Is it Finally Arkansas’ Year?
By Jeremy Hillman
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While the Arkansas defense has a few holes in depth, the unit is improving as a whole.
Going into the 2012 SEC football season, there are mixed opinions among prognosticators on whether or not Arkansas can win the SEC West and have a shot at their first SEC Championship.
As far as my opinion, there are plenty of reasons I do not believe Arkansas will ascend to the top of the SEC this season.
You could point to the turmoil of losing head coach Bobby Petrino to an off-season scandal. His play calling and motivating style will be missed.
The lack of SEC experience and the general talent of new coach John L. Smith could also be questioned. There is a reason he doesn’t coach at Louisville or Michigan State anymore, and why he was set to be the coach at Weber State this season before taking over for the Razorbacks.
You could then point to off the field issues players have had this off-season. A total of six Arkansas players have been arrested since March. Three in an arrest in March and three in May for theft, drug paraphernalia, breaking and entering and burglary charges.
The passing game took a big hit in these arrests, as the arrested players included three wide receivers, including talented wide out Marquel Wade and tight end Andrew Peterson. The Razorbacks are already thin with pass catchers and this certainly doesn’t help.
A head coach removed for a scandal, a lackluster coach replacement, and a slew of player arrests are enough distraction to derail the focus of any team. Not to mention the coaching and player talent that was lost from last season’s talented squad.
However, the remaining players, especially on offense, may just be good enough to keep Arkansas in the mix.
Star quarterback Tyler Wilson is good enough to potentially be the very first pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. He can make all the throws and has a big arm. Although his receiving corps lost tons of talent from a year ago, he can get the ball to dynamic wide out Cobi Hamilton early and often.
The Razorbacks also return elite running back Knile Davis, who was out last season due to injury. Davis is fast and strong, and actually led the SEC in rushing in 2010. Look for him to have a big year carrying the ball, if he can stay healthy.
While the Arkansas defense has a few holes in depth, the unit is improving as a whole, especially compared to the very porous defenses Arkansas fielded just two and three seasons ago.
Even with some improvement, last year’s Razorback defense still had its issues, shown in poor showings where they gave up 457 yards to Troy and 462 against Vanderbilt. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, previously at Ohio State, will have to find a way to tighten this unit up even more.
Leading the defense will be big and athletic linebacker Alonzo Highsmith. He swarms to the ball and will make plenty of big plays this season.
Knowing all of this, you almost want to believe that the Razorbacks could stay close in the race for the SEC West title this upcoming season.
However, one major obstacle still stands in their way: the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Before they get to road games at Auburn, Texas A&M and South Carolina, and before a tough game against conference favorite LSU in the last week of the regular season, Arkansas will come face to face with its biggest recent nemesis. Nick Saban and Alabama will visit Razorback Stadium for a game in week three.
Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2007, and that was by just three points in a game where Alabama missed a key field goal.
Sure, Alabama will be on the road in this year’s game, and absolutely, the Tide lost plenty of star players from last year’s dominant defense. This should be the Hogs chance to beat the Tide, right?
Anything is possible. However, if you take a close look at this series, you will find a troubling trend for Arkansas. The past four seasons, Alabama has soundly beaten the Razorbacks.
As a matter of fact, over the past four seasons, Alabama has outscored Arkansas an eye popping 146 to 55. That is an average per-game score of 36 to 13.
In those games, Alabama has averaged 411 yards of offense against the Razorbacks. In comparison, Arkansas has only been able to average 298 yards of offense per game against the Tide. That is a sizeable gap of 113 yards per game in favor of Alabama.
So I ask you, even with the slight rebuilding at Alabama and all the optimism at Arkansas, does it really make up for a 23 point per game difference and over 100 yards per game difference?
I just don’t see it. I do not see John L. Smith outcoaching Nick Saban and bucking the significant lopsided trends in this series over the past five years.
Early in the season, in week three, Alabama will derail Arkansas’ dreams, again. From there I see Arkansas winning nine games, but falling short of their goal to win an SEC Championship. John L. Smith will not return.