The Arkansas Razorbacks enter year two under Bobby Petrino hoping it goes better than year one. The Hogs started off the season with two close wins over Western Illinois and UL-Monroe, but the year-ending upset win over LSU concluded a 5-7 season.
Arkansas has the most starters back in the SEC but faces the top five teams in the conference. To get a better look at the Razorbacks, I contacted Donald Fincher, a featured columnist for Arkansas here on Bleacher Report.
Arkansas has a stable of running backs this year, but Bobby Petrino likes to air it out. What changes can we expect on offense in Petrino's second year?
I don't see one having to exclude the other. In fact, I think you will see more of both. I expect to see more sustained drives this year.
If the average drive was, for example, six plays last year, I suspect it will be around eight to 10 plays this year. That's because Arkansas has a quarterback with a higher ceiling than they did last year.
The Razorbacks also have more experienced and varied running backs to complement their wide receivers, which, as a unit, are one of the best in the nation.
In other words, I expect more third down conversions, leading to more plays, meaning a high amount of both running and passing.
According to Chris Low of ESPN's SEC Blog, Arkansas' running back unit and receiving unit are both in the top three of the conference. The only other team that can say this...Florida.
How has Ryan Mallett looked in the offseason? Is he ready to lead Petrino's high-octane offense?
This depends on the measuring stick. He looked good in the spring. Then he had an atrocious start to two-a-days. But he did not get his head down and impressed Petrino with his determination and had a very strong finish. But unlike previous years when Arkansas really hasn't had much of a backup, Petrino is too smart to not have one.
Tyler [Wilson] is coming along just fine and can ably step in if Mallett gets injured or is just having an off game.
Bottom line is that Mallett's bad start to two-a-days was rumored to be because the coaches were making some necessary changes in his footwork that he was having to adapt to. With these changes now mostly implemented, he has already improved his accuracy, and his ceiling has gone even higher.
Arkansas will also have what they have been missing since the Clint Stoerner years (late '90s), and that is the ability to throw vertically when necessary; Mallett has the arm strength.
Two starters are gone on the offensive line, but five are back who made starts last year. How much can this unit improve in '09?
This is the question of the season right here. The Hogs are loaded at the skill positions and have a master tactician in Petrino calling the plays. If they get good blocking, they could be one of the highest scoring teams in the nation.
However, the offensive line is a question mark. While the returning starters are more experienced, they did lose an All-American center in Jonathan Luigs.
Centers are vital to anchor the line, and the player who is selected to start in that role will be filling big shoes. How fast this young man grows into those shoes could make or break Arkansas' season in those critical one or two toss-up games that could be the difference between 8-4 or 6-6.
The Hogs lost 47 starts to injury a year ago, third most in FBS. Who really needs to stay healthy this year for Arkansas to compete for the SEC West crown?
On offense, I know that Michael Smith (1,000-plus-yard rusher) was a small back and just got dinged up by the end of the year. There was also a receiver or two that went down, but Arkansas had more receivers than good, eligible backs last year, so it's not that worrisome.
On defense, both the linebacking corps and the secondary unit were not real deep to start with and were pretty decimated by midseason. This goes a long way to explaining why the defense was among the worst in the SEC last year.
There is now a plethora of skill players and secondary and linebacker players. Therefore, I would say it would have to be the linemen, especially offensive linemen.
The defense returns the top 10 tacklers. Where is the strength of this unit?
As I mentioned in the injury question, it's an upgrade to just get everyone off of injured reserve. However, Petrino made it a point to get some quality pass defenders and pass rushers this recruiting cycle. So, Arkansas should be much improved in the secondary and coming off the edges.
In fact, Arkansas signed one of the top secondary players in the country last year in Darius Winston, and he will see playing time this year. He was from Arkansas, which helped the recruiting process, or he probably would not be wearing Razorback red for his college career (just being realistic here).
With a little better luck on the injury front, the offense keeping them off the field more, and the offense and special teams combining to keep the defense from defending a short field, we could see this defensive unit make great strides this year.
What about the biggest weakness for a defense that ranked last in the SEC?
As I alluded to in the previous answer, I am a firm believer that all three units must play defense. The offense can't turn the ball over or leave the defense on the field three-fourths of the game. The special teams can't give up 30-plus yards routinely on punt coverage.
Of course, the defensive unit itself must do its job no matter what hand they've been dealt by the offense of special teams. It's a collective effort.
A prime example of this concept is Florida State. If you think about it, back when Florida State had great offenses was when they also were considered to have great defenses. In other words, their defenses used to get help that, starting with the Jeff Bowden offensive coordinator era, it no longer got.
Their defensive stats suffered because they were constantly given a short field to defend, typically on the field more than the offensive unit, and constantly playing from behind because they weren't scoring (which exacts a psychological burden on the defense).
Therefore, it cannot be understated the effect that the Razorback offense (or lack thereof) and special teams put last year's defensive unit "in the hole" with short fields and short rests on numerous occasions.
At times by the end of the game, if the defense wasn't just overly tired, they were demoralized. The Alabama game comes to mind. And just simply being on the field more made them more susceptible to the injury bug.
The offensive part of that equation got better as the year progressed and will be even better this year. Special teams has been an area of particular emphasis this offseason, so I foresee that getting better too.
Who are the top freshmen this year in Fayetteville?
Winston was the prize recruit from this past year's cycle. He was the No. 1 cornerback nationwide last year according to most recruiting services. He will add immediate help in the secondary. I haven't seen him yet, but I've had acquaintances that have seen him say that he is in the mold of a Deion Sanders type of lockdown cornerback. That's pretty exciting.
Also, Arkansas had good running backs last year, but that stable was significantly upgraded with two premium recruits and a transfer from none other than USC. The names are Ronnie Wingo, Kniles Davis, and Broderick Green (transfer from USC).
There was a question of transfer eligibility on Green, although the NCAA has a loophole if a student moves because of a gravely ill family member (which was the case here), and he was cleared to play in July.
So Arkansas adds a back that came from USC and two other four- or five-star backs with him. They are now officially "loaded" at that position. Wingo is known for catching out of the backfield too.
The Razorbacks came from the old SWC to the SEC in the early '90s. Who do the fans consider their biggest rival today?
This is a good question, and the answer is that I don't know that there really is one. Arkansas and South Carolina entered the league at the same time and are each other's fixed opponent from the other side of the bracket. However, because of the distance and the fact that Arkansas has pretty much owned that series, it's not really rivalry material.
There have been efforts made on both sides of the Arkansas/LSU rivalry to cultivate that game with a trophy given to the winner every year. This is due to the proximity of the two schools, both of them being in the SEC West, and the fact that it's the last game of the season for each.
Also, prior to the dominance of LSU recently, when they were fairly evenly matched, it seemed like it would take off as a rivalry. However, it's been a streaky rivalry, at best. Arkansas has won the last two. Before that LSU won the last four.
The next closest SEC schools geographically are the Mississippi schools, but Arkansas has been so dominating over them that there isn't much rivalry. With Houston Nutt now prowling the sideline over there at Ole Miss, that might heat up.
However, Nutt has a tendency to start strong with someone else's players and then fizzle to mediocrity. He took some great recruits from Danny Ford and took them to the Capital One Bowl in his first year at Arkansas. Within two seasons, Arkansas was 5-6.
He took some great recruits from Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and went to the Cotton Bowl last year. Within a couple of years, I expect he'll be back to his inconsistent "on again/off again" ways that led to his dismissal at Arkansas.
In other words, if Nutt stays there and Petrino stays at UA, I see this becoming one-sided again soon.
Arkansas had a little rivalry with Tennessee early on because the way the rotation worked when Arkansas first joined the conference, they were rotating onto the schedule quite often. However, the conference schedule rotation was changed a few years back and Arkansas will now only face them two years out of every eight, so it's hard to make much out of that.
Really, I think most fans would rather beat 'Bama than anyone else. This is largely because 'Bama is the first SEC game every year for Arkansas. Winning it means being 1-0 in conference and figuratively pushing your nose out in front of the conference division race, while losing it means being behind the eight-ball the rest of the way trying to catch up.
The Razorbacks face arguably the top five teams in the SEC. Can they upset one of them and why?
I presume you are talking about Florida, Bama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss? My personal prediction is that Arkansas will win one or two of those games. More on that below.
What is your prediction for Arkansas?
I see Arkansas winning their four non-conference games, which are Missouri State, Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, and Troy. I see Arkansas losing the following three conference games: Florida, Alabama, LSU.
As for the other five conference games, I'll offer both predictions and short comments:
Georgia—This is a trendy upset pick. Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit have already picked the Hogs. Georgia plays Oklahoma State, a top 15 team, at their place to open the season. If that goes poorly and then they don't bounce back against South Carolina, they could be a team in total disarray given their always lofty expectations.
I see Arkansas winning if they can keep the crowd in it and Georgia comes in psychologically shattered. However, I see it as a toss-up otherwise.
Auburn—Auburn is breaking in a new coach and a new offensive coordinator. Auburn was the only SEC team Arkansas beat last year before the surprise win to end the season with LSU. Auburn doesn't really have a strong QB where Arkansas does. This is a home game for Arkansas. I see Arkansas winning this one.
Ole Miss—This is a tough one. Arkansas should have beaten Ole Miss last year but for a disputed play in the late fourth quarter. Still, it was a only a two-point differential between Petrino's team that finished 5-7 and an Ole Miss team that won the Cotton Bowl.
In other words, Petrino is the better coach here, and I think it will start to show by 2010 at the latest. However, I think the Hogs get it done this year, one year ahead of schedule. However, I'll admit that this just may be a habit of my years of assuming the Ole Miss game as a win, since historically it has been.
South Carolina—This is a home game for Arkansas. Steve Spurrier has never really had solid QB play at South Carolina. Arkansas has the advantage in this series. I see Arkansas winning it.
Mississippi State—Last year was the first time in a decade that Mississippi State beat Arkansas. This is a home game for Arkansas, and Miss. State is breaking in all new coaches. Most prediction services don't predict them to win a conference game. I agree with that. All Hogs here.
My final prediction is that I will be wrong about one of these five games. This isn't a question of confidence in my picks or admitting that I'm being too much of a "homer." This is a matter of anyone that knows anything about math will tell you that the odds of me getting five of five right here are slim.
When I get five out of five right, I'll stop blogging and permanently move to Las Vegas. Therefore, I'll fade these five games down to a 4-1 result, and when matched up with the "guaranteed" wins and losses mentioned above, I predict Arkansas will go 8-4, land in a middle tier bowl game (Music City, Peach, or Cotton), and win that game to improve their final record to 9-4.
Furthermore, after this year's result, and with Florida dropping from the schedule for 2010, I see Arkansas being preseason in the top 15-20 to start the following year.
My Thoughts on Arkansas...
Arkansas is a chic sleeper pick to make a big jump in year two under Petrino. Mallett was one of the top QB recruits in the nation a few years ago and is a classic drop-back passer like Petrino wants.
I agree with Donald that Arkansas is loaded at the running back position. But the offensive line is going to make or break this offense and, despite its losses, has four players with 10-plus starts.
Donald brought up some good points about the defense suffering last year because of the offense. But Petrino has never been known for defense, and I think the Hogs will be middle of the pack at best in the SEC.
The former Louisville coach gets a ton a flak for frequent coaching movements, but there is no doubt in my mind he can coach and can win in the SEC. Petrino played a lot of young players last year that will pay dividends this year. Arkansas may have the toughest slate in the SEC outside of LSU.
This team will be much improved, but because of the schedule, I don't think it translates into a lot more wins, as Arkansas is behind the big three in the West.
7-5, 3-5, Bowl Game
Best Case Scenario: 9-3
Worst Case Scenario: 6-6
BCS Championship 75/1
SEC Championship 25/1 (eighth)
Win Total: 7
Thanks again to Donald for his insight.