Smithson looks back, ahead in an in-depth preview of 2011 season for Hogs
It is 113 degrees outside, and autumn cannot get here quickly enough. Arkansas fans are excited for the coming season after tasting their first BCS game in school history. But beware the heat! Razorback history is full of lessons of high expectations and somber results. And most of those expectations did not happen in the excruciatingly difficult Southeastern Conference.
UA coach Bobby Petrino
Frank Broyles led the Razorbacks to three consecutive first-place finishes in 1959 through 1961. The '62 season began a trend most Hog fans would rather forget. In 1962, Arkansas finished 9-1 but was second in the Southwest Conference. Arkansas lost to only Texas in conference play but that was enough to not win the conference. It became pattern for the next 20 years. Lose to Texas, lose the championship. Unfortunately, beating Texas did not assure the Razorbacks the championship either.
Arkansas was favored to win the SWC in 1963, 1969, 1972, 1978 and 1986 without success. Transitioning to the SEC in the middle eighties might have helped Arkansas' stature with its new brethren as Ken Hatfield had great talent and his Razorbacks played very good football. By the time the Razorbacks did join the SEC, Hatfield was gone and talent was at an all-time low. Danny Ford brought an old school, Bear Bryant mentality, and the players got better. The Razorbacks run to Atlanta in 1995 was discounted by most SEC watchers, however, and not a breakthrough to the upper class of the SEC.
A revival took place in 1998. With Ford's now SEC-ready players and Houston Nutt's enthusiasm, Arkansas made its run for the SEC West crown and a trip to Atlanta. Mississippi State detours the Hogs, but the run makes the Razorbacks the preseason favorite in the West in 1999. Only a victory over the hated Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl took the tarnish off of an average 8-4 season that included losses to Ole Miss, Kentucky and an LSU team that lost its coach a week before.
While the Razorbacks are not the favorite in 2011 as Alabama or LSU are the overwhelming choices to win the SEC West, SEC Championship and even National Championship, Arkansas fans have voiced high expectations for the Razorbacks. Can the Hogs match last year's 10-2 season and BCS trip? Will the faithful be happy with a 9-3 or 8-4 campaign if a bowl win tops the season? I thought the Razorbacks had an opportunity to win their first SEC championship last year but did not count on the monster year Cam Newton had on the Plains. One more thing to think about: Alabama has replaced Texas as that must-win game. Beat Bama and you have a CHANCE for big things. Lose to the Crimson Tide and winning the West is almost impossible. There is an interesting note on the Texas/Alabama comparison. Arkansas is 20-56-0 (Cotton Bowl excluded) against Texas, a .263 winning percentage. The Razorbacks are 7-11 against the Tide (taking out bowls & the forfeit) for a .388 winning percentage. Arkansas is having better success against Alabama than against Texas.
LET'S LOOK AT 2011
The season breaks neatly into four three-week stretches: Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy; Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn; Ole Miss, Vandy and South Carolina; Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU. The season is split by an open date on October 15. This year all of the non-conference games are bunched together, four in five weeks. We old-timers remember that Coach Broyles' success always started with two non-conference wins and then TCU to open conference play. It gave the Razorbacks time to work out the kinks. This year is similar with Missouri State, New Mexico and then Troy, which has a dangerous quarterback. Are you ready for the heat? Here it comes!
Missouri State: The Bears scored a lot of points last year thanks to senior quarterback Cody Kirby from Rogers. His likely replacement will be 6-2, 227-pound sophomore Trevor Wooden who played wide receiver last year. Two senior running backs, Chris Douglas (1,051 yards) & Stephen Johnston (752 yards) will help Wooden in his first start. The Bears have some size on both lines but not like Arkansas, and they will not have the athleticism the Razorbacks have. Hog fans leave Donald W Reynolds Razorback Stadium very happy.
New Mexico: Lobo coach Mike Locksley liked how his spring game came out as the Silver beat the Cherry 41-0. Locksley noted that the team was more athletic and knew the system better and could play faster. After a 1-11 season last year, the Lobos hope so. New Mexico averaged 15 points a game and gave up 44 points a game. Sophomore dual-threat QB Tarean Austin will test the Hog defense. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson shows Little Rock his rapport with the best receiving corps in the country and the capitol city rocks.
Troy: Like the Razorbacks, the Trojans ended their season playing in the Super Dome in a bowl game against a team from Ohio. Unlike Arkansas, Troy put a 27-point whipping on THE Ohio University. The Trojans' sophomore quarterback Corey Robinson passed for 3,726 yards and 28 touchdowns with 15 interceptions last year. Offensively, this is a dangerous team. While the defense is not up to par with the offense, Troy always has athletes. Arkansas cannot look ahead to Alabama. Bobby Petrino has brought the program too far to let this type of game get away. A pumped Fayetteville crowd starts talking about Tuscaloosa.
ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide will be No. 1 or No. 2 in the polls as this game starts on CBS. The Razorbacks have lost four straight to Alabama. It is their longest skid since they lost the first three to the Tide after joining the SEC in 1992. From 1994 until 2007 the Razorbacks were 7-7 against Alabama. The Alabama roster is full of 1-, 2- and 3-year lettermen, but quarterback is not one of those spots. AJ McCarron, the likely starter, is a sophomore. He is being pushed by Phillip Sims (no relation to Phil Sims), a redshirt freshman who was a Rivals top 100 player and Bama's No. 2 pro-style quarterback. True freshman Phillip Ely and Morgan Ogilvie (son of Alabama legend Major Ogilvie) round out the group. Could this be the weak link for the Crimson Tide? Arkansas, under Petrino, has not topped the 20-point mark against Saban's defense. The Razorback defense, however, has closed the scoring gap every year, 49 to 35 to 24. The million dollar questions are: Can Wilson and the offense handle the Alabama blitzes? Can a veteran Razorback defense keep the Tide offense tied up and in the teens or less on the scoreboard? Petrino needs a breakthrough win at Arkansas and this is the game.
Texas A&M: The Aggies are getting a lot of press despite being pounded in the Cotton Bowl by LSU. The injection of Ryan Tannehill as starting quarterback ignited a six-game winning streak last fall that put the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl. While Tannehill's passer rating was better than Jerrod Johnson (137 to 125), all of the other QB stats were negligible. Texas A&M's success during its run had more to do with Cyrus Gray than Tannehill. Like Knile Davis' yardage blitz the last six games and bowl, Gray had seven straight 100-plus yard games with a high of 223 yards against Texas. Last year the Aggies seemed to want the game more than the Razorbacks, but Arkansas just did the Petrino grind and survived. They will have to do better than that in a game the Aggies need to verify they are moving up the food chain. Is it their "SEC application" game?
AUBURN: Tiger fans are more pumped than Arkansas fans for this season to begin. Their hopes are all based on the rankings of their recruiting classes and not the returning experience. From saturdaydownsouth.com: "With just seven starters coming back in 2011, the Tigers have fewer returning starters than any other team in the country. That's not fewest in the SEC or fewest of the major conferences. In terms of front-line experience, the '11 Tigers will be 120th out of 120." The Tigers will not be bad but will not return to the BCS this year. This is a game that Arkansas wants after last season's game, and Fayetteville will be rocking.
MISSISSIPPI: After a week off, the Razorbacks travel to Oxford. The Rebel Black Bears did not have the season that they hoped for last year with the arrival of Jeremiah Masoli. Ole Miss' QB roster looks like Alabama's: Randall Mackey is a redshirt junior who is neck and neck with sophomore transfer Barry Brunetti with junior college transfer Zack Stoudt vying for playing time. Even with the lack of experience at QB, Houston Nutt has some security: four returning starters on the offensive line and 1,000-yard tailback Brandon Bolden. Ole Miss could be a pretty beat-up football team by the time the Razorbacks arrive. It opens the season with BYU, Southern Illinois, at Vanderbilt, Georgia, at Fresno State and Alabama. A Rebel Black Bear young secondary will not be able to cover the Hogs.
VANDERBILT: Vanderbilt's athletic website (yes, it has a website) shows a current roster of 79 players. An incredible 53 are redshirts. Of the remaining 26 players, 14 are sophomores, so new head coach James Franklin has his work cut out for him. Nashville is a great town to visit and frankly, they expect to be out numbered at the stadium. So Hog fans, do not disappoint them. This is a take-care-of-business-for-the-pollsters' game for Arkansas.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Last year was a breakthrough year for the Gamecocks. They win the SEC East and play for the SEC championship. Now comes the toughest year, REPEATING. USC's recruiting has gotten better (according to the rankings) so the Gamecocks have upped their depth. Marcus Lattimore is a stud running back, and when USC can get him going, it makes QB Stephen Garcia that much better. Can Lattimore take the pounding? He did not play against Vanderbilt last year and only had four games over 100 yards, but boy were they big games: 37 for 182 vs. Georgia; 29 for 184 vs. Tennessee; 40 for 212 vs. Florida; 7 for 102 vs. Troy. Garcia upped his completion percentage from 55 percent in '09 to 64 percent in '10. Alshon Jeffery (6-4, 233, junior) is the guy most of the media hands the crown of SEC's best receiver. This trio has to take all of the offensive heat. The defense line and linebackers are seasoned, and the Gamecocks added incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney (6-4, 245) to go with Devin Taylor (6-7, 248) so the defense should be stout BUT ... I just have a hard time not seeing the scores of the last two games (33-16, 41-20) that were Hog victories. And the USC defense scored the last touchdown last year! Which team is healthy? Which team is playing to their potential? The game is in Fayetteville. Hog fans will gladly take the average of the last two games against the Gamecocks.
TENNESSEE: This game scares me. The Volunteers seem to slowly be recovering from Lane Kiffin, and Derek Dooley has a long SEC pedigree. Sophomore QB Tyler Bray sparked a season-ending four-game winning streak and completed 27 of 45 for 312 yards and four TDs against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. Senior running back Tauren Poole rushed for 1,034 yards last year and continued Tennessee's history of great running backs. This game reminds me of the Razorback game in Columbia last year. The games before and after this one are more important. Tennessee only has five returning starters on defense this year so that should play into the offensive minded Hogs. Razorback fans need to be on their game for this SEC battle. To win championships, you have to win games like this.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: How happy would you be if your team closed the season with a 52-14 bowl thumping of Michigan? They are pretty happy in Starkville and feel like they have an opportunity to challenge for the SEC West slot in the Championship game for the first time since Jackie Sherrill roamed the sidelines. Seniors Chris Relf and Vick Ballard will lead a tough offense that returns eight starters. The Bulldogs' schedule is a hodge-podge with only one stretch with three SEC games in a row. They go to Auburn for Game 2 and have LSU at home on a Thursday night ESPN game for Game 3. MSU does not have a good history of playing in the state of Arkansas, and the Little Rock crowd knows how important this one will be. Jericho Nelson saved the Hogs' bacon last year in overtime by forcing Ballard to fumble the go-ahead touchdown. The flip side is Arkansas put points on the board against a fairly stout ‘Dog defense. Arkansas loves playing in Little Rock and they know how important this game will be.
LSU: This game is back to the (what has become) normal Friday after Thanksgiving afternoon TV time slot for the Razorbacks and the Tigers. This game could be for all the marbles for one or both teams. LSU has size, speed and athleticism all over the field. That said, they are never perfect! The Razorbacks are oh so close to a four-game winning streak against LSU. With all of the great players LSU has, how is it possible that the Hogs have won three of the last four? It is possible because the Razorback players have become faster and stronger and more athletic over the past three years and have a head coach who EXPECTS all-out effort, execution and to win. Has Jordan Jefferson finally lived up to expectations? Will new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe have this Tiger offense playing more like his Tulsa teams or his Louisville teams? This seems to be the biggest question. While LSU has great talent, of the 20 players listed on the roster as either a cornerback or a defensive back, only six have letters. At this point in the season, health plays a big part. If that is equal, look at the coaches: Petrino or Miles, your choice!
Most analysts are shying away from the Razorbacks winning the SEC because they travel to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. I do not think this Arkansas team will be intimidated by those locations. In my eyes, there are four what I am calling "asterisk" games. Those games will determine if it is an 8-4 or better season.
Games 1, 2 & 3
Missouri State, New Mexico &Troy
The season begins with a non-conference plate perfect for Arkansas. A couple of teams that have good QBs will let us know if the defense is all we hope for. Playing against young defenses that will let the Razorback line and quarterbacks get comfortable is a big plus. Razorbacks stand 3-0 heading to Tuscaloosa.
Games 4, 5 & 6
Alabama, Texas A&M & Auburn
This group of games includes two asterisk games. This set of three will say a lot about the Razorbacks' record and what bowl game could be in the offing. Nick Saban spent extra time watching Arkansas film last year. Penn State will take a little more of his time this year but not much. He knows this is a very big game and the winner jumps to the lead in winning the west and the SEC. The A&M game is dangerous for two reasons: 1. The Aggies want it. 2. It falls after a hugely emotional game the week before. No matter what happens against the Tide and the Aggies, the Tigers go down in Fayetteville. I think 3-0 is possible but not likely. 1-2 is very possible but I think the Hogs stand 2-1 for this set and 5-1 overall.
Games 7, 8 & 9
Ole Miss, Vanderbilt & South Carolina
While Ole Miss will not be a pushover, this is the easiest two-game SEC road stretch that Arkansas has had since joining the conference. Both trips are easy to make so Razorback fans, take every available ticket and support your team. I think South Carolina slips back down to its normal position in the East this year, maybe getting by Tennessee but ending up behind Georgia and Florida. Razorback fans' hearts start to beat a little faster after another 3-0 stretch for the Hogs. Setting 8-1 for the season with two home games still to go, things are looking good.
Games 10, 11 & 12
Tennessee, Mississippi State & LSU
This is a tough way to end the season. Three very good, athletic teams looking for big wins. As a Razorback fan, you have to love it! Location, location location - Fayetteville and Little Rock give Arkansas the nod in the first two. Both will not be easy, but I expect the Razorbacks to own the fourth quarter with home crowds roaring! Now, on to Baton Rouge. The winner is in great position for the BCS depending on the outcome of their games with Alabama. How about this: Tide over the Hogs, Tigers over the Tide and finally, Hogs over the Tigers and the SEC ends up with three 11-1 teams to end the year IN ONE DIVISION! This will mean going with the BCS standings to break the tie!! While I love this idea, my head tells me that LSU senior Jordan Jefferson makes the plays and this set of three ends up 2-1. Back to back 10-2 seasons will be a big step for Arkansas. Now to something I have told you before, WIN THE BOWL GAME! I firmly believe that Arkansas would be thought of much better in the national media if the Razorbacks could win bowl games. If a "scoop and score" had happened in New Orleans, an 11-2 Razorback team would have ended the season in the Top 6, and A&M would not be ranked ahead of the Hogs in the preseason poles.
It is HOT OUTSIDE, and the football talk is HEATING UP. Can the Razorbacks take the HEAT? I think they will handle most of it and have another big year. GO HOGS!"