The 2011 Arkansas team has the rare distinction of being able to say the only two teams it lost to played for the National Championship. Last season Arkansas posted its first 11-win season since 1977 when Lou Holtz was head coach. But its two losses came to its SEC West rivals, Alabama and LSU, and neither game was close; the Razorbacks lost both games by 24 points.
Arkansas certainly has the weapons to duplicate or improve on last year’s campaign. However, all the attention will be on the outspoken John L. Smith, the former Michigan State coach, who takes over for the disgraced Bobby Petrino. Aside from the distractions following the drama-filled offseason, Arkansas’ biggest task will be stepping out of the shadow cast by its better-achieving SEC West peers. While the program has been to two Cotton Bowls and a Sugar Bowl in the last five seasons, it has not won the SEC West and advanced to the SEC Championship Game since 2006.
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Say what you want about Arkansas Head Coach Bobby Petrino, but the man got results. The Razorbacks improved every year under Petrino since he took over for Houston Nutt after the 2007 season. From 5-7 in Petrino’s inaugural campaign to 8-5, 10-3 and then 11-2 last season topped off with a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State, Arkansas made major strides under Petrino and now it is up to Smith to continue carrying that momentum. That is a tall task for a former Arkansas assistant who was somewhat of a surprise hire.
He compiled a 16-18 record at Utah State from 1995-97. He was much better at Louisville, going 41-21 from 1998-2002. However, his teams won only one bowl game and finished ranked only once. At Michigan State he was 22-26 from 2003-06. Smith was last head coach at FCS program Weber State, his alma mater, from 2007-09. Petrino brought him on board in 2009 to serve as special teams coach and probably never in his wildest imaginations could have imagined he would be replaced by him someday.
Arguably the biggest moment in the 2012 Arkansas football season happened back in January. That is when quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis announced they were returning to Arkansas and not entering the NFL Draft. The Razorbacks instantly cemented themselves as major contenders in the SEC with Wilson and Davis on board.
Wilson, a first-team all-SEC quarterback last season, threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. It was the first time a Razorback quarterback ever received that honor. Wilson currently holds nine school records, and by the time this season is over he may hold all the major ones. Davis exploded on the scene as a sophomore when he led the SEC in rushing with 1,322 yards. The summer leading into his junior year was full of preseason accolades, including preseason all-America and all-SEC and being named to the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Award watch lists. But Davis would never play a down as an ankle injury during a preseason scrimmage cost him his junior year.
In Davis’ absence last year, Dennis Johnson (670 rushing yards) and Ronnie Wingo (458 rushing yards) stepped up and both return this year.
The question for this Arkansas offense is “who will emerge as Wilson’s targets?” Jarius Wright and Joe Adams combined for 120 receptions, 15 touchdowns and more than 1,700 receiving yards last season but both have since departed. Senior Cobi Hamilton is a three-year starter and the new heir apparent to Wright and Adams. Tight end Chris Gragg is actually the top returning receiver with 41 catches for 518 yards last season.
Arkansas is not built like the typical SEC team. The Razorbacks run-the-ball and stop-the-run mentality and “defense wins championships” mantra is not what this team has been based on. Smith and new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes hope to change that. Haynes took over in early December and he coached the defense in the Cotton Bowl, a 29-16 Arkansas win over Kansas State that many expected to be a shootout (the total was 65). Haynes comes from Ohio State where he coached the defense and safeties for seven seasons.
The biggest task for Haynes will be improving the run defense and replacing defensive end Jake Bequette, a third-round selection in the NFL Draft this past April. The Razorbacks ranked 73rd in rushing defense last year, allowing 168 yards per game. The top returners on defense for Arkansas are ends Tenarius Wright, Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, tackles Bryan Jones and DeQuinta Jones, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and safety Eric Bennett. Highsmith recorded 80 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year, the most of any returner, and Bennett had three interceptions.
2012 Arkansas Football Schedule Analysis
Arkansas has its usual spate of nonconference cupcakes in the form of Jacksonville State, Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers and Tulsa. Life in the SEC West dictates games against both Alabama and LSU, but at least the Razorbacks host both teams, which should be gigantic events in Fayetteville.
The Crimson Tide kick off SEC play with Arkansas on Sept. 15, the third week of the season, and Arkansas closes the regular-season by hosting LSU the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Arkansas has SEC road contests at Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State while hosting Kentucky and Ole Miss along with the two SEC West powers.
2012 Arkansas Razorbacks Futures Odds
Arkansas is listed at +4000 to win the BCS National Championship on 5Dimes. Bovada has the Razorbacks listed at 4/1 to win the SEC West and 7/1 to win the SEC. Quarterback Tyler Wilson has the eighth-best odds on Bovada to win the Heisman at 16/1. In future college football point spreads Arkansas is an underdog at LSU (+3) and Alabama (+6) and favored over South Carolina (-2), Texas A&M (-3.5) and Auburn (-4.5). The posted season win total on 5Dimes is 8.5 with the “over” juiced at -130 and the “under” priced at +110.
2012 Arkansas Razorbacks Football Predictions
If Petrino were still in Fayetteville, Arkansas might be getting a lot more National Championship contender talk. But he is not. Smith is in his place and his teams have traditionally underperformed. Even a two-game regression gets them nine wins and the over 8.5 wins projected by the sportsbooks, but nine wins is far from a given.
Yes, LSU and Alabama are both home games for Arkansas, but they will still be underdogs in both contests. Davis is back, but how he performs after missing an entire season is anybody’s guess. The play with Arkansas is under 8.5 wins.
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