Point/Counterpoint: Why Hogs Will Win the SEC
Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson
With many a college football analyst predicting a national championship for either Alabama or LSU, what chance does their divisional neighbor Arkansas have of winning the conference crown? CFN's Gabe Harris and Russ Mitchell take opposing views on that likelihood, as well as the overall state of the conference, the division, and the Razorback program.
Gabe Harris – Hogs Win it All
Follow me on Twitter @gpharris
Arkansas is coming off an excellent
10-3 season with their only losses to Ohio State, Alabama, and Auburn 10-2 season. After their Sugar Bowl "loss" was vacated, their only losses were to Alabama and Auburn, who just happen to be the last two national champions. In a crazy statistic, the Hogs led in the fourth quarter of every game except the Sugar Bowl "win". That type of season often springboards a team onto even greater things the next go around.
What is it going to take for the Razorbacks to enter rarified SEC air the likes of which they have never seen? There is a lot to like heading into fall practice, and I think this team has a chance to make a special run in 2011.
Let's start with something most people do not mention when talking about Arkansas; their defense. They have seven starters returning (eight if you count a part-timer) from a defense that jumped from 89th in Total Defense in 2009 to 36th in 2010. This will easily be Bobby Petrino's most experienced and talented defense in this, his fourth season in Fayetteville. A leap into the top 20 is not out of the question.
LB Jerry Franklin is on the Nagurski Award watch list, and deservedly so. He has led Arkansas in tackles the last three seasons and barring injury, he will again. Franklin is not just a tackling machine, he's part of a notoriously ball-hawking defense, as he has five career interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Arkansas will put a lot of pressure on the many new quarterbacks in the conference with a sack-happy unit that includes JUCO DT Robert Thomas, DE Jake Bequette, and DE Tenarius Wright. Bequette and Wright combined for 13 sacks, and were consistently in the backfield. Coaches have said that Thomas could be the most talented defensive lineman on the team; he is incredibly athletic. The back seven is equally talented, with senior safety Tramain Thomas registering 83 tackles in 2010 to go along with four interceptions. Jerico Nelson, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be all over the field as well. The weakness is cornerback, but Isaac Madison and Darius Winston have 27 career starts combined - that experience should serve them well.
Doesn't that defense sound a lot like another SEC team that just won the national championship? I thought so.
The part of this team that gets all the highlights and press is the high-scoring Arkansas offense. Hm...remind you again of a certain undefeated team from 2010?
Arkansas is returning 77.6% of their offensive touchdowns from 2010: 30 of their 36 receiving touchdowns and 15 of their 22 rushing touchdowns.
Four WRs are on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. Four! That is out of 75 total and 12 from the SEC. Joe Adams has caught at least one pass in all 34 games he's played in during his career, and led the team with 813 receiving yards last season to go along with six touchdown catches. Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Adams have 324 combined career receptions for 5,404 yards and 41 touchdowns. Cobi Hamilton is the fourth WR in this group, a group that is going to help aid QB Tyler Wilson's development.
When the air show needs a hammer not many schools have one like Arkansas does in Knile Davis. He did not hit his stride until halfway through the season. Had Petrino had utilized Davis in the Alabama game, Arkansas wins.
I know everyone has anointed Tyler Wilson as the next great SEC QB (except for Russ of course), and I think it's indeed very possible. Does he have a stronger arm than Ryan Mallett? No. Is he bigger than Mallett? No. But he does have at least as many weapons as Mallett does, and is more than capable of taking a team's best shot in a seemingly impossible situation, while thriving at the same time. Of course the Hogs didn't beat Auburn, but I saw a lot to like in Wilson's gut to think he's the player to lead Arkansas to a win in Atlanta.
The last time I checked, neither Greg McElroy nor Cam Newton had ever started a game or played many meaningful snaps before leading their respective teams to the last two national championships. This is Wilson's fourth season with Petrino, as he is a redshirt junior. That means he's been at Arkansas as long as his head coach and longer than Mallett was with Petrino. That's also longer than McElroy was with Saban or Newton was with Chizik. Wilson is ready to lead this team, first-time starter or not.
Special teams will be a strength for Arkansas as PR Adams is as dangerous as anyone in the country. He scored one TD while averaging 15.6 yards per punt return in 2010. KR Dennis Johnson returns after missing most of 2010 with a leg injury. He is Arkansas' all-time career and single-season leader in kickoff return yardage and broke the SEC kickoff return record. PK Zach Hocker had an amazing last 2010 as he hit all 56 of his extra points and was 16 of 19 on field goals. P Dylan Breeding will help out Arkansas' defense with his leg, as he put 18 punts inside the 20 last year and averaged 42.5 yards per kick.
As for the schedule, it's daunting for sure, but it can be managed. A 3-0 start is guaranteed and will be a good way to get Wilson's feet wet. The fourth game is a big one: on the road to Alabama. Arkansas had the Crimson Tide right where they wanted them last year but couldn't close the deal, thanks to the lack of a running game and Mallett's giant deer-in-the-headlights look. Alabama's first three games aren't much more of a test either, save for a rebuilding Penn State squad in PA. Will Alabama know who their QB is? I know Arkansas will, and with that defense going after (the less proven than Wilson) AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims, Alabama will be the team questioning their new QB by October.
A win in Tuscaloosa will set up the Hogs for Texas A&M and the rest of the season. After that they get a much different Auburn team and Arkansas will have revenge on their mind. Road trips to Ole Miss and Vandy will be as easy as the first three games. Then you have three more home games with South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi State. No easy stretch, but Arkansas is more talented and better than those teams anywhere, much more so in Fayetteville. At LSU in Baton Rouge is the game that will stand in their way. Arkansas and LSU always play close games, and this should be no exception - particularly as a SEC West title could on the line. In a QB battle between Tyler Wilson and Jordan Jefferson, I'm going with Wilson every time. And so are you.
In closing, Arkansas does face a tough schedule, but they only have two tough road games. They avoid Florida and Georgia, while being much more talented than any team they face besides Alabama and LSU. The talent level between those three teams isn't as great as some would have you believe. They have proven they can beat LSU consistently and are getting closer and closer to beating Alabama. If they win in Tuscaloosa, go ahead and book your rooms in Atlanta, Hog fans.
Russ Mitchell – If Pigs Could Fly, Maybe
Follow me on Twitter @RussMitchellCFB
Arkansas is indeed more talented than any team it faces besides Alabama and LSU. Unfortunately for the Hogs, both the Tide and Tigers are divisional opponents, and both will play host to Bobby's Boys.
The Hog's first conference road game of 2011 is in Tuscaloosa. Actually, it's worse than that - their first road game, period. As if that's not bad enough, Arkansas won't be even remotely tested in its first three contests (Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy). Entering the lion's den without having played a single challenging team is never a recipe for success, particularly when the lion in question has better talent than you at virtually every position two deep, including coaching.
So that's division loss #1, and to a favorite to win the whole enchilada at that.
Next, let's look at the Hogs themselves. Can we please set some realistic expectations for quarterback Tyler Wilson? I'm on record as saying the kid had a better spring than Mallett three years ago, and he was very sharp in the road loss to Auburn. Not to mention Bobby Petrino's offense seems to manufacture quarterbacks with PlayStation numbers, and what's not to like about that receiving corps!
But Wilson has received material playing time in just one SEC game - and against an average SEC defense at that. In 2010, Auburn's D was ranked ninth in the conference overall, ninth in Pass Efficiency Defense, and dead last in Pass Defense.
You're not doing Wilson any favors by jacking expectations up this high. He has all the tools, the system and some talent around him to excel. But if there's one given about our conference, it typically eats rookie quarterbacks like a nice étouffée.
Quick - what's a rookie quarterback's best friend? A check-off dump pass. Well, Arkansas lost tight end D.J. Williams to graduation, and as bruising a back as Knile Davis may be, he has hands of stone. Strike two.
Another savior for a rookie quarterback? Time. Which requires good tackle play. Arkansas is replacing both with inexperienced players who struggled throughout the spring and in the final practice game. Strike three.
As for comparing Wilson to Greg McElroy and Cam Newton...really? You're comparing Wilson's 2011 Arkansas team to the 2009 Tide? And the man himself against arguably one of the most dominating college quarterbacks ever? Scroll back up to that part about setting realistic expectations.
Oh wait...we nearly forget. That other team in Arkansas' division, LSU, is favored by many to win the national championship themselves this season. And the Hogs must pack their turkey and stuffing and travel to Red Stick for that affair.
Yes, Arkansas has a reputation for playing the Tigers tough - even in Death Valley. Until last season's 31-23 Razorback home win, the prior five games had been decided by a total of 13 points, including 5 OTs.
But Petrino has yet to win a game in Baton Rouge, and while Arkansas's first team is excellent and recruiting has improved, the Razorbacks lack the overall depth of a program like LSU (particularly on defense) - which could be a major factor come the last game of the season.
As I have written more than most, Arkansas has made significant strides under the watchful eye of Petrino, and things are likely to only get better in Fayetteville. But 2011 is not the season they reach the promised land.
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