2011 Season Preview: The Arkansas Razorbacks And ... SEC! SEC! SEC!

Explosive on offense and deep with decent talent on defense, Bobby Petrino's fourth Arkansas squad should be solid and exciting despite the loss of Ryan Mallett. "Solid" isn't good enough to win the SEC West, of course, but that's life in the Southeastern Conference.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. And be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!

There was a fantasy going around Big 12 country during those four hours or so this past May (or was it June?) when the conference was harmonious and happy. Have Jerry Jones throw down silly money to try to entice Arkansas and another team (Notre Dame? Notre Dame! Yes!) into joining the fray, and voila, the Big 12 is a mega-power! Time to act and not react! Get on the phone with Jerry!

SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC!

Of course, there were two flaws in this plan. 1) The window of harmony closed a few hours later when everybody in the Big 12 remembered about the Longhorn Network, and the sniping began again. 2) Nobody -- NOBODY -- leaves the SEC. No matter how scary life may be dating the supermodel (and to be sure, life hasn't always been easy for Arkansas in the hilariously rugged SEC West), no matter what kind of trouble she gets into, and no matter the, uh, pressure to perform (I'm regretting this analogy already) ... unless your name is Bobby Dodd, you don't dump her. She dumps you.

SEC! 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.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 7
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Tennessee Tech
44-3 W 38.0 - 18.5 W
11-Sep UL-Monroe 31-7 W 31.0 - 6.8 W
18-Sep at Georgia 31-24 W 38.3 - 28.3 W
25-Sep Alabama 20-24 L 44.2 - 26.5 W
9-Oct vs Texas A&M 24-17 W 32.6 - 16.9 W
16-Oct at Auburn 43-65 L 41.4 - 33.9 W
23-Oct Ole Miss 38-24 W 30.1 - 25.0 W
30-Oct Vanderbilt 49-14 W 28.9 - 25.7 W
6-Nov at South Carolina 41-20 W 40.3 - 16.6 W
13-Nov UTEP 58-21 W 50.1 - 25.9 W
20-Nov at Mississippi State 38-31 W 40.8 - 27.4 W
27-Nov LSU 31-23 W 36.6 - 20.6 W
4-Jan vs Ohio State 26-31 L 36.8 - 23.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 36.5 17 23.4 47
Adj. Points Per Game 37.6 10 22.8 29

Arkansas was one of six teams in the country to play well enough to beat a perfectly average team every single week of the season. (The others: Auburn, Boise State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State and TCU.) And aside from a three-week span in October, they played well enough to defeat said average team handily each week. Granted, you don't play many average teams in the SEC West, but the Hogs were still good enough to not only survive in the division that produced the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 teams (according to F/+), but also win ten games for just the second time since they moved to the Southeastern Conference.

In the end, Arkansas won all ten games they played against teams ranked outside of the Top Five (No. 5 Ohio State, ridiculously allowed to play with their suspended players, took them out in the Sugar Bowl), featuring a competent defense and a nuclear offense. Though some stars have departed, quite a few explosive pieces return for 2011. Granted, they are still in the same division as Alabama, Auburn and LSU, and that will probably limit their level of success, but all Bobby Petrino can do is throw a ton of great athletes onto the field and hope that the breaks go their way one year.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 6 18 2
RUSHING 11 24 7 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 6 17 5 7
Standard Downs 2 10 2 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 8 21 5 57
Redzone 1 1 1
Q1 Rk 2 1st Down Rk 5
Q2 Rk 7 2nd Down Rk 6
Q3 Rk 8 3rd Down Rk 5
Q4 Rk 14

With a towering quarterback, a hulking running back and fast receivers running old-school, deeper routes, the Arkansas offense was rather incredible in 2010. Ryan Mallett (3,869 yards, 9.4 per pass, 65% completion rate, 32 TD, 12 INT) handed the ball to Knile Davis (1,322 yards, 6.5 per carry, +16.5 Adj. POE, 13 TD) and threw to Joe Adams (813 yards, 16.3 per catch, 69% catch rate), Greg Childs (659 yards, 14.3 per catch, 75% catch rate, 6 TD in eight games), Jarius Wright (788 yards, 18.8 per catch, 55% catch rate, 5 TD), Cobi Hamilton (630 yards, 19.7 per catch, 59% catch rate, 6 TD) and tight end D.J. Williams (627 yards, 11.6 per catch, 74% catch rate, 4 TD), and, behind a strong line, they were rarely stopped.

Of that main crew of difference makers, only Mallett, Williams and all-conference tackle DeMarcus Love depart. The top three running backs and top four wide receivers are all back, giving last year's backup quarterback Tyler Wilson (453 yards, 8.9 per catch, 67% completion rate, 4 TD, 3 INT) all sorts of weapons with which to play. The second-most explosive offense in the country last year might regress a bit without Mallett's hand cannon, but Wilson should keep the car running in at least fourth gear.

Granted, it came with some occasional sack problems, but no offense in the country was more aggressive with the downfield passing game than Arkansas. Four of their top five targets averaged at least 14.3 yards per catch an 10.4 yards per target. That's ridiculous. Mallett may have certain mockable qualities, but wow, does he have an arm. Wilson's initial numbers were rather similar -- he had a completion rate two percentage points higher and a per-pass average of 0.5 fewer yards -- but over the long haul we'll see if the aggression in the passing game gets dialed down a notch or two.

Other tidbits:

  • There's nothing better for a downfield passing attack than a running back who can soften up a stretched-out defense. Big, 220-pound Knile Davis was the perfect combination of speed and power in 2010, a bruiser with breakaway speed who got better and better as his sophomore year progressed. He carried the ball just 33 times his freshman year, and only 20 times in the first four games of 2010. But he slowly caught fire starting in October. Ten carries for 82 yards against Texas A&M, then 14 for 91 against Auburn. A show-stealing 176 yards on 22 carries versus Ole Miss, then 187 on 30 versus Mississippi State. He finished with a rock solid 291 combined yards versus strong LSU and Ohio State defenses. His best backup also returns in 2011; Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (253 rushing yards, 274 receiving yards) is an intriguing dual-threat option, but Davis is the stud.
  • Five offensive linemen with starting experience return for the Hogs, though technically only two were 'starters' in 2010; center Travis Swanson and guard Alvin Bailey each logged 13 starts as redshirt freshmen last season. Throw in incoming four-star freshman Brey Cook and veterans like Grant Freeman and Grant Cook, and you've got a line that probably won't regress as much as "only two returning starters" might suggest.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 29 22 30
RUSHING 26 31 38 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 19 16 21 34
Standard Downs 25 30 21 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 23 15 25 12
Redzone 41 39 46
Q1 Rk 31 1st Down Rk 27
Q2 Rk 43 2nd Down Rk 42
Q3 Rk 1 3rd Down Rk 4
Q4 Rk 86

For obvious reasons, the Arkansas offense got a lot of headlines. But the defense still had to be good enough to win games. This was far from the best unit in the SEC, but clearly it got the job done against non-Top Five teams, and it did so while cycling through a large rotation of players. Eight experienced linemen, six experienced defensive backs and four experienced linebackers return for a squad that attacked constantly and game-planned very well. Can they take another step forward in 2011?

Arkansas had a defense that was better in the first and third quarters than in the second and fourth. I tend to regard that situation as one in which the gameplan and adjustments were good, but perhaps the athleticism and conditioning weren't quite solid enough to sustain the quality as the game progressed. Arkansas had the best defense in the country in the third quarter, but they were below-standard in the fourth. I can't imagine this was a problem with conditioning, not considering the massive number of players defensive coordinator Willy Robinson rotated in and out.

Whatever the issues, the overall product this year should be solid. Maybe not spectacular, but solid. Really, only four primary rotation members are gone: end Damario Ambrose (22.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks), linebacker Anthony Leon (50.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU), safety Rudell Crim (42.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 PBU) and cornerback Ramon Broadway (30.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU). Everybody else is back.

Nowhere is depth more impressive than on a defensive line that both stood up well to run blocking and got after the quarterback. Ends Tenarius Wright (26.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Jake Bequette (23.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) both return, but the true depth is at tackle, where DeQuinta Jones (26.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF), Alfred Davis (18.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks), Lavunce Askew (16.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks), Alfred Davis (18.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) and Zach Stadther (7.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks in eight games) are all back. There is no star here, but the players above combined for 27.0 TFL/sacks, a solid number considering how many plays the linebackers also made.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker Terrell Williams (32.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) should be able to fill Anthony Leon's playmaking shoes. He'll likely step into the starting lineup alongside Jerry Franklin (74.0 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Jerico Nelson (70.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU). As you see, Arkansas attacks a lot with their linebackers, and it pays off. This perhaps the thinnest unit on the defense; a backup other than just Ross Rasner (21.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) will need to make some plays at some point.
  • With linebackers playing close to the line of scrimmage, there is quite a bit of pressure on the safeties to manage the back of the defense. Arkansas' big-play numbers were neither great nor terrible, and safeties Tramain Thomas (65.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 FF, 5 PBU), Elton Ford (29.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Eric Bennett (13.5 tackles, 1.0 TLF/sacks as a freshman) should at the very least maintain those numbers. Cornerback should be reasonably well-stocked with Isaac Madison (24.5 tackles, 5 PBU), former blue-chipper Darius Winston (19.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU), Greg Gatson (16.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU) and incoming four-star freshman Tevin Mitchel. There aren't a lot of playmakers in that unit, but ... well, Arkansas had a Top 20 pass defense with them last year, and there's no reason to believe that isn't attainable again this year.

Arkansas's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Brown Sugar," by Rolling Stones
"Brown Sugar (Fine)," by Mos Def
"I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl," by Nina Simone
"Pour Some Sugar On Me," by Def Leppard
"Sugar Baby," by Bob Dylan
"Sugar Blaster," by The Starlight Mints
"Sugar Free Jazz," by Soul Coughing
"Sugar Mama," by John Lee Hooker
"Sugarcube," by Yo La Tengo
"Sugartown," by North Mississippi Allstars

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 18
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 29
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +1 / -2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.6

SEC! SEC! SEC! SEC

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

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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