THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. The Razorbacks will have a killer ground game.
When you think about Bobby Petrino, you naturally think about his passing game. However, Arkansas' ground game is loaded for 2011. Knile Davis, he of the 1,322 yards at a 6.5 YPC pace in 2010, is the headliner of the group, but there's more to it than just him. The speedy Dennis Johnson is back after getting knocked out for the season in the second game in 2010, adding a game breaking threat. Ronnie Wingo, Jr. is back as well as a great runner and receiver, and he runs a mean wheel route as Alabama fans might remember. The one loss is bruiser Broderick Green, who tore his ACL in the spring, but overall, this is a deep and dangerous group. If the rebuilt offensive line can open any holes at all, defenses keying on the pass will get gashed for big gains on the ground.
2. The passing targets are among the nation's best.
When an offense doesn't have two or three guys among the receivers who stand out from the rest, it's often not a good thing. It usually means that the corps just didn't have any stars. Arkansas is the antithesis of that rule of thumb though. It had five receivers over 600 yards last year, and six guys caught between four and six touchdowns. Ryan Mallett spread the ball around because he had that many good targets. All of them but TE D.J. Williams are back, and Wingo is a threat from the backfield. The one thing to watch out for is drops, which have plagued this unit at times in some very painful losses over the last two seasons.
3. The team should be in good hands at quarterback.
We've all heard the story ad nauseum: Tyler Wilson filled in remarkably well in relief of Mallett in last year's shootout loss to Auburn. He threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns, which isn't shabby for an inexperienced guy pressed into service on the road against the eventual national champion. He also supplied 16.7% of Auburn's interceptions on the season (two of 12), but again, he was very green. Petrino has groomed him from a freshman who had played in a shotgun spread in high school to better fit his more pro-style passing game, and it should pay off this year. Wilson has great backs to support him, great targets to throw to, and he has more mobility than Mallett did to help deal with three new offensive line starters. Wilson has been getting some preseason All-SEC love, and I can't argue with that.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. If this is the year the defense makes The Leap.
Let's just lay this out: Arkansas' defense wasn't very good in each of Petrino's first couple of years. Last season, it got better. However, "better" does not mean "elite." In conference play, the Razorbacks defense allowed 377.9 yards per game (seventh) and 28.1 points per game (ninth). Take out sacks, and its rushing defense tied for eighth in the league at 4.83 yards per carry. That tied them with rebuilding Tennessee and its first-year coordinator, and it was just ahead of Vandy's 4.89. Where Arkansas did its best work was getting into the backfield, ending up second in the league in sacks and third in tackles for loss in conference play. It's better to be great at something than nothing, but the defense as a whole must get better for the Hogs to do better this year than they did last year.
2. How the offensive line will come together.
Last year's line was good, though not spectacular, in Fayetteville. Now it's looking to replace three guys from that line, including All-SEC tackle DeMarcus Love. It always makes me a little nervous about a team when I see headlines like "Freshman Lineman Eyeing Starting Job," even if that freshman is a four-star, 6'7", 317 lb giant who had offers from powerhouses like Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma. The good news, I guess, is that the rest of the talent on offense means that the line doesn't have to be the best of the best to be effective. It just needs to be a solid, cohesive group, and the rest should take care of itself. On a loaded unit, the inexperience and unknowns stick out like a sore thumb, though.
3. If timing is working against the Razorbacks this year.
Despite my reservations I expressed above, I do think the Arkansas defense will be a bit better this year by virtue of returning just about everyone important from last year. I am pretty bullish on Wilson as a quarterback and think he'll keep up Petrino's streak of having great signal callers. The thing that gives me the most pause is that this team is not top-to-bottom loaded in the same way that Alabama and LSU are. The Hogs only have to be a better team than either of those two on one day apiece, but it's still a tall order. This year's team could easily be better than last year's and still finish the regular season 10-2. That's just the way this game goes though, and it's up to this team to make the timing be right.