by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Even with record-setting QB Ryan Mallett bolting for the NFL following his junior year, we firmly believe the rising Razorbacks should be mentioned in the discussion for the SEC West title right along with powerhouses Alabama and LSU. Fourth-year HC Bobby Petrino has put Arkansas on a steady climb during his tenure, from five to eight to ten wins in his first three years. Petrino, who dramatically turned around the Louisville program in his four campaigns from 2003-2006, going 41-9, has continued to display his Midas touch in the talent-laden SEC. With 13 starters back and both kickers, the Razorbacks might have what it takes to forge another special campaign in 2011. And since Petrino has usually been able to get tremendous production out of his QBs, a championship is a distinct possibility behind new starting QB jr. Tyler Wilson, who has shown to have the requisite physical tools and self-assurance to keep the attack humming along, but in a slightly different manner.

“Ryan led in a way where when he walked off the field, everybody knew it, " Wilson says. "He was a loud personality, Everybody kind of knew when he was around. I’m a little different. I think that’s OK.” Wilson was too kind to mention some of the cocky Mallett's flaws, including a tendency to force ball into coverage at times which resulting in 12 interceptions last year, including three costly ones in the heartbreaking 24-20 setback vs. Bama in Fayetteville.

Yet, with six starters back, the well-designed, explosive Hog attack (36.5 LY) has a good chance to pick up where it left off in 2010. Wilson, who had a terrific performance when he was forced to replace an injured Malett in the 2nd Q of the highly-misleading 65-43 defeat vs. Auburn (Hogs led 43-37 before allowing 4 unanswered TDs over 5-minute period of 4th Q), couldn’t ask for a more high-powered, star-studded supporting cast. Even with No. 2 rusher Broderick Green suffering season-ending ACL injury in the spring, the infantry attack remains in fine shape. That deep unit is spearheaded by brutish 6-0, 230-pound jr. RB Knile Davis (SEC-leading 1322 YR, 6.5 ypc, 13 TDs), jr. Ronnie Wingo Jr. (274 YR; displayed tougher inside running in the spring), and 5-9, 213-pound jr. Dennis Johnson, who is eager to get another shot after being knocked out early LY due to a perforated colon. Plus, the Razorbacks arguably own the best crop of receivers in the nation, featuring now-healthy Greg Childs (46 grabs, 6 TDs; missed final five games due to knee injury), Joe Adams (50, 6 TDs), Jarius Wright (42, 5 TDs, 19 yds. per catch) and blazing 6-3 Cobi Hamilton (32, 6 TDs, 19.7 yds. per catch), who led the Texas state champion 4x200 meter relay team in the AAU Junior Olympics. The only real issue on this high-octane attack is the youthful OL (2 soph starters), which must replace both tackles. And there is virtually no experience behind Wilson, with soph backup Brandon Mitchell making one token appearance in 2010.

Seven starters are back on the defense (23.4 ppg) that boasts more depth and beef on the DL; expect 6'3, 325-lb. juco DT Robert Thomas to make an immediate impact. Fayetteville sources tell us that the jelling, ripening stop unit will finally be stouter vs. the run (163 ypg; 10th in SEC) while continue to generate a steady pass rush (37 sacks LY), led by hard-charging DE Jake Bequette (7 sacks LY). The strength is the LB corps, led by tackling machine MLB Jerry Franklin (top tackler L3Ys!) and undersized but fearless Jerico Nelson (87 tackles, 11 TFL). Plus, the seasoned secondary (3 starters back) figures to be stingier vs. quality aerial attacks, benefiting from the senior leadership of ubiquitous FS Tramain Thomas (83 tackles, team-leading four ints., four forced fumbles). The kicking game a major asset with soph PK Zack Hocker (16 of 19 FGs) and strong-legged P Dylan Breeding (42.5 avg.).

Summary...Will it be hog heaven in 2011? That is a distinct possibility for an Arkansas contingent that is afforded the opportunity to work out the kinks (and build momentum) in what is an essentially an “exhibition season” the first three weeks (with home games vs. Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy). We have plenty of faith in gunslinger Wilson, who has a highly-combustible arsenal at his full disposal. So, if Razorbacks take care of business at home (no easy feat vs. visiting South Carolina, Miss. State & Auburn) and manage to knock off either the Tide (Hogs blew 17-7 lead in 24-20 loss LY!) or LSU (outgained Tigers 464-294 in 31-23 win LY) on the road, Petrino’s troops could make it to the SEC title game. Oh, and you can bet Razorbacks will do a better job after working in the spring on capitalizing on scooping up blocked kicks after missing a golden opportunity to convert one into a TD in the final minutes of the 31-26 loss vs. Ohio State in LY’s Sugar Bowl. Note also that the Hogs enter 2011 on a pointspread roll, having covered 9 of their last 10 regular-season tilts!

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