Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Razorbacks.

Previously On… Coach-quarterback relationships can be delicate, inscrutable and occasionally combustible affairs, but the marriage of Bobby Petrino's prolific, pro-style passing schemes and Ryan Mallett's atomic right arm was a thing of beauty. With their 31-23 win over LSU on Thanksgiving weekend, the 2010 Razorbacks joined the 2006 SEC West champs as the only Arkansas outfit since joining the SEC in 1992 to win ten games, or to take up residence in the top 10 as the calendar turned to December. The Hogs started and finished in the polls for the first time since 1999, and spend the entire season there for the first time since 1989, their last championship campaign as members of the old Southwest Conference. They closed the season in a BCS game for the first time.

And still, there was the lingering sense of what could have been. If the Razorbacks hadn't blown a 13-point second half lead to Alabama, or set the Tide up for the game-winning touchdown on a late interception? If Mallett hadn't been knocked out in the first half of the 65-43 loss at Auburn, where another fourth quarter lead bit the dust behind three straight turnovers — two of them interceptions by backup QB Tyler Wilson — in the highest-scoring game in SEC history? If freshman Julian Horton had scooped up the loose ball after a late blocked punt that could have provided the winning points in the Sugar Bowl instead of falling on it? If 2010 was the best Razorback outfit of the SEC era (and it was), it may have also been the last one in a long time that had even bigger goals within its grasp.

The Big Change. Mallett wasn't only the SEC's most frequent and prolific passer, easily leading the league in yards, yards per game, touchdowns and big plays for the second year in a row; he was also one of the most efficient, joining Cam Newton and Greg McElroy as one of only seven passers in the country with a passer rating above 160 — a good 10 points higher than he'd delivered as a redshirt sophomore. He pulverized the school records for yards and touchdowns in a career. And more importantly, he made the Razorbacks relevant again nationally, from within the most stacked division in the country.

The Least You Should Know About...

•• In 2010
10-3 (6-2 SEC); Lost Sugar Bowl.
•• Past Five Years
2006-10: 41-24 (22-19 SEC); 1-3 in bowl games.
•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
•• Best Player
The running game was never going to be anything but a complement to Ryan Mallett's golden arm, but Knile Davis seized the role with aplomb: He turned a crowded backfield cast into a one-man show by midseason, and by the end had ripped off six 100-yard efforts on the ground in the last seven games. Altogether, Davis averaged 154 total yards per game with 13 touchdowns over the last eight, 6.5 yards per carry for the season and pulled away with 139 yards in the Sugar Bowl to capture the SEC rushing crown (non-Cam Newton Division).
•• Best Year Ever

The Razorbacks spent the better part of their last three decades in the Southwest Conference as a legitimate national power, but never more so than in the 1960s, a decade that produced eight top-10 finishes, seven Jan. 1 bowl games, five SWC championships and, from 1963-65, a school record 22-game winning streak. At the heart of that run was an 11-0, national championship campaign in 1964, fueled by a midseason upset at No. 1 Texas and five consecutive shutouts to close the regular season.

•• Best Case
Tyler Wilson picks up more or less where Mallett left off with a bevy of quality targets, leads the SEC passing; Knile Davis complements the familiar aerial assault another 1,200-yard season on the ground; the defense takes another small step forward, into the top half of the conference. 9-3, Cotton Bowl, back-to-back top-20 finishes in the polls for the first time since joining the SEC.
•• Worst Case
Porous offensive line keeps Wilson and Davis running for their lives; soaring turnover margin helps negate big plays; defense continues to struggle against the run and to get opposing offenses off the field. 6-6, Music City Bowl.
* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)

So: Hello, Tyler Wilson. Mallett's heir apparent has yet to start a college game, and in fact the single piece of relevant information through his first three seasons is that crazy line at Auburn last October: 25-of-34, 332 yards, 4 touchdowns (all in the third quarter), 2 interceptions (both in the fourth quarter). That's certainly a better omen than not playing at all — at least we know Wilson has the arm (he arrived as a four-star recruit) and enough grasp of the offense to light up a mediocre SEC secondary, which should be enough to keep him in good standing against at least two-thirds of the schedule even without adopting his predecessor's bombs-away philosophy on stretching a secondary. His consistency is another question. But between Mallett, Brian Brohm, Stefan LeFors, Jason Campbell and Chris Redman at his previous stops, there haven't been many college quarterbacks Petrino can't make look good.

Big Men On Campus. Largely overlooked amid the fireworks was the leap from dead last in the SEC in total defense in 2009 to fifth in 2010, owing mostly to the return of eight battle-scarred starters. Most of that crew is back again — namely, the resident tackle machine(linebacker Jerry Franklin), pass rusher (defensive end Jake Bequette), run-stopper (DeQuinta Jones) and jack of all trades (linebacker/safety Jerico Nelson) — and offensive headlines notwithstanding, the defensive stability is the real reason there's no panic about the bottom falling out sans Mallett. You can go ahead and sign up Franklin and Bequette for a return to the All-SEC team, which Razorback fans have had very, very few opportunities to say in years.

Open Casting. Mallett's early exit also overshadows the returning cast on offense, which is pretty much, like, everyone. Specifically: All-SEC tailback Knile Davis, the top four wide receivers and just shy of 90 percent of the team's total yards. That number may understate the point, actually, considering dynamic receiver Greg Childs had a burgeoning All-SEC campaign cut short by a season-ending injury in October, and returns as arguably the premiere receiver in the conference if he's at full strength. Either way, his main receiving mates — Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton — have combined for 263 catches, 4,552 yards and 35 touchdowns their own selves over the last three years, essentially as role players.

Overly optimistic spring narrative. The SEC quarterback situation is grim all over, and no one else has the supporting cast Wilson has. The offense can take a step back and still come in as one of the top two or three attacks in the league — maybe as the best, now that the competition no longer includes Cam Newton. When you account for a more experienced defense and an expanded role for Knile Davis, there's no reason this team can't take a slightly less explosive route back to 10 wins.

The Big Question. Can the offensive line keep Wilson comfortable? We know the offense has the firepower at the skill positions; the defense has the experience across the board. That leaves the new quarterback and his personal protectors up front, three of whom will be first-time starters and one whom may be a true freshman, early-enrolling tackle Brey Cook, who's already listed with the first team on the spring depth chart. The two "veterans" who do return, guard Alvin Bailey and center Travis Swanson, were both first-year starters last year as redshirt freshmen. These Hogs are still piglets.

If they're overwhelmed by those vaunted SEC defensive lines, it's going to be a long, long year for Wilson and Davis, who'll be counted on to ease the transition in the passing game as a regular workhorse on the ground. If he can't find any room, Wilson's learning curve becomes that much steeper under pressure, and any hope of sustaining last year's momentum — opposite a defense that still considers mediocrity a solid step forward — goes out the window.

- - - Other premature assessments (in alphabetical order): Central Michigan. … Iowa State. … Marshall. … Nebraska. … Nevada. … South Florida. … Syracuse.

Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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