A random, too-soon look at the Razorbacks' prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. So strong is Bobby Petrino's reputation as a passing puppeteer that it survived even the purgatory of Casey Dick, starting quarterback, which is no small task. True, Dick's completion percentage and overall efficiency were roughly steady from his junior season under the run-based mantra of Houston Nutt, with more interceptions and fewer touchdowns. But the Razorbacks actually moved the ball through the air, which hardly seemed possible with Dick at the helm from 2005-07 -- consider that Dick had exactly two 200-yard passing games in 23 starts under Nutt, compared to an average of 235 yards per game last year, including three 300-yard games, a 282-yard effort in a near-upset against Ole Miss and a 197-yard, two-touchdown, zero-INT performance off the bench against LSU, ending with a 24-yard game-winner on the final throw of his career.
Dick's competence in Petrino's system only increases the salivation accompanying the ascendency of Ryan Mallett, the prodigal blue-chip who probably ranks as the most physically imposing passer in school history. Mallett has the size (6'6", 250-ish), the borderline illegal arm and the hype of prototypical draft bait like JaMarcus Russell and Matt Stafford. He also had a forgettable debut at Michigan as a true freshman in 2007, finishing with a wretched 43.3 completion percentage and a horror show of a performance in his only road start, a 37-21 loss to Wisconsin that featured open confrontations with coaches and receivers on the sideline. (Yes, Mallett threw three touchdown passes in that game, one an improbable 97-yarder to Mario Manningham. But I also watched that game in its entirety and read trustworthy accounts that described Mallett as "deranged." He completed 11 of 36 passes with two picks. It was a very, very ugly display.) Mallett was quickly branded as a malcontent in Ann Arbor and was a transfer candidate even before Rich Rodriguez's system made him a square peg in a round hole; a February arrest for public intoxication, though his first bit of bad press at Arkansas, did not boost his reputation.
Still: Potential, etc. Mallett got good reviews on the Razorback scout team last year and should be a significant upgrade over Dick, who isn't in the same class in terms of arm strength. Combine that ability with Petrino's record for cultivating prolific passing games at Louisville ...
... and you have a perfectly valid formula for optimism, especially when you add the fact that Petrino's Cardinals also finished in the top-20 nationally in rushing in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
What's the Same. Exacerbating the warm feelings about the offense is the return of literally every yard gained from scrimmage in 2008: Excluding the quarterbacks, every single player who caught a pass or took a handoff last year is back, including 1,000-yard rusher Michael Smith, who had four straight 100-yard games against Florida, Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss before being slowed by injuries down the stretch, and tight end D.J. Williams, who averaged 12 yards on 61 catches. Jarius Wright broke out late as a true freshman with 12 catches for 281 yards in the last four games, averaging more than 18 yards per catch for the season. There is no shortage of viable targets.
This is also the point to mention the return of nearly the entire defense, including six of seven starters in the front seven and all but one starter in the secondary (though there may be some turnover at safety). Keep that in mind, but note also where they're starting from:
Arkansas Defense: SEC Rank (Out of 12) in Major Categories
• Rushing Defense: 12th (170.8 yards/game)
• Pass Efficiency Defense: 12th (127.3 per game)
• Total Defense: 12th (375.2 yards/game)
• Scoring Defense: 12th (31.2 points/game)
• Yards Per Play: 12th (5.6 yards/play)
You get the idea. The finale against LSU (only 304 yards allowed) was an encouraging improvement, but as it came less than a week after allowing 445 yards and 31 points in a loss to Mississippi State (which subsequently laid the offensive egg of the year on the same day Arkansas upset LSU), it's safe to assume the playmakers on offense will still be sorely needed.
Please protect your most valuable possessions. The biggest kink in the pending offensive explosion: Mallett will probably be the least mobile quarterback in the SEC, at least, trying to hang in the pocket behind a line that was easily the most porous in the conference -- in fact, at almost four sacks allowed per game, the Razorbacks allowed more rushers to hit the quarterback than any team anywhere except Hawaii. It wasn't just Texas (seven sacks) and Florida (four) that brought the heat, either -- Western Illinois, UL-Monroe, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tulsa all had at least three sacks, and South Carolina and LSU broke through for six apiece in the last two games, which makes the overall success of the passing game that much more remarkable.
The natural corollary to all that pressure: Bad decisions on the business end. The quarterbacks combined for 18 interceptions, also one of the worst numbers in the country, which led to an equally atrocious overall turnover margin.
The only good news in that equation is that the offensive line, an unusually coherent group to be so bad -- altogether, the regular starers lost only six starts among all five positions -- is a year older with three full-time returnees, not including guard Mitch Petrus, who started 12 games on the solid 2007 line and opened as a preseason All-SEC pick by the coaches before missing the entire season with a mysterious ailment (probably academics). Like the defense, generally, this is one of those areas that cannot possibly be worse.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. The hype behind Mallett is so ubiquitous that you will not find a magazine or depth chart willing to extend any shred of hope to redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson, but the fact is that the quarterback competition remained fairly close all the way through the spring, right up to Wilson's huge stellar effort in the spring game. When Petrino named Mallett the starter, he added that Wilson is likely to get some significant snaps, too, echoing his approach in 2004, when then-freshman Brian Brohm regularly spelled senior Stefan LeFors, including most of the fourth quarter and the decisive drive of the Cards' critical trip to Miami. Mallett's not nearly as entrenched as LeFors, which makes some early shuffling likely.
Best-Case. The Razorbacks get a warm-up against Missouri State and then two weeks to prepare for Georgia, in Fayetteville, which is likely to set the tone for the rest of the season. An upset over UGA and wins over Texas A&M (in Dallas) and Auburn (back in Fayetteville) could leave them sitting at 5-1 going into back-to-back road dates at Florida and Ole Miss. Even with two losses in those games, there's a good chance at another four-game run against Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Troy and Mississippi State before the finale at LSU -- another likely loss, but, with some breaks, only a minor blemish on an 8-4 run to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Worst-Case. The front-loaded schedule looks more like a potential nightmare than an opportunity: It's perfectly conceivable that the Razorbacks will come out of the six-game stretch against Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss at 1-5, with bowl hopes all but smashed. If they managed to follow that up with another misstep against South Carolina, Troy or Mississippi State, another 5-7/2-6 mark is very possible, and there will be far less patience with this one.
Non-Binding Forecast. This team seems to be going in two directions at once. On one hand, all the returning starters, the strong finish and the potential of the Petrino-Mallett marriage on offense is enormously encouraging, and they were six combined points against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State from finishing 7-5 last year. On the other hand, they were also a combined nine points against Western Illinois, UL-Monroe, Auburn and LSU from going 1-11. The record was no mirage.
That may not be the case this time around, because the team is likely to be one of the most improved in the SEC, but not likely to actually win many more games in an even more brutal division than usual: Assuming there are no slips against Troy or Mississippi State, merely improving to 6-6 will mean either taking two out of three against Texas A&M, Auburn and South Carolina or upsetting one of the league's heavier hitters. It's hard to see them doing more than that, so .500 and a minor bowl -- the Independence or Music City, probably -- is as high as I'm willing to go.
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California, Auburn, Nebraska, Miami, Illinois.