What more can be said about the season Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino and his Razorbacks have had that has not already been said? Simply put, they had one of the best seasons in the school’s history.
With all due respect to all previous Arkansas teams, maybe the second-best ever?
Petrino guided Arkansas to their third 11-win season in school history (1964, Broyles; 1977, Holtz), first in the BCS era. In the process the Razorbacks played four teams ranked in the BCS Top 10, finishing the season with a 29-16 win over Big 12 runner-up, No. 8 Kansas State Wildcats.
Entering the 2011 season the Hogs offense only returned four starters from 2010’s 10-win BCS Sugar Bowl team. Players gone to the NFL included: starting quarterback Ryan Mallett, All-SEC offensive linemen DeMarcus Love and Wade Grayson and Mackey Award-winning tight end D.J. Williams.
The Hogs were dealt two significant losses during spring and fall practices when running backs Knile Davis (foot) and Broderick Green (knee) suffered major injuries. Adding to the offensive woes was a hamstring injury to junior running back Dennis Johnson, a 2009 All-American as a kickoff returner.
Petrino had the arduous task of getting first-year starter junior quarterback Tyler Wilson, three offensive linemen, running back Ronnie Wingo Jr. and a new starting tight end ready for one of the more demanding schedules in college football.
The 2010 Arkansas team was one of the most prolific scoring teams in school history, finishing the season No. 17 in scoring offense (36.5 points per game) and No. 9 in total offense (482.5 yards per game) in Division 1-A.
Life was no easier on defense for coordinator Willy Robinson. The Razorbacks returned seven starters after losing players like Rudell Crim, Anthony Leon and Ramon Broadway.
During the 2010 season, the Hogs ranked 36th in total defense (348 yards per game) after playing six ranked teams: No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Auburn, No. 18 South Carolina, No. 22 Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU and No. 6 Ohio State.
The overlooked Razorback defense had a stronger finish than most expected, ending No. 47 in total defense in 2011 allowing an average of 363 yards per game. Their scoring defense improved from No. 47 (23.4 points per game) in 2010 to No. 33 (22.23 points per game).
Playing not only in the toughest football conference in Division 1-A but perhaps the toughest division in college football history, the Hogs managed to finish the 2011 season with only two defeats, both coming on the road to then-No. 3 Alabama and No. 1 LSU.
Regardless of the shortage on returning starters, Petrino added to his reputation as one of the greatest offensive football minds in the game after leading the Hogs to an average of 438.08 yards per game (No. 1 in the SEC) and the No. 16-ranked scoring offense in Division 1-A, averaging 36.77 points per game.
The Razorback offense played four teams that finished in the top 20 in total defense: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 South Carolina and No. 18 Vanderbilt.
On the schedule for the Hogs were Tennessee and Mississippi State. Both teams ended up No. 27 and No. 35, respectively, in total defense.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson led the SEC in total passing yards (3,638), completion percentage among quarterbacks with over 300 passing attempts (63.2), total completions (277) and finished second in total touchdown passes (24).
Comparing Wilson’s 2011 season to Mallett’s 2010: Wilson had 11 more completions, eight fewer touchdown passes but threw six fewer interceptions (six total). Mallett threw for 231 more total yards than Wilson.
Wilson spread the ball around to his receivers in Petrino’s offense. His favorite target was senior receiver Jarius Wright. Wright led the SEC in yards (1,117) and touchdowns (12). He finished second to Da’Rick Rogers (Tennessee) in total receptions with 66 to Rogers’ 67.
Seven Arkansas players caught 20 or more passes, four amassing over 500 total receiving yards: Wright; Joe Adams, 54 catches for 652 yards; Cobi Hamilton, 34 receptions for 542 yards; Chris Gragg, 41 catches for 518 yards; Dennis Johnson, 24 receptions for 255 total yards; Greg Childs, 21 receptions for 240 yards; and Ronnie Wingo Jr., 20 catches 187 total yards.
Wright, Adams and Childs are all graduating seniors. Which returning Razorback receivers will replace this dynamic trio?
Cobi Hamilton is a junior with great speed and a knack for breaking loose in the opposition's secondary. As a freshman, Hamilton averaged 18.3 yards per catch, as a sophomore he averaged 19.7 and this year he posted a 15.9 yard per catch average.
True freshman wide receiver Marquel Wade (Jacksonville, Florida) made an immediate impact on special teams for the Hogs with his game-breaking speed. Wade averaged 25.6 yards per kickoff return, taking one of 14 returns to the house for an 85-yard touchdown.
Julian Horton, Quinta Funderburk, Keante Minor, Maudrecus Humphrey and Javontee Herndon are all eagerly waiting for their chance to replace the aforementioned departing Razorback receiving corps.
Perhaps two of the most difficult players to replace on the entire team will be linebacker Jerry Franklin and defensive end Jake Bequette.
Franklin led the team in tackles in each of the past four seasons. Franklin registered over 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons and was the heart and soul of the Razorback defense.
Bequette finished the season tied for second in the SEC with 10 sacks despite missing action in four different games. Bequette graduates third on the Razorback career sack list with 23.5—Wayne Martin had 25.5 and Henry Ford 25.
Junior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, sophomore defensive end Chris Smith and true freshman defensive end Trey Flowers (Huntsville, Alabama) all appear ready to take over for the senior players.
Highsmith was second on the team with 4.5 sacks and third in total tackles with 80. He finished No. 10 in the SEC with 12.5 tackles for a loss. Smith was third on the team with 3.5 sacks and Flowers plays with a motor that never stops.
The secondary will miss the athletic play of safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas led the Razorbacks in interceptions the past two seasons—four in 2010 and five in 2011. He was also second in total tackles for the Hogs this year with 91.
Not accounting for players leaving early for the NFL, the Razorbacks should return seven starters on offense: Wilson, guard; Alvin Bailey, center; Travis Swanson, tackle; Jason Peacock, early-season starter; true freshman Mitch Smothers (Springdale, Arkansas); tight end Chris Gragg and running back Dennis Johnson.
Fullback Kiero Small, receiver Cobi Hamilton and running back Ronnie Wingo’s contributions as starters cannot be overlooked heading into 2012.
Much speculation has centered on the return of All-SEC running back Knile Davis. Most Razorback fans expect Davis to return to his 2010 form in 2012 when he totaled 1,322 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns—second-highest total in the SEC to Cam Newton’s 1,473.
Rumblings have Davis possibly declaring for the NFL Draft despite missing the entire 2011 season.
Is it too late to start a “one more year” campaign for Davis in Fayetteville?
Regardless of Davis’ 2012 status, the Hogs will be stacked at running back with Johnson, Wingo and Kody Walker returning.
Defensively, the Hogs will return seven starters: linemen Bryan Jones, Robert Thomas and Tenarius Wright; Highsmith; corners Darius Winston and true freshman Tevin Mitchell (Mansfield, Texas), with safety Eric Bennett.
The play of the Razorback front seven against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl has fans excited about the arrival of new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes.
Arkansas held the Wildcats to 87 total rushing yards while totaling six sacks. The secondary limited KSU quarterback Collin Klein to 173 passing yards.
Is this a sign of things to come from Arkansas' defense?
On special teams, Arkansas will return punter Dylan Breeding and placekicker Zach Hocker. Breeding led the SEC in punting averaging 45.28 yards per punt. His ability to flip the field of play was a defensive weapon throughout the season.
Hocker was fourth in the SEC in field-goal percentage (78) and tied for second in total field goals (21). Hocker led the SEC with 40 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade give the Razorbacks two of the better return specialists in the SEC. Johnson and Wade both returned kickoffs for touchdowns in 2011.
The schedule plays into Arkansas’ favor in 2012. With seven home games, including SEC rivals Alabama and LSU and the possible addition of another home non-conference game, the Hogs should find comfort in the friendly confines of Reynolds Razorback Stadium and War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Arkansas was undefeated at home in 2011.
Vanderbilt and Tennessee are rotated off the schedule for a home game against Kentucky. SEC newcomer Texas A&M, a team the Hogs have beaten three straight years in non-conference play, becomes a permanent fixture as a SEC West divisional rival.
With all of the returning talent and home schedule, a third straight 10-win season for the Hogs is a more than reasonable expectation.
Petrino leading Arkansas to their only back-to-back 11-win seasons is a possibility worth visiting Las Vegas.
Watching the Razorbacks roll to the SEC Championship Game in 2012 with a chance to play in the BCS National Championship game is what Razorback Nation has been waiting for.
Any Razorback fans ready for fall practices yet?