Arkansas Razorbacks: 4 Reasons Why the Hogs Will Win the SEC West
As we near the end of July and into the training camp-filled days of August, I am quite sure that all you Razorback fans have heard the meaningless babbling of the media who heap excessive praise upon teams that have yet to play a down of football together.
As you pore over preseason predictions by writers who likely have never strapped anything other than a bicycle helmet (and, to be fair, I deserve to be included in that category as well), you may be wandering one thing like I have:
Why are the Razorbacks being so disrespected by the SEC media?
At the recently completed 2011 SEC Media Days, the Razorbacks were tabbed to finish third in the SEC West behind the first-place Alabama Crimson Tide and second-place LSU Tigers.
Those well-versed in the art of preseason predictions know that they are largely based off of three things: A team's record from the previous year, amount of returning starters, and (perceived) difficulty of the schedule.
Yet, there are a multitude of less (and sometimes more) tangible factors at play that can predict a team's success in the upcoming season.
Here are four such reasons why the team that will win the SEC West in 2011 will be chanting "Woo Pig Sooie" instead of "Roll Tide."
1. Unproven QB's at Alabama
Now, before you get too excited about pointing out to me that Arkansas also has an unproven quarterback, let's look at why the situation is much more dire in Tuscaloosa than in Fayetteville.
In 2011, Alabama will be replacing the solid and steady Greg McElroy who led the Crimson Tide to the 2010 BCS National Championship. The two QB's who will be battling it out to fill the void of McElroy are redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and sophomore AJ McCarron, neither of whom has ever started a game in the college ranks.
In addition, as head coach Nick Saban recently intimated on ESPN's College Football Live, he is willing to let the starting quarterback position be earned on the field, meaning that Crimson Tide may not declare a starter until they travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State in their second game of the season (only two weeks before they play Arkansas).
This could lead to some early growing pains for the Crimson Tide as they make the aforementioned trip to take on Joe Paterno and his Nittany Lions with a potentially unsettled quarterback situation.
2. Inconsistent QB Play at LSU
Despite owning a gaudy 20-7 record as a starting quarterback, to say Jordan Jefferson was inconsistent in 2010 would be a monumental understatement.
During the 2010 campaign, Jefferson threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (seven). Also, Jefferson's 56.5 completion percentage and 1,411 passing yards placed him among the cellar-dwellers of starting quarterback's in the SEC.
While there's little doubt that Jefferson will improve in 2011 (a solid receiving corp led by Reuben Randle will surely help) he also has yet to show any signs of improving his passing skills enough to lead LSU back into contention for the SEC title.
Which means that Arkansas and it's new QB Tyler Wilson won't be at an enormous disadvantage when it comes time to face the SEC heavyweight on their turf in 2011. And, given that Wilson will have a greater array of weapons at his disposal at the running back and wide receiver position than his LSU counterpart, this gives the Razorbacks a huge advantage over their SEC foe.
3. Better Skill Position Players
Alabama and LSU both possess great skill position players, but largely at one position.
For Alabama, that is running back, where potential All-American Trent Richardson, who amassed over 700 yards rushing in 2010 while primarily serving as the back-up to 2009 Heisman Trophy-winner Mark Ingram, returns to lead the Crimson Tide offense.
For the Bayou Bengals, it's at wide receiver, where a deep group is lead by big play threat Reuben Randle, who averaged a remarkable 16.5 yards per catch in 2010.
That's all fine and dandy for both squads, but where one is strong, the other is weak.
Alabama lost leading receiver and the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Julio Jones.To fill the void, the Crimson Tide will have to rely heavily on senior Marquis Maze to make up for the enormous loss, an expectation that doesn't seem to be realistic.
For LSU, leading rusher Steven Ridley is gone, and their leading returning rusher is the aforementioned Jordan Jefferson, who averaged only 3.4 yards per rush in 2010.
With both the Crimson Tide and Tigers clearly weak at one position, there is only one top contender who returns proven veterans and potential All-Americans at both the running back and wide receiver positions.
In 2010, Arkansas running back Knile Davis led all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards rushing. In addition, he also led all SEC running backs by posting an average of 101.7 rushing ypg. Not only is Davis primed and ready to exceed those numbers in 2011, but he has plenty of returning help in the form of speedy Dennis Johnson and the bruising Ronnie Wingo Jr.
But, as stacked as the Razorbacks appear to be at running back, it pales in comparison to what Arkansas boasts at the wide receiver position.
In 2011, Arkansas will be the only team in the entire country to have not one, not two, not three, but four receivers on the roster who amassed over 600 yards receiving in 2010. In fact, the Razorback receivers are so loaded, that they possess at least one receiver on each of the three preseason All-SEC teams as chosen during the SEC Media Days. Yes, with Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton, the Razorbacks will suit up what is almost universally considered to be the best group of receivers in the nation.
Which means that when taking a holistic approach to the skill positions at LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, the Razorbacks hold a clear advantage.
4. More Favorable Non-Conference Schedule
Yes, I am fully aware that non-conference schedules don't factor into who wins the conference, but there is a reason why Arkansas' more navigable non-conference schedule will actually help them in SEC play.
When playing fellow BCS powers, the likelihood of intense, smash mouth football with larger and more physical players increases. This, of course, is highly correlated with copious amounts of injuries.
Why is this a benefit to Arkansas?
Despite playing a brutal SEC schedule, LSU went out of their way in 2011 to schedule last year's runner-up (Oregon) in Dallas, and go on the road to a Big East power (West Virginia) as apart of their non-conference slate.
Although I respect the heck out of the Mad Hatter (LSU's coach Les Miles) and his Tigers for playing such a brutal non-conference schedule, it actually works against the Tigers to play such good, physical teams when other schools (like Arkansas) are resting up against much easier opponents.
There is an opposing school of thought to this that contends that scheduling tougher out-of-conference games helps prepare a team for the rigors of conference play. Although there is substantial truth to that statement, it naively overlooks the physical toll players take when banging helmets against fellow big-time Division I FBS players.
LSU is not alone in their slate of tough non-conference games, as Alabama has to travel to Penn State and take on a revamped Nittany Lions squad that will be fired up by the 110,000+ raucous fans that will pack Beaver Stadium looking for revenge after last season's 24-0 loss in Tuscaloosa. That game alone will test the mental and physical fortitude of Nick Saban's squad as Joe Paterno always puts together a tough and physical team. And, even if the Crimson Tide pull out the victory, they have to face the Razorbacks only two weeks later. No doubt a tough stretch for the Tide to get through unblemished.
And now, you must surely be asking, how is Arkansas's schedule much more favorable?
Well, for one, Arkansas only has one tough non-conference game, and it isn't even truly a road game.
In the Razorback's final non-conference game, they play Texas A&M at Cowboy Stadium. This will undoubtedly be a very tough game for the Hogs to win as many are picking Texas A&M to be a top-15 team in 2011. But, given that the crowd will more than likely be an even split between Razorbacks and Aggies, the Razorbacks will be at no disadvantage in terms of the environment (unlike what LSU and Alabama will face).
True, the game will be physical and tough just like LSU-West Virginia and Alabama-Penn State, but the Razorbacks have a much more favorable set-up in their one tough non-conference game.
Arkansas' more favorable non-conference schedule compared to LSU and Alabama, in the context of potential bumps and bruises, works clearly in the Hogs' favor.