Yesterday we began unveiling our Preseason Top 10 and coming in at No. 10 was West Virginia followed by No. 9 Ohio State. So, who could be up next? It's a team that's seen their share of headlines in the offseason, but mostly for the wrong reasons.
They also happen to be the first team coming out of the SEC and we're talking about the Razorbacks of Arkansas making our Top 10 list at No. 8. This pick may surprise a few people, but that's exactly how the Hogs are looking at the 2012 season, as an opportunity to surprise a few people. They have a 21-5 record in the past two years and return a ton of talent for 2012, but they also have issues following the dismissal of former head coach Bobby Petrino, the man that led the Hogs resurgence. My advice - avoid Harley rides and racy text messages to women that aren't your wife, it's not worth the cheap thrills in the end - just ask Petrino.
Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10
No. 8 - Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas in a word: Offensive
I don't mean offensive in the bad sense, as this is a team that must clearly rely on the offensive unit to win it games thanks to a defense that is still playing catch up in a league that's more defensive minded than ever before. Former coach Bobby Petrino was an offensive guru and he's left new head man John L. Smith with some very good parts to form a very explosive offense. That unit needs to play up to it's numbers from last year (36.8ppg - 1st in SEC, 438.1ypg - 1st in SEC, 300.7ypg passing - 1st in SEC) so that it can help a rebuilding defense that gave up 22.2 points a game last year (8th in the SEC).
Overall the 2011 Razorbacks offense ranked near or at the top in just about every offensive category you can think of and arguably only Alabama had a better offense as a whole inside the conference. Add in Heisman trophy contender Knile Davis alongside proven QB Tyler Wilson and the 2012 version of the Hogs could be even more explosive on the offensive side of the ball.
Why Arkansas will live up to billing:
Being able to run the ball in the SEC is a game changer. It allows you to control the tempo of the game and perhaps no other running back could be as dynamic as Knile Davis, who is returning after suffering a broken ankle prior to last season. The 2010 all-SEC performer was a legit preseason Heisman candidate last year and should be one again in 2012. Pairing him with quarterback Tyler Wilson, who is considered by many as a Heisman front-runner as well, only adds to the potentially explosive nature of this offense. Despite losing three of his best wide receivers Wilson still has Cobi Hamilton (a potential all-SEC WR) and a bevy of talented tight ends to throw to.
New HC John L. Smith also should be a steadying force in his year at the helm of the program and that may help because the defensive unit has a ton of turnover both in players and in the coaching staff after Willy Robinson was let go as defensive coordinator after last season. The interior of the Hogs D-Line could really help slow some teams down as it goes about 6 deep and features potential all-SEC players Byran Jones and Robert Thomas.
Let's also not forget that in the SEC the kicking game can mean the world and Arkansas has one of the nations elite kickers and punters in Zach Hocker and Dylan Breeding.
On the scheduling side of things the Razorbacks do get both Alabama and LSU at home this season and that's a huge advantage in those key games in the SEC West race.
Why Arkansas will disappoint:
There's simply one reason: No Bobby Petrino. He had a way of dealing with what defenses were throwing at him that few if any other offensive coaches had - a near photographic recall of opposing defenses schemes and their tendencies. That's simply priceless to any quarterback and Wilson could be the player most hurt by Petrino's dismissal.
Also on offense there's a lot of question as to who will step up at wide receiver outside of Cobi Hamilton, if no consistent target can be found this once pass happy offense could be heading for ground and pound territory, something it's not really built to handle for a full game.
There's also a lot of question as to what to expect form a defensive unit that is simply trying to plug and play people at this point in time. If they can't figure out a group that gives them consistent effort and better play than a year ago winning games against the likes of Alabama and LSU (their biggest hurdles to climb) are going to huge uphill battles.
Key Game: vs. Alabama (Sept. 15)
Some say early season games aren't always make or break, but for Arkansas to become true contenders in the SEC West they need to show the college football universe that they can beat another contender. In 2011 their two losses were blowouts to both Alabama (14-38) and LSU (17-41) in games they weren't in just past halftime.
If they can find a way to beat what many consider a National title contender, or heck even show they are competitive at that level then this could be a banner season for them. It would also be a huge confidence booster and a statement for John L. Smith.
Let's be clear, a loss here isn't going to kill the season's hopes, but it will set the "here we go again" train in motion and that's a hard one to stop once it gets rolling down the tracks. The easiest way to avoid those thoughts, win vs. Alabama at home.
On the Spot: Tyler Wilson and John L. Smith
In a situation like the one the Hogs find themselves in entering 2012 no two members of a team are more important in steadying the ship than the quarterback and his head coach. Smith has tons of experience both as a head coach (132-86 in 13 seasons) and as an assistant at Arkansas so that should help him steer the rudder of this team.
Wilson must show that he's capable of doing it without the help of Petrino's offensive mind. He's got the tools and the talent around him, but he must step up to the plate in the leadership department in the big moments (ie - vs. Alabama, vs. LSU, and @ Texas A&M). The sharp decision making that was aided by Petrino's in game adjustments must have worn off on Wilson in his time behind center, so now is as good a time as any to show it wasn't all Petrino's doing in the mind department.
There's a lot to like about this team and it is unquestionably one of the most talented teams Arkansas has seen in quite some time. It's also hard to live up to 21-5 over the past two seasons, however in fairness, those loses have come to a defending national champion Alabama (2010), 2010 National Champion Auburn, 2011 National Champion Alabama, 2011 BCS Championship finalist LSU, and in the 2011 Sugar Bowl to Ohio State (since vacated by the Buckeyes).
With a healthy Knile Davis the Razorbacks should vastly improve their running game and that can only help take some of the pressure off of all-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson this season. You know what else would really help? A signature win.
Beating Alabama to start the SEC schedule or beating LSU to end the SEC slate would be a huge indication that this team is ready to take it up a notch and become true national title contenders in 2012.
However, winning both of those games is a heck of a feat, especially considering both are top contenders themselves according to many preseason rankings out there. In the end it comes down to having a defense that can step up and stop someone when it matters. If that happens then you could see Arkansas even higher than No. 8, if not this could be another good, but not great enough season in Fayetteville and that's more along the lines of what is likely to occur for a team that's unfortunately stuck behind two of the countries best inside it's division.
Best Case Scenario: SEC Championship, BCS Title Game, 12-1 or 11-2
Worst Case Scenario: 3rd place SEC West, Cotton Bowl, 9-4