Bobby Petrino is a good enough head coach to have taken a loaded Hogs team deep in the hunt for the SEC West title, which means it would’ve been deep in the hunt for the SEC championship, which means it would’ve been deep in the hunt for the national title. John L. Smith isn’t Petrino, but he’s a strong enough veteran head man to keep the dream alive.
Smith is in a no-win situation in a lot of ways. This might be his program for the moment, but while he’ll get plenty of credit for steadying the ship through the rocky waters, this is still Petrino’s team. On the flip side, the team is so good that anything less than another double-digit wins season will be considered a disaster. If he goes 9-3, many will think Petrino might have taken the team to 10-2 or even better.
Smith also has the misfortune of coaching in the toughest division in all of college football, and even if he does everything right and even if he comes up with a terrific season, that still might not be enough to take Arkansas higher than fourth in the division. Granted, as last year showed, finishing third in the SEC West still might have meant being the third best team in the country, but the program had its sights set on so much more under Petrino and it can’t shoot for anything less than a title after the coaching change.
As far as scandals go, the Petrino situation was tame as far as the school is concerned. The program is still more than fine considering the controversy had nothing to do with recruiting or paying off players. Petrino’s problems were all his own, and if anything the school and athletic department came away with far more respect on a national scale than it ever was able to get by merely winning football games. But now Smith has to win football games.
Anything less than a big season might be blamed on Smith, but it could also be pinned on the administration that let go one of the best coaches in college football. It’s up to the team, and it’s up to Smith, to take the pressure off of athletic director Jeff Long. This is the year Arkansas has to show that the program is stronger than one head coach.
What to watch for on offense: The backfield. While the pressure might be on Smith to make the SEC’s top offense of 2011 be the top offense again in 2012, from all indications, the players are taking on the responsibility themselves for the team’s success. Getting offensive coordinator Paul Petrino back will do wonders for the continuity, but Tyler Wilson is a senior and Knile Davis is a respected veteran who’ll want to carry the load again after sitting out all of last year. The leaders are in place, the coaches are strong, and the issues at wide receiver and with some replacements on the line won’t be a problem as long as the stars in the backfield can take control of the offense and the team.
What to watch for on defense: Just how well will the line hold up? The pass rush was fine, but that was with Jake Bequette cranking out 10 sacks. The linebacking corps was excellent, but that was with Jerry Franklin manning the middle and eating up everything that came near him. Overall, the run defense was good and came up with a whale of a performance shutting down Kansas State cold, but the big tackles were beaten on by LSU and Texas A&M was able to rip off 381 yards and five scores. Athleticism isn’t a problem, and the front seven will fly around with ease and come up with plenty of stats, but in the biggest of the big games against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina, the tackle tandem of Byran Jones and Robert Thomas have to be difference-makers.
The team will be far better if: The running game rocks. Wilson is going to be an NFL starter soon, and the receiving corps and passing game will be great with a little bit of time, but the Hogs were at their best last season when they got the ground game working. The two worst performances of the season came against Alabama and LSU – netting 17 and 47 rushing yards, respectively. The offense was never really able to take full control against Texas A&M with just 71 yards on the ground, while the 72 rushing yards against Vanderbilt were part of the reason for a 31-28 close-call win over a vastly inferior team. Arkansas is 17-2 in its last 19 games when rushing for 100 yards or more, going 9-0 last season.
The schedule: The Hogs can’t ask for much more. They might get tagged with a road trip to South Carolina, but the other game against the East is against Kentucky. Rutgers could be the Big East’s best team, but it has to come to Fayetteville, as do Jacksonville State and Tulsa as part of the non-conference slate. There are only two trips outside of the state before the South Carolina game in mid-November. Opening up the SEC against Alabama will show whether or not Arkansas is ready to take the next step forward, and it couldn’t have a better run up to the showdown with Jacksonville State and ULM to use as tuneups. After back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Auburn, the midsection of the slate is nice and squishy until going to Columbia, and then things get brutal with a road game against Mississippi State and a home game against LSU to close things out.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Wilson. RB Davis might have something to say about this if he’s back to the form he showed at the end of the 2010 season, but it’s Wilson who has the arm, the talent, the size and the potential to rise up and grow into a No. 1 overall pick caliber quarterback if he can come up with a huge senior season. That might be easier said than done with a gutted receiving corps in desperate need of new playmakers, but as long as he’s keeping the chains moving and as long as he’s keeping the interceptions to a bare minimum – two things he was able to do without much of a problem last year – he’ll be the steady leader the offense needs. If not, then he’ll just hand the ball off to Davis a bazillion times per game.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Alonzo Highsmith. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle this offseason, but it happened early enough to give him plenty of time to heal up before the start of the season. The former JUCO transfer paid off in a big way, finishing third on the team with 80 tackles and starring as one of the best pass-rushing options. Tough enough to play in the middle if needed, he’ll be a disruptive force on the outside when he gets back.
Key player to a successful season: Senior WR Cobi Hamilton. With 6-foot-3, 209-pound size, he has the look and the toughness of a No. 1 wide receiver, and the deep speed is hardly a problem. However, he’s been a bit of a luxury on the outside being mainly used as a deep threat in single coverage. Now Hamltion has to prove he can be a more well-rounded playmaker with Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs gone. Tight end Chris Gregg is good enough to be a go-to target, but it’s Hamilton who needs to show he’s ready to take his game to another level or else the passing game is going take a step back.
The season will be a success if: The Hogs win 10 games. The coaching change is going to matter just enough to keep the team from getting over the mountain. While all the focus will be on the home showdowns with Alabama and LSU, the four road games – Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State – are all losable. Fortunately, the rest of the slate is a breeze, so if Smith and company can get a split of the road games, and can split between the Tide and Tigers, then it’ll be on to a bowl game for a chance at double-digit victories.
Key game: Sept. 15 vs. Alabama. Arkansas hasn’t been a member of the SEC for that long, so while playing Alabama 22 times might seem like a lot, that’s nothing compared to some of the deeply rooted conference rivalries that go back for more than a century. The problem is that the Hogs have lost the last five games against the Tide and are 7-15 overall. This year, nothing would show that Arkansas plans on being a serious player in the national title chase more than beating the defending champ. With tune-up games against Jacksonville State and ULM to get ready, everything should be in place to finally break the losing streak.