Having witnessed the preseason hyperbole of last season’s Ole Miss Football Team—and its backwash—I admit sensitivity to the subject.
Only in a world set off-kilter by promiscuous access and bully pulpit analysis could consecutive nine-win seasons—for a program that had not done so in my lifetime—be skewered as FAIL.
Granted, the 2009 Rebels were a seductive bunch: QB Jevan Snead was tagged as a possible No. 1 overall pick, DE Greg Hardy was not far behind, the team’s leading rusher and receiver were back, and Tyrone Nix was still in charge of the defense.
Moreover, the schedule was favorable—tough games at home and no real OOC—and the 2008 team finished as one of the hottest in the country.
Halfway through the 2009 season, however, the Rebels had taught us a few things:
Even if left tackle is the only question mark on the offensive line, defenses in the SEC have the ability to beat you with their front seven.
If your passing game does not challenge safeties in the deep middle, receivers have a hard time finding space.
Blue-chip quarterbacks can digress in a hurry.
The 2009 Ole Miss Team is a cautionary tale those predicting an SEC Title for the Arkansas Razorbacks would do well to remember.
Ryan Mallett is back, returning with the same Heisman-winning, first-pick-in-the-draft type hype that—at the very least—messed with Jevan Snead’s melon.
Is Mallett’s mettle tougher than Snead’s? There is no way to gauge such a question right now, but Hog Fans will not have much a wait to find out once conference play begins.
After tuning up against Tennessee Tech and UL-Monroe in home games to open the season, Arkansas travels to Georgia on Sept. 18. The game against the Bulldogs kicks off a five-week stretch that will answer everything we want to know about Arkansas.
Following Georgia, the Hogs get Alabama at home, and then wait a week to travel to Arlington to face Texas A&M on Oct. 9. A trip to Auburn follows the Aggies.
Georgia is an unknown quantity, with a new quarterback and a reorganized defense, and could be fending off calls to replace head coach Mark Richt if play starts out sloppy.
It is hard to imagine the defense not showing some signs of improvement under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, but the transition to the 3-4 schemes may take awhile. Georgia has athletes on both sides of the ball, though new faces in several places make consistency an obvious concern.
However, Georgia should move the ball, finding something special towards the end of last season in running back Washaun Ealey.
If Georgia is even a little better on the defensive side of the ball, Arkansas may need to be a lot better on the same to win in Athens.
The game last season between two of the worst defenses in the SEC was—queue mock surprise—a shootout. The teams combined for 93 points and over 1,000 yards of total offense.
Looking at the numbers, you would be hard-pressed not to think it was a WAC conference matchup.
If the Hogs do hope to challenge in the SEC for something more lofty than a Cotton Bowl trip, then Georgia is as close to a must-win as a conference opener can be.
A loss in Athens does not ruin the season, but with Alabama in town the next week, 0-2 could happen fast.
Bobby Petrino’s potent offense—which led the SEC in scoring last year—managed all of seven points against Saban’s crew. While the Tide will have several new names on defense next year, it was not merely talent levels that stymied the Hogs in Tuscaloosa.
Saban was three steps ahead of Petrino the whole game on defense. Ryan Mallet managed just 160 yards on 12-of-35 passing attempts. The teams traded punts in the first quarter, but a 52-yard run by Trent Richardson with 9:30 left in the second quarter put the Tide up for good.
Final score: 35-7.
That hints to a gap in game-plans.
Even splitting the first two conference games of the season might be enough to keep Arkansas from West Division contention. Going 0-2, however, might just hang the Hogs by the long, dark horse rope they are being offered by preseason media.
Arkansas has two weeks to prepare for the Jerry World matchup with Texas A&M. Much like Georgia, the Aggies are switching to a 3-4 defense in an attempt to fix last year’s problems.
After the Aggies jumped out to a 10-0 lead last year, Arkansas scored 30 unanswered points before half. Mallet finished with four touchdown passes and the offense added another 163 yards on the ground.
Though the Aggies are expected to be much improved this next year, it should be a matchup—if the Hogs are indeed for real—that Arkansas dominates this year as they did last.
It is a Big 12 matchup, after all—two highly offensive teams with suspect defenses.
Belief in Arkansas as an SEC title contender is based on the premise that a team can be good enough on offense to counter any shortcomings on defense. That in itself is a Big 12 maxim, certainly not one seen proven in the SEC any time in recent memory.
And while the A&M game will not affect any conference chase the Hogs are entangled in, it is a game on a large stage that will draw lots of attention. Moreover, it is a matchup of coaches whose rejuvenation efforts have yet to take hold.
It is also a game the Hogs need to win to either counter a possible rough start to conference play, or solidify themselves as a real player on the national stage.
The matchup with Auburn is an interesting juxtaposition. Both teams feature star-making offenses that require constant defensive adjustment as the game moves along.
Both teams also sport defenses no one is quite sure about at this point.
If expectations are low, it is tough to come in underneath them. But, expectations do not get much higher than those found around Auburn University right now. My own feeling is that the Tigers are still a year away on the defensive side of the ball, but possess enough talent to keep it interesting.
Arkansas, conversely, lost the best players from a defense that ranked last in the SEC this past season. Depth, leadership, and talent level are all questions the Hogs must have solid answers for in order to be considered real contenders in the West.
And they just do not have them.
Best case scenario: Arkansas enters Jordan-Hare stadium having won in Athens and upset Alabama in Fayetteville. The game could then become the last real hurdle for the West crown. The Hogs get two of their last three division games—Ole Miss and LSU—at home.
Worst case, the Hogs go down in Athens and fall to Alabama. Even a win over Texas A&M does little to stem the faithful from focusing on something else besides 0-2. Auburn then becomes a game Petrino must win to keep the wolves at bay.
Even a 1-1 record means a must-win. There are not many scenarios in which a two-loss team—with both losses occurring in the division—gets a team to Atlanta.
Auburn is, simply, a very important game.
Arkansas should be markedly better in 2010, and Bobby Petrino—in his third year—needs it to be. In bad years, rivalry games matter and not having beaten Houston Nutt in either of the last two years has been a point Arkansas fans have focused on.
If 2010 is another year in which the Ole Miss game becomes the season’s most important in Fayetteville, it means the Hogs have fallen quickly from preseason expectations.
It also means Bobby Petrino is in trouble.
I am not a believer that the SEC can be won simply by overpowering everyone on offense. Defenses—including coaches—are too good in the SEC not to figure things out. There is a reason the Big 12 is 1-6 in the last seven Cotton Bowls.
As opportunistic and notable as the Arkansas offense is, they only go as far as their defense takes them.
Last season, Arkansas had the second-best total offense and led the league in scoring. They were also last in total defense.
What exactly about 2010 makes pundits think that same formula will take Arkansas to title contention?
Balance is very important in the SEC, and even sometimes that is not enough. You have to win games with your defense at least once a season. For that reason, it will be very tough for Arkansas to do better than third in the West.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He welcomes and appreciates comments. Click here to view his other articles.