Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Arkansas Preview and Prediction: High On The Hogs?

Bobby Petrino looks for a big break through in year two

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 ended with an upset win over LSU and a 5-7 record. 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 Petrino likes to air it out. What changes can we expect on offense in Bobby 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 8-10 plays this year. That's because Arkansas has a quarterback with a higher ceiling than they did last year and more experienced and varied running backs to compliment their wide receivers which, as a unit, are one of the best in the nation. In other words, I expect more 3rd 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 3 of the conference. The only other team that can say this...Florida.

How has Ryan Mallett looked in the off season? 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 90's) and that is the ability to throw vertically when necessary; Mallett has the arm strength.

Highly touted QB Ryan Mallett returns home to Arkansas to lead the Razorbacks this year

Two starters are gone on 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 Smith (1000+ yard rusher) was a small back and just got dinged up by the end of the year. And there was a receiver or two that went down, but Arkansas had more receivers than good, eligible backs last year so not that worrisome. On defense, both the linebacking corp and the secondary unit were not real deep to start with and were pretty decimated by mid-season. 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 eluded to in the previous answer, I am a firm believer that all 3 units must play defense. The offense can't turn the ball over or leave the defense on the field 3/4's of the game. The special teams can't give up 30+ yards routinely on punt coverage. And, 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 off-season so I foresee that getting better too.

Who are the top freshman this year Fayetteville?

Winston was the prize recruit from this past year's cycle. He was the number one 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 Deon Sanders type of lock-down 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 4/5 star backs with him. They are now officially "loaded" at that position. And Wingo is also 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. Because of the proximity of the two schools, both of them being in the SEC West, the fact that it's the last game of the season for each and, prior to the dominance of LSU recently, 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 2 seasons, Arkansas was 5-6.

He took some great recruits from Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and went to the Cotton Bowl last year. And, 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 so 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 8-ball the rest of the way trying to catch up.

I still vividly remember this scene the same night Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons

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 4 non-conference games which are: Missouri State, Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, 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 expectation. 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 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 4th quarter. Still, it was a only a two point differential between Petrino's team that finished 5-7 and 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. 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 pre-season 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+ 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 flack 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.

My Prediction...
7-5, 3-5, Bowl Game

Best Case Scenario: 9-3
Worst Case Scenario: 6-6

Vegas Odds:
BCS Championship 75/1
SEC Championship 25/1 (8th)
Win Total - 7

Thanks again to
Donald for his insight.


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