They make things interesting, don't they?
Arkansas didn't just lose Bobby Petrino; they were forced to fire him when he crashed his motorcycle and lied about a 25-year-old blonde passenger (on April Fools Day, no less).
They didn't simply hire a replacement; they signed wacky old John L. Smith to just a one-year contract, mere weeks after he had signed on as the head coach of his alma mater, Weber State.
And they didn't only win 11 games for just the third time in history in 2011; they did so with an incredible degree of difficulty. They allowed 424 first-half yards to Texas A&M and fell behind, 35-17, at halftime before rallying for a four-point win. They fell behind, 17-0, to Ole Miss, gaining just 49 yards in 23 minutes, then rallied to win by five. They not only trailed Vanderbilt, 28-20, in the fourth quarter, but they were about to allow another touchdown when Vandy fumbled and the Hogs returned it 94 yards for a touchdown; Arkansas eventually won by three.
And then, they looked so good for three weeks in November that they hypnotized us into forgetting all about their bouts of mediocrity. They outscored South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State by a combined 137-52, gaining 1,473 yards in the process. After a whipping at the hands of LSU, the Hogs handled Kansas State's Snyder Wizards in the Cotton Bowl and finished fifth in the final AP poll, their first Top 5 season since Lou Holtz's first year in Fayetteville (1977).
Really, when you have a finite amount of true greatness in you, you want to divvy it out almost exactly like Arkansas did in 2011 -- spend just enough to get by against some of your lesser opponents, don't spend too much on the teams you probably can't beat anyway, then use a ton of it against solid opponents in November, when voters are watching closely. It's like the Nitro button in a car racing game: only use it when it benefits you the most.
But here's my problem: the best teams don't have finite greatness. From a numbers perspective, you have to use every data point to get the biggest, most legitimate read of a team, and for a squad that was supposed to be elite (better than everybody else but Alabama and LSU, basically), Arkansas' full-season resume was lacking. The Hogs were truly incredible for three weeks in November, but for most of the rest of the season they were just a Top 25 team. They finished 14th in the F/+ rankings, 12th on offense and 44th on defense. That great offense must replace its two best receivers, its head coach (known for his masterful play-calling) and its offensive coordinator (Garrick McGee is now UAB's head coach), and that decent-not-great defense must replace four of probably its six or seven best playmakers.
In other words, I struggle with the thought of Arkansas being a top-10 team this year.
Now, the Hogs do have one thing going for them, though: I really only think of about seven teams as "top-10" squads.
Top-10 Caliber: Alabama, Oregon, LSU, USC, Oklahoma, Florida State … and Georgia, I guess? South Carolina confuses me, Michigan was really, really lucky last year, the defenses of West Virginia, Wisconsin and Clemson terrify me (so does Texas' offense), Michigan State has a completely new passing game, et cetera. Somebody has to fill out the top 10, and for all I know, maybe Arkansas is truly one of the most deserving teams. But after a year in which the Hogs were actually better on paper (in 2010, they ranked 10th in F/+ and 12th in the AP poll), the 2011 team just wasn't as good, for the full season, as its No. 5 AP ranking would suggest. All of the confidence in the world -- and make no mistake: no team has as much confidence as Arkansas -- can't change that.
Here's what I said about the Hogs last summ--SEC! SEC! SEC!:
To be certain, Frank Broyles is not Bobby Dodd. Broyles is and has always been a bottom line kind of guy, and whatever your bottom line is -- ticket sales, TV ratings, wins, or cold hard cash -- the SEC is where you will find it. The long-time UA athletic director knew what he was doing when he steered Arkansas away from the Southwest Conference (Texas' first divorce) and into the SEC two decades ago. The schedule may be terrifying and unforgiving, wins may be hard to come by, and the stakes may be ridiculously high. But at this point, Arkansas wouldn't have it any other way.
Arkansas fielded one of its best teams in decades this past season, but they were still only the third-best team in their own division. Time to rally the troops and try again in 2011. […]
This year's Arkansas Razorbacks are projected to play like the ninth-best team in the country in this year's FOA 2011. Incredibly, this places them in the lower half of the SEC West (thanks to some unlikely, high Auburn projections). Alabama projects at No. 1, Auburn No. 4 (championship teams typically don't completely fall apart the next season, but they also don't typically lose what Auburn lost) and LSU No. 5. That is just insane.
Already the team with the most consistently difficult schedule in the country, the Hogs won't see a slate any easier this fall. After a couple of warm-ups against Missouri State and New Mexico (a team potentially worse than Missouri State) and a home game against a decent Troy team, the challenges begin. In back-to-back-to-back weeks, they face No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, No. 28 Texas A&M at Jerry World and No. 4 Auburn in Fayetteville. After a couple of tricky trips to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, they host No. 13 South Carolina, No. 44 Tennessee and No. 32 Mississippi State before finishing up against No. 5 LSU in Baton Rouge. F.O. projects them to go 9-3 with a Top 10 team. But that's the bed they made when they came to the SEC, and again, they wouldn't have it any other way.
SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!
So Arkansas' record was a little better than projected, and their performance was a little worse. In all, they were approximately what they were supposed to be, only with a few more struggles versus iffy teams along the way.
Make no mistake: Arkansas was indeed above average, at best, for most of the first half of the season. And they were indeed incredible for those three weeks in November.
First Eight Games: Arkansas 30.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.2 (plus-2.3)
Next Three Games: Arkansas 37.7 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.0 (plus-12.7)
Final Two Games: Arkansas 27.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.9 (plus-0.5)
It just all worked in those three games. The passing game worked perfectly (they were the only team to torch South Carolina through the air after mid-September), running back Dennis Johnson averaged 7.0 yards per carry (he had averaged 4.7 over the first six games of the year), and after two months of slightly below-average play, the defense improved by over three points per game. And 20 minutes into their game at LSU, they led, 14-0. It was the apex of the Petrino era in Fayetteville.
it went mostly downhill from there, of course; LSU outscored Arkansas, 41-3, in the game's final 40 minutes, the Hogs briefly fell victim to Bill Snyder's wizardry before locking down a Cotton Bowl win, Bobby Petrino wrecked his hog, et cetera. But being a fan is about moments or series of moments, and for most of November, Arkansas fans got to soak in what it felt like to watch their team play at an elite level (and forget about the occasionally dicey play of the first two months).
It helps when you have a really, really good quarterback. We can debate where senior Tyler Wilson (3,638 yards, 7.5 per pass attempt, 63 percent completion rate, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions) falls in the national hierarchy, and we can debate whether Arkansas has a top-five, -10 or -20 offense overall, but at that point we're just arguing about degrees. No matter who is calling plays, and no matter who is catching balls, the Arkansas offense is going to be stout and exciting in 2012.
The question, then, is simply this: does the return of running back Knile Davis (2010 stats: 1,322 yards, 6.5 per carry, plus-16.5 Adj. POE, meaning he was about 16 points better than the average running back) from injury offset the loss of what were easily the Hogs' two best wide receivers? If so, the Arkansas attack could improve on last year's No. 12 Off. F/+ ranking. And with a defense that still has a lot of questions to answer, an elite offense is an absolute necessity if Arkansas is going to fulfill elite expectations.
Okay, that's not the only question:
1. How will the offense change without Bobby Petrino? With Davis back in the backfield, will the Hogs opt for a slightly more normal run-pass ratio? Last year Arkansas ran just 50 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and ran 30 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). It was a "throw to set up the run" offense, and it worked -- though pass heavy, Arkansas was nearly equally adept at passing (eighth in Passing S&P+) and runnin (12th in Rushing S&P+). But even when Dennis Johnson was on fire late in the season, he was only averaging around 12-15 carries per game. But when everything clicked for Davis at the end of 2010, he carried a major load; he averaged nearly 27 carries per game in Arkansas' final three contests that year. We technically don't know if he can shoulder that burden all year since he wasn't asked to, but at 6'0, 226 pounds, he is certainly built like someone who can. That he still isn't taking full contact in practice is a bit of a concern, however, at least in terms of carrying an enormous load.
Even if Davis isn't ready to plow ahead 25 times per game, however, Arkansas is loaded behind him. If you double Dennis Johnson's carries from last year, you get a line nearly identical to Davis' from 2010:
Knile Davis (2010): 204 carries, 1,322 yards (6.5 per carry), plus-16.5 Adj. POE
Dennis Johnson (2011) x 2: 212 carries, 1,340 yards (6.3 per carry), plus-15.4 Adj. POE
Johnson is a superb kick returner and fantastic receiving option (he caught 24 of 31 passes for 255 yards last year), so he will have a role to play on this offense no matter what. But beyond Davis and Johnson, Arkansas also has interesting big-back options in senior Ronnie Wingo, Jr., and sophomore Kody Walker, and freshman Jonathan Williams has had a nice fall camp. They will all be running behind a line that was decent in 2011 (42nd in Adj. Line Yards) and returns a solid amount of experience (65 career starts among four players).
It bears mentioning, too, that the Petrino still on staff at Arkansas (Paul, the offensive coordinator) spent the last two seasons manning a run-happy attack at Illinois. Granted, a good portion of the reason Illinois ran so much was because Nathan Scheelhaase isn't a very good passer, but Petrino still has it in his blood to run the ball if you're good at it, and it is conceivable that Arkansas' identity will change a decent amount in this post-(Bobby) Petrino world.
2. Who catches passes (other than Cobi Hamilton)? In losing Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs, Arkansas is forced to replace 47 percent of last year's targets. The three (mostly Wright and Adams) combined to catch 141 of 210 balls (67 percent catch rate) for 2,009 yards (9.6 per target); Wright and Adams combined spectacular efficiency with explosiveness, and they will absolutely be missed.
It is easy to assume that Cobi Hamilton, who is apparently having a lovely fall camp, is ready for his own shot as a No. 1 receiver. The senior was intriguing as a big-play threat (15.9 yards per catch last year), but it is worth pointing out that with a 59 percent catch rate, he was a bit more of an all-or-nothing receiver than Wright or Adams. But even if he turns into a strong No. 1, who's No. 2? The next leading returning wideouts are juniors Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon, who combined for 17 catches last year. Converted quarterback Brandon Mitchell has looked pretty good in his move so far, but you would much rather he start life as a No. 5 or No. 6 option. The same goes, really, for relative newcomers like sophomore Keante Minor or a freshman like Keon Hatcher.
So basically, either somebody is going to have to start punching above his weight class, or Wilson will be leaning even more on other positions with his passes. Tight ends made up about 16 percent of Arkansas' targets last year while running backs accounted for about 12 percent. It is conceivable that each of those numbers will creep up a bit, especially considering the depth involved. Johnson and Wingo combined for an 81 percent catch rate last year, and tight end Chris Gragg (518 yards, 8.2 per target, 65 percent catch rate) is joined by intriguing options in junior Austin Tate and freshman Demetrius Dean. There are options here, even if they don't have "WR" in front of their names.
One part of Arkansas' identity that is almost certainly going to change this year: size. Davis is a big back, and players like Hamilton (6'3, 209) and Mitchell (6'4, 230) are quite a bit bigger than their predecessors. And if tight ends are to get more involved, then Arkansas is going to begin to look at least a little Stanford-esque in their lineup.
It is incredibly easy to over-generalize. Bobby Petrino is an offense guy, and his focus at Arkansas was on offense. Defense was an afterthought. In fact, we're seeing stories saying exactly that. But while "the new guy is so much better than the old guy!" stories are incredibly frequent almost anytime there is a coaching change, let's just say that a little more focus on defense wouldn't exactly be a bad thing. That is, after all, where Arkansas was lacking in recent years.
Last year, Alabama ranked seventh in Off. F/+ and first in Def. F/+. The Tide didn't necessarily draw incredible, outward praise for their offense, in part because they played at a snail's pace and didn't really interest themselves in gaudy numbers. But they produced.
LSU, meanwhile, ranked sixth in Off. F/+ and second in Def. F/+. As the BCS title game proved, the Bayou Bengals struggled to throw the ball when they absolutely had to … but they also didn't "absolutely have to" until the 14th game of the season. Until then, their incredibly strong run game got them the yards they needed.
Arkansas certainly had the offense, but they ranked just 44th in Def. F/+. Even offense-happy Auburn and Oregon ranked 23rd and seventh, respectively, during their 2010 title runs. To become a truly elite team, you have to meet at least a certain baseline for performance on both sides of the ball, and the Razorbacks' defense just wasn't up to par.
If they could leverage teams into passing downs, Arkansas' defense started to look pretty fierce. The Hogs were 20th in Passing Downs S&P+ and a somewhat impressive 37th in Adj. Sack Rate. Eight players recorded at least 5.0 tackles for loss; this defense was impressive when it could be aggressive. The problem, of course, was forcing passing downs to begin with. Arkansas ranked 55th on passing downs, 61st in Rushing S&P+; and now the Hogs face the loss of two of their top three tackles-for-loss guys, end Jake Bequette (10.5 in just 10 games) and linebacker Jerry Franklin (10.0).
New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes does have some interesting toys with which to play, however, and early returns this fall have certainly been positive. Senior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith (12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) was a nice, aggressive playmaker, and end-turned-MLB Tenarious Wright certainly has potential in his new position. But for Arkansas to take a step forward, a series of strong attackers on the line need to become strong every-down linemen. Ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, and there is potential at tackle in guys like juniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas, but Arkansas was a horrendous 104th in the country in Adj. Line Yards last season; you could push them around far too easily. That simply must change. With Wright's (6'3, 252) move to linebacker, Arkansas might have better size in the front seven, so that's something.
If the Hogs improve up front, the back of the defense could thrive. There could be depth issues to worry about (Arkansas must replace two of its top four safeties and two of three cornerbacks), but safeties Eric Bennett and Ross Rasner (combined: 5.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions, six passes broken up) are potentially solid playmakers, and four-star sophomore Tevin Mitchel held his own as a first-year corner in the SEC. The lynchpin here, other than good health, might be cornerback Darius Winston, who has one more season to live up to some of the five-star hype he received in high school.
Here's where things get tricky. As a top-10 team seen by some as a darkhorse national contender, Arkansas will be expected to both give Alabama and LSU serious runs for their money in Fayetteville and avoid road landmines in trips to Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Meanwhile, if they are simply a top-15-caliber team, then not only are losses to Alabama and LSU once again likely, but the Hogs would probably be expected to trip up on the road a couple of times. Arkansas could end up being, basically, the best 8-4 team in the country this year (which is basically what the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projects), but something tells me that would be seen as a major disappointment. We'll set the bar at 9-3, then, even under the assumption that THAT might be seen as disappointing.
Again, Arkansas knows how to make things interesting, from dramatic coaching changes (before Petrino's less-than-dignified exit, a fan FOIA'd his way into helping to get Houston Nutt sent out of town in 2007), to "Get your piss hot," to some incredibly high expectations this coming fall. And whether exceeding expectations or falling drastically short, this year's squad should keep the entertainment value quite high. (Did I mention that cameras are following them around this fall as well?)
There will be drama, but will there be another 11 (or more) wins? I'm not sure I see it. The Nitro button is notoriously fickle, and if the Hogs toe the line again this year, they will slip up -- the road slate is just too difficult. And even if they beat either Alabama or LSU, I can't see them beating both. The Hogs will field another strong, entertaining, occasionally devastating team this fall, and they will be bigger and stronger than they were a year ago, but I'm struggling with the hype a bit here. But as I said above, somebody has to be in the Top 10 … so maybe the issue is with me, not them.
Okay, it's at least somewhat with them.
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