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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Opponent preview: Arkansas

We are flying through these Auburn opponent previews, as we should be with players reporting on Tuesday for Wednesday's first practice.

Today's entry is Arkansas. Also, don't forget to read previous posts previewing Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Ball State and Tennessee.

And remember, follow the War Eagle Extra on Twitter here.

Arkansas Razorbacks
  • Head coach: Bobby Petrino (2nd season, 5-7; 6th season overall, 46-16 at Arkansas and Louisville)
  • 2008 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC, t-4th Wast), no postseason
  • Returning starters: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)
  • Total offense: 373.1 (4th SEC, 49th nationally)
  • Total defense: 375.2 (12th SEC, 72nd nationally)
  • Series: Auburn leads 10-7-1
  • Last meeting: Arkansas won 25-22 last year at Jordan-Hare Stadium
  • Consensus prediction: Tied for fourth in the SEC West
Five-week schedule glimpse
  • Sept. 26: at Alabama
  • Oct. 3: vs. Texas A&M (in Dallas)
  • Oct. 10: Auburn
  • Oct. 17: at Florida
  • Oct. 24: at Ole Miss
After a contentious ending to his NFL stint with the Atlanta Falcons, Bobby Petrino had his share of troubles during an up-and-down first season at Arkansas. His Razorbacks couldn't stop anybody defensively, as Arkansas got blow out 49-14 by Alabama, 52-10 by Florida and 38-7 by Florida in consecutive weeks early in the season. But, starting with a 25-22 victory against a reeling Auburn, the Razorbacks closed with wins in three of their last seven games, beating LSU 31-30 to finish the season. Now, with Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett expected to be the perfect big arm for Petrino's offensive system, a lot of folks have Arkansas as a sleeper this season.

To find out if that has any merit, I contacted Robbie Neiswanger of the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas. Read his work on the Razorbacks at the Morning News here or on his blog here. Follow him on Twitter here and the paper's Arkansas coverage here.

AB: Has Arkansas gotten over the inevitable adjustment period of installing a new coach and what kind of strides can Bobby Petrino make with this team this season?
RN: In a word, yes. Petrino is a demanding coach and his style is the polar opposite of Houston Nutt. So players had to adjust to what he expected from them on a daily basis on the practice field. There were plenty of rough times last year, but you could see a difference in the spring. Practices were crisper. Players were more confident on both sides of the ball. If that continues, I think you will see Arkansas take some strides in 2009.
AB: Ryan Mallett, who stands 6-foot-7, 248 pounds and possesses a cannon for an arm, seems to have all the physical tools to be a great quarterback. Will he be able to seamlessly adjust to life in the defensive-minded SEC after sitting out a year following his transfer from Michigan?
RN: Arkansas certainly hopes so. You’re right about one thing: Mallett does have all the tools. His arm strength makes Arkansas capable of stretching the field, something it hasn’t been able to do in probably 10 years. He does have some experience against Big Ten defenses, too, playing some as a true freshman. But there are concerns. Mallett’s footwork must improve. So must his accuracy and consistency. But the good news: He is working with Petrino, who is regarded as one of the best QB coaches in the game.
AB: Will a suspect offensive line be able to jell enough for Arkansas to take advantage of its myriad offensive weapons, which includes and group of talented receivers plus All-SEC candidates in tailback Michael Smith and tight end D.J. Williams?
RN: Arkansas’ offensive line returns three starters this season, but will look completely different. Wade Grayson — who has moved from guard to center — is the only one returning who started all 12 games in 2008. DeMarcus Love has moved from guard to tackle as well. Tackle Ray Dominguez is the only player who is in the same spot. So putting together a cohesive unit has been an ongoing challenge. Petrino said he expects a lot of competition among this group when the preseason begins. Most of the competition will come in the interior where the guard and center spots are unsettled. This group must perform better than it did in 2008 if Arkansas — which does have weapons — hopes to live up to its offensive expectations.
AB: Veteran coach John L. Smith was hired to coordinate special teams and assist coordinator Willy Robinson on a defense that gave up 31.2 point per game last season. Nine players are back from that unit. Is there any reason to believe things will be different this year?
RN: Defense is the No. 1 question about this team because we all know how bad it was last season. But we also know something else: There was improvement and every important contributor returns (Malcolm Sheppard, Adrian Davis, Jerry Franklin and Wendel Davis). That’s a sign that this group could and be tougher this season. There’s also some talent coming in that could help immediately, like JUCO safeties Rudell Crim and Anthony Leon. But questions remain. Are they deep enough? Can they get to the quarterback with the front four? Can they cover anyone in the secondary? These are all things we won’t know for sure until the season begins.
AB: The Razorbacks have a brutal schedule, with road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU and a neutral-site game against Texas A&M. Even if the team shows marked improvement in its play, will that translate into wins?
RN: I’ve said this for awhile: Don’t be surprised if Arkansas finishes 5-7 again but is a much, much, much better team. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but the schedule makes it a possibility. It is probably the toughest in the SEC. Most will pencil in the four road games as losses. The trip to Dallas to play the Aggies will be a challenge. And there are big tests at home against Georgia (Sept. 19) and Auburn (Oct. 10) in the first five games. In addition, Arkansas’ only off week comes after the opener against Missouri State so that means the Hogs will play 11 straight. That’s tough.
NCAA '10 on PlayStation 3 says ... Arkansas 41, Auburn 14. The Tigers, who made the Also Receiving Votes category in the polls, finally get steamrolled. The Razorbacks roll up 586 yards of total offense in the rout. Arkansas builds a 24-7 halftime lead and never looks back. Mallet goes 29-for-51 for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Wideout Lucas Miller catches 18 passes for 288 yards and a pair of scores. Not a banner day for the Auburn secondary. Ben Tate runs for 104 yards and Montez Billings turns in a 125-yard receiving day, but it's not nearly enough as Auburn drops to 4-2 (2-1 SEC).

Up next: Auburn returns to Jordan-Hare for its first game against Kentucky since 2005.

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