Preseason countdown: No. 10 Arkansas

Last year was when it was all supposed to come together in the rebooting of the Arkansas program, and it did.

Auburn might have won the national title, but the Hogs got the much-coveted second SEC spot in the BCS and almost pulled off a miracle in the 31-26 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. Even with the defeat – despite the indignity of being the SEC team finally to lose to the Buckeyes – it was a phenomenal season with the three losses coming to OSU, Alabama, and Auburn. There’s no shame there, but now it’s time to think even bigger.

Any team good enough to think national title – and if you’re big enough to think SEC title, you’re big enough to think BCS Championship Game – should be able to beat Texas A&M in Dallas, along with a reloading Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi State at home. Split road games against Alabama and LSU, and the whole ball of wax might be right there for the taking.

Bobby Petrino has rebuilt the Hogs in a snap after Houston Nutt’s era started to flatline, and now the program is at a high enough level to be just fine, and possibly better, despite losing a Mackey Award-winning tight end in D.J. Williams, a pro-style bomber in Ryan Mallett, both starting offensive tackles, and two great tacklers in linebacker Anthony Leon and safety Rudell Crim.

Petrino and his staff have loaded up on terrific prospects up and down the board, and now there’s depth, talent, and options almost everywhere to make the team almost injury-proof, able to come up with strong rotations, and explosive.

So what does Arkansas have to do to become this year’s Auburn?

It took a perfect storm of events, and a dream of a break, for the Tigers to win the national championship when no one saw them coming. Alabama was the preseason No. 1, LSU and Florida were supposed to be players in the race, and everything seemingly set up well for Georgia to be a star, but it was Auburn who came out of left field to pull it off. After getting to the BCS last year it wouldn’t be too much of a shocker if Arkansas becomes the SEC’s superstar team of 2011, but the national respect still isn’t likely to be there because it’s Arkansas. It doesn’t have the brand name.

Alabama lost its starting quarterback (Greg McElroy), Heisman-winning running back (Mark Ingram), and otherworldly gifted wide receiver (Julio Jones) and will be in everyone’s preseason top five. LSU has already been the preseason No. 1 in some places, even though it still needs to prove it can throw a forward pass. Mississippi State will be the trendy team, and Auburn will be the storyline because it’s the defending national champions. Meanwhile, Arkansas has a proven starting quarterback in Tyler Wilson who can step in and be more than fine in place of Mallett; the offensive tackle situation isn’t that bad; and the four lost starters from the defense are replaceable.

That’s about it for the concerns.

Well, except for the huge void left by star running back Knile Davis, who was lost for the season last week.

Junior running backs Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are likely to step in for Davis in the short term. The trio shared carries early last season before Johnson suffered a season-ending injury of his own and Davis took the reins of the Razorbacks offense.

Johnson has averaged 6 yards per carry on 102 rushing attempts in his career, including 9.2 yards per carry last season on nine attempts before his injury. Wingo has 572 yards rushing on in two seasons at Arkansas, and he had 27 catches for 274 yards last season.

Also, Petrino has praised the work of freshman running back Kody Walker during fall practice. Fellow freshman Kelvin Fisher was moved from cornerback to running back following Davis’ injury.

Despite the loss of Davis, Petrino and the Razorbacks have the talent to make a run at the SEC West title.

And, as long as the team plays up to its talent level, and as long as Wilson is fine under center, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a double-digit win campaign with the two monster road games and the weight of any newfound expectations the only likely barriers from a return trip to New Orleans in January.

What to watch for on offense: The running game. Ryan Mallett got all the attention and all the spotlight last year as he led the nation’s fourth best passing game and made spectacular throws all over the field. However, the attack got far better and far stronger with Knile Davis and the running game started to roll. But even with the losses of Davis and big Broderick Green to a torn ACL, there are more than enough backs to form a killer rotation. Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson are starting-caliber runners who’ll get their chances to balance out an attack that averaged 334 passing yards per game and 149 on the ground.

What to watch for on defense: The line’s play against the run. The Arkansas defense was vastly improved from two years ago when it got torn up on a weekly basis, but it still have problems against the better running teams. Auburn, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Ohio State all ran for 200 yards or more, and the Hogs lost three of those games; they went 9-0 when holding teams to under 225 rushing yards. The defensive front became stronger at getting into the backfield last year, and now it needs to use its tremendous beef and depth to be a brick wall.

The team will be far better if: The pass protection is better. It wasn’t awful last season, but it didn’t exactly keep Mallett’s jersey clean allowing 28 sacks. New projected starter Wilson isn’t immobile like Mallett, but he’s not exactly Michael Vick. If the mobile Brandon Mitchell is under center the concern lessens, but the line needs to hope for the tackle situation on both sides to be settled after losing key starters Ray Dominguez and DeMarcus Love.

The schedule: Troy might put up some points, but realistically, the Hogs get a three-week exhibition season to kick things off with Missouri State, New Mexico, and Troy at home before opening up the SEC season with a date at Alabama. If Arkansas can pull off the win in Tuscaloosa, it might be national title or bust the dangerous dates against Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi State all at home, and the one decent non-conference game, Texas A&M, in Dallas. However, there’s a big, fat, nasty game to close things out that could ruin all the fun: at LSU. Even so, the schedule can’t be used as an excuse missing Florida and Georgia from the East and getting South Carolina at home. The only real concern is that the Hogs are at home just once from Sept. 17 to Nov. 5.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Jerry Franklin. The Arkansas linebacking corps was awful a few years ago, but it was young. There was a sense that the growing pains would soon be over and eventually the production would start to come, and Franklin is the epitome of the rise. At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds he has terrific size and has defensive back quickness, starting out his career as a possible safety. After coming up with 194 tackles in the last two years he’s a proven machine in the middle and should be the leader of the best Arkansas defense in several years.

Key player to a successful season: Freshman OT Brey Cook, and/or junior OT Jason Peacock, and/or senior OT Grant Freeman, and/or sophomore OT Anthony Oden. The Arkansas offense is loaded with options at every skill position and depth to burn, even with the loss of Davis. There are options and there’s good depth at offensive tackle, too, but two of them have to shine from the start. The team will get three games of tune-up time against Missouri State, New Mexico, and Troy, and during that time two rock-solid pass protectors have to emerge, and Cook has to get his feet wet if he’s one of the main men, before kicking off the SEC season at Alabama.

The season will be a success if: Arkansas wins the West. After getting to the Sugar Bowl last year and after coming so achingly close to a truly special season, nothing less than a division title will be okay. Granted, if the Hogs go 6-2 in conference play with the two losses coming at Alabama and LSU, possibly the two best teams in the nation, there can’t be too much to argue about, but this team is too good to shoot for anything less.

Key game: Sept. 24 at Alabama. Arkansas has lost five of the last six games to the Tide and hasn’t won in Tuscaloosa since 2003, but last year was close. After getting blown away in 2008 and 2009, the Hogs fought well in a tremendously disappointing 24-20 defeat that set the tone for the season. Arkansas might have lost, but it showed that the team could play with the best of the best. This year, the SEC season will take on a very different tone with a win in the conference opener with Arkansas the likely favorite in every game until the regular-season finale at LSU.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report