Premature Preview 2012: Arkansas

Previously: Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU

It’s MSU’s final home game of the season and next-to-last overall, and it’s what you could probably label a swing game. If the season to this point goes as State hopes, then beating Arkansas could take the Dan Mullen era to new heights.

The Razorbacks have won three in a row in this series, with MSU’s last win coming in 2008, 31-28 at home. It’s another one of those Western Division teams that Mullen needs to beat if this program is to become a real contender.

–––––

Arkansas Razorbacks (Nov. 17, in Starkville)

Conference: SEC

2011 record: 11-2 (6-2, 3rd Western Division)

Final ranking: No. 5 AP, No. 5 USA Today, No. 6 BCS

Coach: John L. Smith (first year)

Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 6 defense, 2 specialists)

Last meeting: Arkansas, 44-17 (Nov. 19, 2011, in Little Rock)

On the Web: arkansasrazorbacks.com

–––––

Before all that wacky Bobby Petrino stuff happened, a lot of folks (me included) considered Arkansas a dark horse national title contender, or maybe even a for-real legit contender. I still like this team, but Petrino’s ignominious departure has cast some doubt onto the assumption that the Hogs can run with the big dogs.

That’s understandable, because Petrino is a heck of a good coach. Smith is no slouch, though. He’s a veteran who’s head coached at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. He has a career record of 132-86. And Smith knows Arkansas, having served as special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach from 2009-11. Keeping the entire staff of assistants intact should be a big plus.

The talent on the field hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, the Razorbacks should be better in at least one area: running back. Knile Davis is back after missing 2011 with a knee injury. He earned first-team All-SEC honors the year before, rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 6.48 yards per carry, tops in the country. Davis could be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson is squarely in that conversation. He stepped in last season and made people forget about Ryan Mallett, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s lost some key receivers, but the Hogs are expected to reload at that position. Cobi Hamilton (542 yards, four TDs) and tight end Chris Gragg (518 yards, two TDs) will lead the downfield attack. Absent from the group will be Marquel Wade, who was expected to be a key cog but was suspended for the season after a burglary arrest.

Four offensive linemen with starting experience return up front, and all in all, this offense should again be one of the league’s most prolific. If any major issues arise with this team, it’ll be on defense. Arkansas did a solid job on that side most of last year, allowing 362.8 yards and 22.2 points per game. There were bad games, however: Texas A&M racked up 628 yards, LSU had 494, Vanderbilt had 462, and Troy had 454. Arkansas went 3-1 in those games.

Can the offense bail out the defense on such a regular basis this season? The Razorbacks have lost their top two tacklers from last year, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas, along with defensive end Jake Bequette, whose 10 sacks tied for second in the SEC last season. The top returning tackler is senior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, who had 80 stops, 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks.

Arkansas recorded 29 sacks last fall (fifth in the league). QB pressure will be key this season, because it looks like the quality of quarterback play in the SEC is on the rise with guys like LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and MSU’s Tyler Russell stepping under center. If the Hogs can just be decent again on defense, and not give up yards in such large chunks, then they could indeed be in the national championship picture.