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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. 28: Arkansas

Arkansas and Petrino won't stay hidden much longer. Not with this offense, anyway.

Is Bobby Petrino the new SEC’s answer to the old SEC’s Steve Spurrier? Not the new Spurrier, the cautious Head Ball Coach, but the mid-1990s, gunslinging, devil-may-care offensive mastermind — the guy everyone loved to hate, except his own fan base. There are a few similarities, including in the column labeled “career winning percentage.” Like Spurrier, Petrino wants to put the ball in the air; he doesn’t pay mere lip service to the running game, but it’s secondary. For the third-year Arkansas coach, like our old friend Spurrier, it’s quite simple. And it comes down to two words: pitch and catch. That’s it. However, if it was that easy, there’d be more than just one Bobby Petrino. There’s not.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Fayetteville, Ark.

Nickname
Razorbacks

Returning starters
16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 49

2009 record
(8-5, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 34

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Tennessee Tech
  • Sept. 11
    La.-Monroe
  • Sept. 18
    at Georgia
  • Sept. 25
    Alabama
  • Oct. 9
    Texas A&M (in Dallas)
  • Oct. 16
    at Auburn
  • Oct. 23
    Mississippi
  • Oct. 30
    Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 6
    at South Carolina
  • Nov. 13
    UTEP
  • Nov. 20
    at Mississippi St.
  • Nov. 27
    L.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

I predict the team will get better and better as the season wears on (like Ole Miss last fall), and could be one of the hottest squads in the F.B.S. heading into bowl play. On a personal note, I’ve really wavered on how I feel about the Hawgs, more so than any other team previewed thus far. Part of me looks at the schedule and has a hard time finding more than six or seven wins. Another part combs through the talented roster and coaching staff and believes Arkansas can be a borderline Top 25 team. I can’t go that far – yet. But this team could really surprise some people, and is poised for very good things in the near future.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A solid season for Petrino and the Razorbacks: a three-win improvement over his debut campaign, though Arkansas added only a single victory in SEC play. As most expected, the offense got the job done. Arkansas cracked the 40-point mark seven times, three times in conference play. In addition, the Razorbacks lost two road games — at Florida and L.S.U. — by a field goal, the latter in overtime. Unfortunately, the defense wasn’t up to the same standard as the offense: 25.1 points per game allowed, with the pass defense especially lackluster. By and large, this group came up short against premier competition, though the Razorbacks did hold Florida to only 23 points in defeat; in the other four losses, however, Arkansas allowed 52, 35, 30 and 33 points, respectively. Still, from top to bottom, Arkansas lived up to its high expectations in 2009 — if not exceeded them, at least somewhat.

High point Arkansas entered October on a two-game losing streak, needing to make a statement in back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Auburn. The Razorbacks did just that, outscoring the pair by a combined 91-42 margin. The team never looked better than it did during a 23-point second quarter against the Aggies, who had opened up a brief 10-0 lead in the first quarter before wilting under Arkansas’ onslaught.

Low point Arkansas was not quite ready for the top tier of the SEC, as shown in losses to Georgia, Alabama, Florida and L.S.U. However, the Razorbacks did present a hefty challenge to both the Gators and the Tigers, losing each game by only a field goal; with nine seconds left in Gainesville, in overtime in Baton Rouge. Losses to Georgia (by 52-41) and Alabama (by 35-7) were not quite so close.

Tidbit Is the SEC West the most competitive division in the country? It looks to be so in 2010, at least, though the A.C.C. Coastal certainly goes four teams deep. Take a look at the division on an historical basis: since 1995, each of Arkansas, Alabama and L.S.U. has won the division title four times; Auburn has won it three times.

Tidbit (scoring edition) Arkansas scored 205 more points in 2009 than it did in 2008. Having a good quarterback helped, as did additional experience in Petrino’s offensive system. While very impressive, the one-year scoring turnaround ranks second in program history behind the improvement from 1997-98. In 1997, Danny Ford’s final season, the Razorbacks scored 181 points; in 1998, Houston Nutt’s first season, they scored 390.

Tidbit (home games edition) Arkansas was nearly unstoppable in Fayetteville, even with its September loss to Georgia. All told, the Razorbacks finished fifth in the nation in scoring during home games (46.7 points per game), tied for first in touchdowns (44), led in total points (327), finished third in passing yards (2,473) and second in passing scores (23).

Former players in the N.F.L.

22 DE Jamaal Anderson (Atlanta), WR London Crawford (Houston), LB Weston Dacus (Kansas City), OT Nate Garner (Miami), LS Brett Goode (Green Bay), S Ken Hamlin (Baltimore), DT Marcus Harrison (Chicago), RB Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), CB Chris Houston (Detroit), RB Felix Jones (Dallas), CB Jamar Love (Tennessee), C Jonathan Luigs (Cincinnati), RB Darren McFadden (Oakland), OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia), OG Mitch Petrus (New York Giants), CB Matterreral Richardson (Cleveland), OT Tony Ugoh (Indianapolis), OT Jose Valdez (Atlanta), OG Bobbie Williams (Cincinnati), S George Wilson (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in Arkansas
1. 3B Brooks Robinson.
2. P Dizzy Dean.
3. SS Arky Vaughan.
4. OF Lou Brock.
5. 3B George Kell.

Coaching

Bobby Petrino (Carroll College ’82), 13-12 after two 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. His team did just that last fall, going a perfect 5-0 outside of SEC play to lead the program back to bowl eligibility after a one-year absence. 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. Last season gave Petrino some breathing room, but expectations remain high. 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 48-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 excited for the future of the program. Last year was a solid first step, particularly after 2008, but more will be expected.

Players to watch

A foot. Not Ryan Mallett's foot, but a foot. This one looks good. How is Mallett's doing?

The foot. How is it? Sore? Painful? How’s the recovery coming? Has any off-season injury been poked, prodded, taken out and lain apart quite like Ryan Mallett’s broken foot, which kept the Heisman favorite out of spring practice and raised some questions about his availability come September? The good news: the foot responded well on the first day of fall camp. The bad news: Mallett has some rust to shake off, both due to any remaining stiffness and discomfort that accompanies his recovery and the fact he did not participate in any off-season work. The best news: there’s really nothing to worry about.

Now, I’m not saying that Mallett might look stiff — stiffer, actually — in the pocket in the early season. Arkansas opens with Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe, so that’s not a concern. He could suffer a setback, but that does not seem likely; it could happen, but — by all accounts — Mallett’s foot is completely healed. So Arkansas fans can take a nice, deep breath. Relax. Your Heisman favorite will put up another statistically spectacular season. If the junior raises his completion percentage into the 60-65 percent range, as Petrino expects… my goodness. Remember, he’s still growing as a quarterback; last fall marked his first full season as a starter. He’ll be gone after this season, most likely, but he’ll leave plenty of highlight-reel moments in his wake.

It’s almost unfair: Mallett might have more to work with in the passing game than any quarterback in the country. Arkansas has so many weapons, in fact, that each seems to overshadow the other; hence the lack of preseason love for any individual receiver. All the Razorbacks have are multiple options, each capable of a 1,000-yard campaign, each capable of taking defensive backs deep off the snap or after the catch.

Arkansas returns five players that notched a 100-yard receiving game last season: Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and D.J. Williams, the latter a tight end. Williams might not put forth the numbers relative to his immense skill set, but that has more to do with Petrino’s desire to push the ball deep; in Houston Nutt’s offense, for example, Williams was the top option — when Arkansas opted not to run the ball, of course. The trio of Childs, Wright and Adams are virtually interchangeable: each is poised for a huge performance in any given week. Childs and Adams, for example averaged 18.6 and 19.6 yards per catch, respectively. Hamilton chipped in with 19 receptions for 347 yards — 18.3 yards per catch. Wright, of course, is no slouch. What else can be said? Arkansas is loaded, stacked, what have you. It’s almost unfair. The passing game is going to roll.

The offensive line returns four starters, though the lone loss is a big one: two-year starting right guard Mitch Petrus was a first-team all-SEC pick last fall. Arkansas could go with Grant Cook in that spot, as the junior started three games at left guard last fall, four games at right guard in 2008. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey, however, as the youngster earned praise for his play last fall on the scout team and during the spring. Seniors Ray Dominquez and DeMarcus Love will bookend the line, with each bringing two years of starting experience to the table. Love moved out to right tackle last fall after playing guard as a sophomore. Senior Wade Grayson will again land the nod at left guard; he brings 23 career starts in his final season. Rounding out the line is junior center Seth Oxner, who responded nicely last fall to the challenge of replacing all-American Jonathan Luigs.

Yes, the defense did make a slight improvement last fall: roughly a touchdown per game, in fact. Still, it’s difficult to consider Arkansas a viable contender for the SEC crown until this group begins to get stops on a consistent basis; despite the improvement, it still did not do this effectively — or effectively enough — a year ago. In this defense’s favor are seven returning starters, though the Razorbacks do lose a key contributor at each level.

Along the line, Arkansas must replace second-team all-SEC tackle Malcolm Sheppard (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and end Adrian Davis (50 tackles, 5.5 sacks); this pair finished one-two on the team in tackles for loss. To be fair, the Razorbacks have reserves ready to step up. Sophomore Tenarius Wright was very productive as a backup last fall, making 34 tackles (7.5 for loss) and 1.5 sacks. He earned one start as a rookie, replacing Davis in Arkansas’ win over South Carolina. Another second-year player, DeQuinta Jones, spent last season as Sheppard’s reserve: he made 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks in a secondary role.

It might be unfair to ask this pair to replicate their predecessor’s numbers, though each certainly has the talent to do so. They’ll join junior end Jake Bequette (39 tackles, 9 for loss, 5.5 sacks) and junior tackle Zach Stadther (42 tackles) in the starting lineup. The latter, with 16 career starts, is the most experienced hand up front. It’s hard not to look at the line as a slightly diminished group in 2010. However, depth — and overall talent — is improved. Keep an eye on several of these young sophomores, many of whom were a bit overwhelmed by the immediate action a season ago but should be ready to make a bigger impact this fall.

The linebacker corps must replace Wendel Davis, who finished second on the team in stops as a senior (79, 8.5 for loss). The plan is to move junior Jerry Franklin inside as his replacement — good move. Franklin is one of the top linebackers in the SEC, as shown during his 94-tackle, 3-interception sophomore campaign. An immediate hit since redshirt freshman season, Franklin is a heavy favorite to land all-SEC accolades in 2010; he was a third-team all-conference pick a year ago. Senior Freddy Burton (54 tackles, 2 sack, 1 interception) and junior Jerico Nelson (74 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will start on the outside, with each making seven starts a year ago. Depth is somewhat of a concern, enough so that a few incoming freshmen could break into the two-deep.

What of the secondary? Three starters return, with one returning starter changing positions to upgrade Arkansas’ depth at safety. Senior Rudell Crim, a safety on the junior college level, will return to his old spot after starting 13 games at cornerback a year ago. He’ll step in at strong safety, with his departure opening up a spot at cornerback for highly-regarded sophomore Darius Winston. This was a good move for the Razorbacks: Winston was going to step into the starting lineup at some point — might as well do it now, especially given Crim’s experience at safety.

It won’t necessarily be Winston at cornerback, however. Arkansas could also turn to junior Isaac Madison, a 2008 starter who missed all of last season with an A.C.L. tear, or senior Andru Stewart. Regardless, with Winston’s projected improvement and Madison’s healthy return, depth at cornerback will be improved. If it’s Winston, he’ll join senior Ramon Broadway — an 11-game starter over the last two seasons — in the starting lineup. Junior Tramain Thomas leads the way at free safety, though fellow junior Elton Ford is another option.

Position battles to watch

Running back Does Arkansas need to have a lead back? Last season saw the Razorbacks go with a by-committee approach, though that was slightly due to Michael Smith — since graduated — being hampered by a hamstring injury. If Petrino and his staff opt to spread the ball around, they have the weapons in place to have a nice ground attack; you can only imagine how explosive this offense could be with a capable running game. As of now, there are four backs in the mix for carries: Broderick Green, Ronnie Wingo, Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis. Green is the most seasoned, as the former U.S.C. transfer led the team in rushing (442 yards) and touchdowns (11) a season ago. Look for Green to continue to do most of the dirty work, banging out yards between the tackles and in short-yardage situations. Johnson had a nice 2009 season as a change-of-pace guy, rushing for 342 yards on 6.0 yards per carry. It’s hard not to be excited about Wingo’s potential in this offense; the heralded recruit lived up to his preseason billing — when on the field — rushing for 319 yards on a team-best 6.5 yards per carry. Davis is the least proven of the bunch, though, like Wingo, he arrived on campus as a well-regarded prospect. One thing to remember: don’t look for a Darren McFadden-like impact from this group. The passing game runs the ship, not the running game. Still, if a situation does occur where Arkansas must rely on the running game — say, should Mallett not be ready for the first two weeks of the year — the talent is in place to do some damage.

Game(s) to watch

Where to start? How about each game from Sept. 18 — Oct. 23? Talk about a murderer’s row: Top 25, defending national champ, vastly improved Aggies, Top 25, dangerous Rebels. It will make Arkansas’ season to go, say, 4-1 over this stretch; in fact, such a run would leave the Razorbacks in the national title conversation. It wouldn’t break Arkansas’ year to go 2-3, though 1-4 or worse would be difficult to overcome.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s not going to be easy. Few teams will have a harder row to hoe in order to land in the Top 25. Outside of an early-season lull and one-game breaks scattered through the final month, the Razorbacks won’t have much time to pop up for air. Welcome to the SEC, where very good coaching and a solid talent level isn’t enough to lift you beyond a fourth-place finish in your own division. That’s the spot I have Arkansas inhabiting, though the gap has significantly narrowed between this team and Auburn and L.S.U.; the Razorbacks remain off the pace set by Alabama, like the rest of the conference. Let me try to explain it thusly: when taken on paper, Arkansas clearly ranks among the best 25 teams in the country. Again, the coaching, quarterback, talent and so on. However, I’m a little hesitant to place in the Top 25 a team I believe will have a hard time making more than a one-win improvement on last season’s conference mark. The Razorbacks are going to tested — and then some — in road trips to Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State, though I’d be surprised if the Bulldogs were able to score an upset. Alabama, Ole Miss and L.S.U. come to Fayetteville; I realize these games come at home, but they’ll be difficult nonetheless. 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.

Dream season The Razorbacks might not take the SEC West — Alabama still lands the top spot — but the Razorbacks finish 10-2, 6-2 in the SEC, and in the B.C.S. hunt.

Nightmare season For the second time in three years, Arkansas wins six games or less. This time, there’s no excuse.

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 Illustrated, Razor Bloggers, Hog 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.

Up Next

Who is No. 27? Our next university is the only space-grant school located east of the Mississippi to have allowed more than 375 points last season.

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

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Comments

  1. Zaboo says:

    On Deck: Florida State.

  2. Will Deming says:

    Guessing i’d say #27 is Florida State.

  3. Jim Narby says:

    #27 is nebraska

  4. mj says:

    It isn’t a “road” that you hoe, it’s a row, as in a garden or a field –

    If we’re going to use cliches, let’s hit the nail on the head –

    Paul: MJ, I’m glad you didn’t beat around the spilt milk. Still, I put my pants on one day at a time, just like you.

  5. mj says:

    And, you’ve got to want it more than the other guy does… or something like that…

    I do look forward to reading the team profiles each day. So far, you’ve been right as rain –

    mj

  6. Van Plexico says:

    Arkansas has four SEC West titles since ’95?? I’m not seeing but three: 95, 02, 06. Miss State had one in 98. And Auburn tied for the division (but lost a tiebreaker for the Championship Game) in 01, 02, and 06 or 07.

  7. JLK1 says:

    The Hogs are already ranked higher than 28, and they will still be ranked higher than 28 when the season is over. The offense will be even better, and the defense will improve (the secondary is looking to be vastly better than last season).

  8. [...] Five and Five: No. 28, Arkansas By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 28, is Arkansas. You can find a larger Arkansas preview here. [...]

  9. Doug says:

    http://WWW.Hogville.net is where you’ll find the vast majority of Hoggers. You should have added that one to your list. Good read though.

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