomores Bryan Jones – another potential starter – and Jeremiah Johnson and seniors Lavunce Askew and Zach Stadther. As a whole, this line is terrific.

Jerry Franklin has the misfortune of playing in a conference littered with stars at linebacker, diminishing at least somewhat his play last fall and his importance to this defense. All Franklin did a year ago was lead the team in tackles (100) and tackles for loss (13.5) while adding six and a half sacks, so there’s no doubting the production. Look for Franklin’s stature to rise in 2011, at least in part thanks to the work his teammates will do up front. It is the depth at front, in fact, that has Arkansas toying with five-man defensive lines. When the Razorbacks go in such an alignment, look for the two linebackers to be Franklin and JUCO transfer Alonzo Highsmith, who has already impressed. If the Razorbacks are in a traditional 4-3, senior Jerico Nelson (87 tackles, 11 for loss) will round out the starting lineup. Nelson is extremely valuable, thanks to his versatility: he’ll play some safety and some linebacker, providing toughness at both spots. Nelson is too good not to see the field in a significant capacity.

Hopefully, the strong front seven – which will again do a fine job getting to the quarterback – will help offset a secondary that is long on experience but short on consistent production. The key, in my mind, is junior Darius Winston’s development into a top-flight cornerback: he has yet to reach his potential, but hope remains high that Winston will live up to his five-star billing. Winston and senior Isaac Madison are the favorites to star at cornerback, but there are other options – big-bodied sophomore Jerry Mitchell is one, as is freshman Tevin Mitchell, a spring arrival.

There’s experience at safety in seniors Elton Ford (39 tackles, 1 sack) and Tramain Thomas (83 tackles, team-best 4 interceptions). Thomas will start at free safety; for a defense that struggles forcing turnovers, he’s absolutely irreplaceable. But Ford will have to fight to maintain his role at strong safety, as Arkansas has alternated the senior with sophomore Eric Bennett (15 tackles) alongside Thomas. What does Arkansas need in the secondary? More interceptions would be nice, but let’s start with consistency.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Three losses to graduation and an additional three losses to attrition have left Arkansas with holes up front, which is the most significant question mark facing this team and its national title aspirations. Perhaps the largest concern is at tackle, where the Razorbacks head into the fall with JUCO transfer Jason Peacock and senior Grant Freeman holding starting roles. Arriving in the spring gave Peacock the crash-course he needed to learn this offense; his rapid tutorial also pushed Peacock into the starting lineup, giving Arkansas its potential anchor on the blind side. Freeman holds the edge on the right side, but the future lies in true freshman Brey Cook, it seems, who should see time throughout the season. The returning starters are both sophomores: Travis Swanson at center and Alvin Bailey at left guard. Perhaps the fact that the line’s experience comes in the form of two second-year players speaks to the lack of proven quantities up front. Senior Grant Cook should get the nod at right guard, but as at tackle, Brey Cook is an option. What about depth? Well, Cook could swing between guard and tackle and provide key snaps, but the Razorbacks will need another handful of youngsters to step into substantial roles. And here’s where the three linemen lost for reasons other than graduation step in: at worst, Anthony Oden, Seth Oxner and Cam Feldt would have been key reserves; at best, all three would have started. So Arkansas is preparing true freshmen Marcus Danenhauer and Mitch Smothers for second-team roles – perhaps a year ahead of schedule, but the Razorbacks don’t have a choice. The line is clearly weaker than it was in 2010. As of today, at least.

Game(s) to watch

It’s unfortunate for Arkansas’s sake that Alabama, Texas A&M and L.S.U. – the three big games on the schedule – come away from home. The Crimson Tide and Tigers are true road games, while the Aggies and Razorbacks face off at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex. But the good news is that each of the remaining 2010 bowl teams come at home: Troy, Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State. It’s not an altogether intimidating schedule – by SEC standards, at least – but it’s no cakewalk.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Up, up and away. Here’s what the rest of the SEC should remember: Arkansas is only getting better under Petrino. That’s not a comforting thought for a conference loaded with the nation’s best – this is the nation’s best conference for a reason, and not because it’s one of those statements that becomes truth when repeated over and over and over again. It’s happened quickly, in about three years, but here we are: Arkansas is one of the best teams in the SEC. And the Razorbacks are the first team previewed thus far this summer with real national title hopes; others could squeeze into the picture, but Arkansas has what it takes to emerge as the SEC’s representative in the national title games. What would need to go right? Wilson would need to take immediately to the starting job, which I see happening with relative ease; Wingo or Johnson needs to replace Davis, with Wingo the top choice, in my mind; the offensive line needs to gel; and the secondary must play with more confidence and consistency. Obviously, the Razorbacks have more questions to address than Alabama or L.S.U., hence their projected third-place finish in the SEC West. But the ceiling for this team is extremely, extremely high – the national title, remember. It’ll all come down to road games with the Tide and Tigers, as I don’t see another SEC opponent on the schedule capable of keeping pace with the Razorbacks. Here’s the good news: Arkansas can lose a game in the regular season and still take the West, though the head-to-head tiebreakers may hinder that cause. As an aside, imagine if the Razorbacks and Tigers meet on the last Saturday of November with a national title game appearance on the line? That would be special. And that’s certainly a believable scenario, should Arkansas settle its few issues. If the line and secondary round into form, this could be one of the five best teams in the country.

Dream season Arkansas gets rolling in back-to-back wins over Alabama and Texas A&M and ends the year with a win at L.S.U. — perfection, 12-0, in the SEC title game with a shot at a national championship.

Nightmare season Those issues mentioned above slow down the offense and defense, respectively, pushing the Razorbacks back to eight wins.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arkansas fans congregate? Take a deep breath. Arkansas has countless options, all with great names: Woo PigHogs IllustratedHawg SportsHawgs IllustratedRazor BloggersHog Call and Arkansas Expats. If you like newspapers, check out the Web site of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I still may have missed one or two, so list them below.

Word Count

Through 108 teams 340,372.

Up Next

Who is No. 12? Nearly a third of the student body at tomorrow’s university study a foreign language, one of the highest rates in the country.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. percolating says:

    enter BYU…

  2. Jeff says:

    Tomorrow is BYU.

  3. Bird says:

    No 12 is LSU. They love their French studies in Baton Rouge.

  4. Art Director says:

    Looks like BYU is 12. Can’t wait to read it.

    The language note is interesting. A lot of kids from BYU end up going to foreign countries as missionaries and then can come back and study more of the language.

    BYU even has an apartment complex where the residents agree to only speak that language while at home.
    http://www.byu.edu/oncampushousing/rooms/room_options.shtml#flsr

  5. Brandon says:

    #12 is BYU

  6. WEK says:

    12 has to be BYU. I can’t wait to see the explanation on this one…

  7. Wowzers says:

    If BYU is the 12th best team in the country, consider me Miles Davis.

    Obviously, offense will be fine as they have a topnotch OL but defensively, I just don’t see how they match up. The schedule is brutal (Texas, UCF, Oregon St, TCU not to mention Hawaii and Utah. 8-4 would be a good season for them.

  8. Eksynyt says:

    Oregon State is not a top-notch opponent. They didn’t even make it to a bowl game and are probly lined up for a 3-9 season. They’re basically a Mountain West team in the PAC 12.

  9. Pixel13 says:

    Eksynyt doesn’t quite grasp how good Mike Riley is at getting the most from a team of low-rated recruits. The OSU Beavers won’t be at their best this year, true–but “basically a Mountain West team in the PAC 12″??

    And I guess the dux are basically a WAC team, with their ‘trick’ offense and high scoring?

  10. WHSQB7 says:

    Check your facts on your HIGH POINT paragraph, Paulie…regarding the Razorback victory over LSU in November 2010. The 31-23 win, in fact, did give the Hogs a coveted BCS berth at the expense of LSU…definitely a two for one deal. But, more accurately said as…not a bad day in LITTLE ROCK, as Arkansas achieved the victory at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, AR…not Fayetteville. Although, I’m sure Hog fans in Fayetteville and all across the Razorback Nation felt as though they had hit the daily double, for sure.
    WPS2011!

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