Post-Spring Previews: Arkansas Razorbacks

After traveling to Knoxville to take on the Vols, the Gamecocks head to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas is another team looking to rebound from a shaky 2008. Luckily, momentum is in their favor. After playing poorly early in the season--see the close wins over cupcakes and absolutely ugly blowout losses to elite opponents--the Hogs played well to close out 2008. Moreover, they should only improve with a year in Bobby Petrino's system under their belts. Petrino may be one of the game's true professional slimeballs, but he's also a fantastic coach that came close to getting Louisville to the national title game. To understand the gravity of that accomplishment, take a look at what has happened there now that Petrino is gone. Petrino's offense was undoubtedly hampered last year with Casey Dick--an average quarterback at best--under center. However, this year he has Ryan Mallett taking over quarterbacking duties. Mallett will make mistakes at times, but he'll also be brilliant at times. The tools are in place for this to be a prolific Arkansas offense. While they probably won't win more than seven or eight because of Mallett's youth and a suspect defense, this is a team that will undoubtedly make for exciting football and perhaps an upset of one of the conference's big-name teams.

Let's see how we matchup against them.

Offense

The Hogs run Bobby Petrino's power spread, a modified pro-style attack. Often mischaracterized as a coach that likes to air it out, Petrino believes being able to run the ball is just as important as being able to go long. To this end, Petrino likes to move back and forth between spread formations and power-I formations. The spread formations usually allow him to get the ball to his receivers on the outside, whereas the power-I allows him to run the ball down hill. Petrino likes to throw deep to the tight ends out of the I, as well. His offense is also notable for running similar plays out of multiple formations, which I'd imagine is confusing for defenses.

Quarterback

After sitting out for a year after transferring from Michigan, highly recruited Ryan Mallett takes over under center for the Hogs. Mallett is a prototypical pro-style quarterback: he's big, tall, and can throw the ball a mile. Mallett should thrive in Petrino's system, where his vision and arm will give him lots of advantages. Mallett is somewhat inexperienced and may show it at times. However, while this is Mallett's first year playing at Arkansas and he can thus be expected to make some mistakes, it's not like he's a freshman. He had significant experience playing at Michigan in his freshman year and has had a year to learn Petrino's offense since then. His one liability other than his relative inexperience is that he's kind of slow because of his size. That could pose problems if he doesn't get great protection, which is a distinct possiblity. Overall, though, he looks to be poised for a big season throwing the ball.

We've yet to really see what Mallett can do, whereas we've at least seen Garcia play well in spurts, so I can't give Mallett the advantage here. I'm tempted to, though. Mallett is good and he will thrive throwing to a talented group of receivers in Bobby Petrino's system. Plus, Garcia frankly has almost just as much to prove at this point as Mallett. It will be interesting to see what kind of year these two are having when this game rolls around in November.

Verdict: Push

Running Backs

The Hogs return one of the SEC's best tailbacks in senior Michael Smith. Smith, who spent his first two seasons in the shadow of Felix Jones and Darren McFadden, broke out last year for over 1000 yards. Although small, Smith is a tough runner. His size, though, makes him vulnerable to injury, as the Hogs saw late last season. They'll look to lighten his load this year. The Hogs will look at a host of players in the rotation, although some injuries that occurred during the spring may limit some of those players' effectiveness. The primary backup role may, in fact, go to highly touted freshman Ronnie Wingo, Jr., one of the Hogs' prize recruits and a guy we'll probably hear a lot more of after Smith graduates.

I call this a slight advantage for Arkansas. We have more experienced depth than the Hogs at this position, and depth has to be a concern for the Hogs right now. However, Arky does have some nice young players that stack up well against most SEC teams, and Smith pushes the balance in their favor.

Verdict: Slight advantage Arkansas

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Arkansas returns an experienced group of talented receivers that could be poised to put up big numbers if Mallet and offensive line step up. The big name in the group is tight end D. J. Williams, who is one of the nation's best ends. Williams has and will continue to thrive in Petrino's offense, which frequently utilizes the tight end as a long-yardage passing option from what look like power-running formations. Lucas Miller, Jarius Wright, London Crawford and others fill out what should be a very effective group.

I give Arkansas another slight advantage here. I think our receivers have the potential to be as good as this group, but they have to prove it, first.

Verdict: Slight advantage Arkansas

Offensive Line

Here's where things get a little murky for what has the potential to be a great Arkansas offense. Last year's line had lots of trouble with both pass protection and run blocking. However, pass protection was the biggest problem, with the Hogs giving up a whopping 46 sacks. If problems continue this year, they may keep the Hogs from having the kind of year offensively they're otherwise capable of having. The fact that Ryan Mallett is hardly the kind of quarterback that can evade sacks with his feet makes protecting him all the more important.

This year's more experienced unit should be better, but they'll really need to be a lot better for the Hogs to truly live up to their potential on offense. Arkansas returns three starters as well as one player that started in 2007 but redshirted last year. It's hard to say who will play where; expect a lot of shifting around on this unit throughout the year, although Ray Dominguez looks to be the guy at the important left tackle position. The reserves are mostly inexperienced. All in all, there are still a lot of question marks here.

I'm going to call this a slight advantage for Carolina. Neither team was good up front last year and both have lots to prove, but we return a bit more experience and should start playing well sooner.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Let's look at the defenses after the jump.

Defense

To put it simply, the Hogs had a bad defense last year. Arky finished at or near the bottom of the SEC in most major categories. To put things into perspective, we managed to score 34 points against them. Experienced defensive coordinator Willy Robinson must get better play out of this group if Arkansas is to contend in the West.

Defensive Line

The Hogs' front four--which returns four starters--is led by tackle Malcolm Sheppard, who was second in the conference in tackles for loss a year ago. Adrian Davis, Zach Stadther, Lavunce Askew and Alfred Davis should round out the bulk of the rotation, although some newcomers may see time as well. This unit wasn't very good against the run last year and has focused on bulking up this offseason. I expect better production from them, but this may still be a team that good teams can run against fairly easily.

I give us a slight advantage here. There's no reason that our line can't be one of the best in the SEC this year, while Arkansas simply has lots to prove despite its experience.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Linebackers

This is another fairly experienced group. Senior Wendel Davis is perhaps the defense's overall leader. Davis missed the first part of last season, and when he returned, the defense clearly improved. Freddy Burton and Jerry Franklin round out the group. This should be another improved unit, but depth may be an issue here.

I give us a slight advantage here. Again, Arkansas has a lot to prove, whereas we have one of the league's better units with Eric Norwood and Rodney Paulk leading the way and a talented group of underclassmen providing depth.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Secondary

Secondary is perhaps the biggest cause for concern for this Arkansas defense. The most talented players just might be five-star freshman corner Darius Winton and highly touted JUCO transfer safety Rudell Crim. Both will push for playing time, as the returning starters all struggled last year. Corners Ramon Broadway and Isaac Madison have experience, but neither exactly instills fear in opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers. Safeties Elton Ford and Jerico Nelson also return with experience, but Ford will likely have to fight to keep Crim away from his job.

I call this a push. Both teams have some talented players but will have to rely on freshmen and must worry about depth problems. It's worth point out here that our secondary versus Bobby Petrino's offense is a cause for concern.

Verdict: Push

Special Teams

Kicker Alex Tejada struggled mightily last year after a solid 2007. The Hogs hope he can regain his old form. The Hogs had trouble with some of their return units last year, but should be better this year, especially with Petrino's mentor and former Michigan State coach John L. Smith taking over the special teams.

I'll call this a push. Arkansas doesn't have a reliable kicker at this point, while we don't even know who ours will be quite yet. Punting should be OK for both teams. Both teams look to have good kick return games but will need to figure out punt returns. Both should have decent coverage units. All in all it's hard to make a call right now on which team should have better units.

Verdict: Push

Head Coaches

As I said at the beginning of this preview, I think Bobby Petrino is one of the best coaches in the game. He almost won a national title at Louisville, for goodness's sake. The last two years haven't been nice to the guy, but let's face it: he wasn't exactly playing with a stacked deck last year or in 2007 in Atlanta. He has more pieces in place this year, and it should show with an extra couple of wins. I expect the team will continue to get better over the next few years and will regularly compete with Alabama and LSU in the West.

I'll give Arkansas a slight advantage here. Petrino may not have as many conference titles as Spurrier, but he has been relevant more recently.

Verdict: Slight advantage Arkansas

Overall

Although their strengths are somewhat different, in a lot of ways these are fairly evenly matched teams. Arkansas  should have a slightly better offense and we should have a slightly better defense, but the gaps aren't that large. My general impression is that this will be one of the higher scoring games of the year for us; Arkansas's offense is capable of putting up poitns against anybody, and we're capable of putting up points against their defense. Unfotunatley, if the game does become a shootout, I'll have to give the advantage to Petrino and Arkansas. To make matters worse, the game is in Fayetteville, and the atmosphere will likely be raucous if Arky is still in the running for a Western Division crown. If we're to win, we'll have to counter these Arkansas advantages by putting lots of pressure on Mallett, getting some sacks, and hopefully forcing a couple of game-changing turnovers. That kind of performance can't be taken for granted, though, and I have a feeling we'll lose this one.

Predict: seven-point Arkansas victory

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