SIXTH IN A SERIES :: The 2008 Arkansas Review
Before the SEC expanded and split into divisions, five teams more or less ruled the league: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee. Georgia Tech won some titles in the 1940s and '50s, Ole Miss had some glory days a half century ago, and Florida had some good years in the '60s and '80s without winning a title (officially; the 1984 Florida championship was forfeited). More or less though, those first five were the ones who were ruling the roost.
When the Gators made the leap to dominance in the 1990s, it looked like the conference was designed for symmetry, set with three great teams on each side: Alabama, Auburn, and LSU on the western side, and Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee on the eastern side. That was interrupted though, by 13-time SWC champion Arkansas.
The Razorbacks are still looking for their first SEC title, but they have won or shared four divisional titles. The first came under a short stint by Clemson legend Danny Ford, but the other three came under Houston Nutt. With 75 wins, Nutt is the second-winningest head coach in school history behind Arkansas' own legend, Frank Broyles. However, he's gone on to Ole Miss and Bobby Petrino is now in charge.
Petrino has taken a lot of heat, and understandably so, for jumping jobs (or at least, trying to) frequently. As it was made clear though during Auburn's so-called "jetgate" episode (as well as his abrupt exit from Atlanta), his goal was to get a head coaching job within the SEC. Now that he's got one, I'd bet anyone that he's going to be there as long as Arkansas will have him.
When you think Petrino, you think offense. Last year was a transitional year, with a pretty distinct change from Nutt's run-first philosophy and Casey Dick and his limited ability running the show. Even so, the Pigs were second in the SEC in passing behind only Georgia. They found a playmaker in RB Michael Smith, and he'll be around this year to help things along more. Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett at least has all the physical tools you'd want in a quarterback, and some are projecting him to be as high as the third or fourth best signal caller in the SEC. The offensive line just needs some work to improve on 3.83 sacks allowed per game (a stunning 118th in the nation) and the SEC's 10th best rushing attack.
Things appear poised for a breakout on offense, but there is the matter of what to do with the defense. It was dead last in the conference in rushing defense, passing efficiency defense, total defense, and scoring defense. The Hogs were also 10th in pass defense and 11th in turnover margin. It's tempting to throw out the old saw "well things can't get worse," but last year wasn't exactly a banner year for offense in the SEC. And as cocknfire pointed out in the season review, Arkansas didn't hold a single team under 21 points last season.
The Razorbacks get a nice tune up against Missouri State and a strangely early bye week before getting thrown into the thick of the SEC fire with back-to-back games against Georgia and at Alabama. A relative breather comes with a trip to Jerry Jones' new space palace (as Matt "Dr. Saturday" Hinton likes to say) against the sinking ship known as Texas A&M before a tough three-game stretch that features road games against Florida and Ole Miss. If serious progress is to be made at bettering the overall record, it will have to come in the final five games. The worst of them is at LSU, but the stretch also features non-conference fluff and Mississippi State.
This team is somewhat a mirror image of Auburn. I know Arkansas' offense will almost certainly be fine, just as the Tigers' defense will be solid. The other side of the ball for each is where the real questions come in. I can see a wide variety of final records for either, from a repeat of each's five-win campaigns of a year ago to up to seven or eight wins.
Whatever happens, it will probably be exciting to watch. I'm hoping to catch a few Arkansas games this fall because a Petrino offense is a thing of beauty when it's working. You should too. I can't promise the team will go to a bowl again (though there certainly are at least six winnable games on the slate), but it won't be boring. The Hogs will be kind of like the Steve Nash of the SEC: just good enough to keep both teams in the game. When compared to the likely offensive morasses at fellow middle-of-the-pack teams like Auburn and Tennessee, I'll take that any day.
MONDAY: Past as Present
TUESDAY: The Schedule, Bobby Petrino's 'Stock Speech'
WEDNESDAY: The Depth Chart
FRIDAY: Feedback and Conclusions