story by Chris Rushing, College Sports Matchups (CSM is a content partner with The City Wire)
Last year, it was Ole Miss stealing all the headlines as Alabama’s most likely biggest obstacle in reaching Atlanta as the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division champion. The Rebels appeared to have it all: a suffocating defense, the quarterback with the big arm, a slew of running backs with big-game experience and big-play ability.
One thing experts did not expect, however, was that Houston Nutt wasn’t ready to coach under those kinds of expectations. Sure, 9-4 is a good season at Ole Miss but is it the kind of finish Rebel supporters expected when a lofty top-10 preseason ranking was bestowed upon Colonel Reb’s favorite army?
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t this column supposed to be about Arkansas? The reason I chose my lead was the amount of ire and angst the mentioning of Nutt’s name can cause in the Razorback fan base. That, and UA is dealing with expectations similar to those Ole Miss faced last year.
Everyone on the outside looking in wonders if the Arkansas 2010 story will play out like the Ole Miss 2009 story, but there is a major difference between the two squads: Bobby Petrino.
While it’s true that Petrino’s teams often lack the defensive consistency to challenge for championships and horrid special teams play cost them at least two wins in 2009 (Florida and LSU), a third year in his offensive system should allow Ryan Mallett and Co. to cover any remaining deficiencies in the other two phases of the team more often than not.
Petrino will hand over the reigns of coordinating the offense to Garrick McGee, who could be one of college football’s next hot names for job openings with a big season numbers-wise from the Razorbacks. Mallett held off on his National Football League career in order to return to Fayetteville with a Heisman Trophy possibility on the line as he continues to etch his name atop the school offensive record books.
Joe Adams has dealt with several issues over the past 12 months, but his presence on the field is always known by opposing defensive coordinators and cornerbacks. Wide receiver is one position where Petrino has no shortage of talent with All-SEC talent Greg Childs returning as Mallett’s favorite target from a year ago. Childs’ impressive frame matches some of the most trustworthy hands in college football, making it difficult for even the most athletic DBs to cover him.
If that’s not enough, the Hogs have a pair of seniors to man the tight end position in Ben Cleveland and future NFL player DJ Williams. Ronnie Wingo Jr., and Broderick Green are expected to step up at the running back spot to take some of the pressure off the passing attack, and Wade Grayson and Demarcus Love are more than capable of opening holes for them. A big key for Grayson, Love and the rest of their offensive line mates will be reducing the sack and hurries on Mallett so he can use his strong arm to pick on opposing defensive backs.
Linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson are the top two of seven starters returning on Willy Robinson’s defense. Franklin started every contest at middle linebacker for UA in 2009 and registered a team-best 87 tackles. Nelson, meanwhile added 3.5 sacks in his six starts and ten appearances a year ago. As Arkansas wins more games, look for increased notoriety to come for this pair in 2010.
A rare road trip to Georgia falls on the schedule just before the mammoth tilt with defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 25. It is almost unfair to say one game can make or break the Arkansas season, but the matchup with the Tide is the closest thing to that situation on the agenda for the Razorbacks. With a loss, it will be enormously difficult to regain footing in the SEC West race and stave off overrated jeers from the opposition.
In the SEC, there is no such thing as a “gimme” game, so other pitfalls remain with road trips to Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State all in the span of five weeks in October and early November. There’s also the Southwest Classic matchup with the ever-improving Texas A&M Aggies on Oct. 9 following the team’s lone bye week.
I’m not sure what win total I can put on the UA season to consider it a success or failure. Ten or 11 W’s would be enormous for Petrino as he continues to build acclaim for the Razorback brand. The schedule, however, leaves it wide open for interpretation as long as the Hogs don’t give up following a bad showing at any point in the campaign.
• QUICK LOOK
Arkansas Razorbacks 2010
Starters Returning: Offense — 9; Defense — 7
Key to the Team: Ryan Mallett, QB
Most likely to breakout: Ronnie Wingo Jr., RB
Most important game: vs. Alabama, Sept. 25
• ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Football schedule — 2010
Tennessee Tech (Fayetteville, TBA)
Louisiana-Monroe (Little Rock, TBA)
Georgia (Athens, Ga., 11 a.m. ESPN or ESPN2)
Alabama (Fayetteville, TBA)
Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas, TBA)
Auburn (Auburn, Ala., TBA)
Ole Miss (Fayetteville, TBA)
Vanderbilt (Homecoming, Fayetteville, TBA)
South Carolina (Columbia, S.C., TBA)
UTEP (Fayetteville, TBA)
Mississippi State (Starkville, Miss., TBA)
LSU (Little Rock, TBA)