In some ways, we've been waiting for this season for a while.
Ever since Bobby Lowder gassed up the Colonial Bank jet and headed to Louisville in 2003, the question of how good an SEC coach Bobby Petrino would be has been on the table. He finally got an SEC job at Arkansas in 2008, but the conditions haven't been quite right. In his first year, he was stuck making do with the Dick brothers at quarterback. Last season the offense was mostly in place, but his defense wasn't there.
Now, the conditions would appear to be right for him to make a run at a conference championship. He's got his rocket-armed pocket statue behind center with an impressive array of skill position guys around him. He's had three years now to fix the defense. It's not appropriate to use a phrase like "if it's ever going to happen, now's the time" with a coach who has won a BCS game, but it would appear to a great extent that now is a good time for Arkansas to make its move.
Of course, Petrino is an offensive-minded coach in a league that's not known for high-flying fireworks. Offensive-minded coaches in this league tend to do their best when they have great defensive minds backing them up: Phillip Fulmer and David Cutcliffe with John Chavis, Urban Meyer with Charlie Strong, Mark Richt with Brian VanGorder, and so on. Even Steve Spurrier only won his national title with Bob Stoops running the defense.
Petrino originally hired Ellis Johnson as his DC, but Johnson left for his alma mater South Carolina a few weeks after that. That put Petrino in a bind, obviously. He ended up with Willy Robinson, a career position coach whose four years of being a defensive coordinator a three different places didn't exactly inspire some Razorbacks fans. His first two years in Fayetteville have been a bit uneven, to put it delicately. Petrino mentioned back in April that youth in the defense kept the coaches from implementing everything they wanted to the last two years, but now they feel they can mix up coverages more often now that there's some experience back there.
Mixing up some coverages will help with the SEC's 11th-ranked passing defense, but it won't do a whole lot for the SEC's 10th-ranked rushing defense. The fact of the matter is that the defense needs to get a heck of a lot better in one year, and it's an uphill climb when Malcolm Sheppard, the only Razorback defender to make the AP All-SEC team in 2009, has graduated.
Now it's true that Tennessee made the SEC Championship Game in 2007 without stellar rankings on scoring or total defense, but that was in a weird season without a 2010 Alabama-type team in the division. Alabama won't be the same in 2010 as it was in 2009, but the Hogs were nowhere close to beating the Tide last year. That gap has to close because it will be very difficult for anyone to find a way to win the SEC West without beating Alabama.
In terms of expectations, Arkansas has been on a roller coaster. When Ryan Mallett decided to come back, the Razorbacks became a trendy pick to challenge for the SEC West championship. By preview magazine season in June, a lot of folks had turned on them already by tagging them with the "this year's Ole Miss" title in reference to the Rebels' inability to win the division last year.
That's not a fair thing to do to either Arkansas or Ole Miss, seeing as how neither can control what us idiot pundits write about them and what they should or should not do. Regardless, the meme is out there: Arkansas should be a divisional contender. Given the landscape of the SEC in 2010, it's a fair thing to say. Only Ole Miss, LSU, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt have fewer questions on defense than on offense, and two of those teams will be happy with just making a bowl this winter. If there was a year where someone was going to win the SEC with offense, 2010 is it.
So go ahead and break out the big guns, Arkansas. This year, it just might work.