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February 22, 2012

SEC Spring Preview: Arkansas





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The next time Missouri plays a game it will be as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Over the next few weeks, PowerMizzou.com will introduce Tiger fans to their new league. We will do a question and answer session with our counterparts at each SEC school prior to spring football. Today, we jump to a team many believe will be Missouri's biggest SEC rival. We talk Arkansas with Trey Biddy, publisher of HawgSports.com.


Arkansas was fifth in the country and third in its own division. How tough is it to break through that ceiling in the SEC West?

Biddy: "Last year it was considered to be the toughest division in college football with three teams in the Top 25. Alabama and LSU always have tough defenses, but it is tough to imagine them putting a unit out there year in and year out like the ones in 2011. The way Arkansas' schedule is set up, they either play both Alabama and LSU on the road or they get them both at home. This season, they get both of them in Fayetteville. Arkansas has actually beaten LSU three of the last five, but they have lost five in a row to Alabama. They almost beat the Crimson Tide in 2010 but ended up losing 24-20 due to two late fourth quarter interceptions. Going to Auburn is not a picnic either, and the Razorbacks will have to go there this season. It is probable that this year's Texas A&M-Arkansas game will be played at Kyle Field instead of Cowboys Stadium, which is said to be another tough environment. The last two years Arkansas has beaten everyone they've been picked to beat, and the last time they got over the hump was 2006 when they beat Alabama and went 7-1 in the conference. Arkansas lost the SEC Championship Game to Florida that year. Up 21-17 with all the momentum and 3:47 to play in the third quarter, Arkansas' Reggie Fish attempted to field a punt over his shoulder at the goal line and lost it in the end zone. Florida recovered and scored and went on to a 38-28 win, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of Razorback fans. Arkansas would like nothing more than to have another crack at it, and with Alabama and LSU both at home and a veteran quarterback at the helm, this is their best chance since 2010.

Was it a surprise Tyler Wilson stayed in school?

Biddy: "It was and it wasn't...The way the chips fell at the end with a few of the top quarterbacks in the country opting to stay at school, it started to look like a great opportunity for him to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the draft, which usually warrants a first or second round selection. It would be difficult to blame him if he left for that situation. Until other players opted to stay, most thought Wilson would return without a doubt. Ultimately, he had waited three years in the system to become the starter at Arkansas, which is where he grew up and dreamed of playing as a kid. With running back Knile Davis opting to return and some of the other players who were returning, Wilson saw an opportunity to not only improve as a player but to potentially improve on last season's 11-2 mark."

Other than Wilson what are the strengths for this team?

Biddy: "In 2010, Davis did not have a 20-carry game or a 100-yard rushing effort until the seventh game of the season. He went on to rush for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns and put up over 100 yards in six of the final seven games. He was named first team All-SEC. He looked better than ever during fall camp until he went down in agony in the first scrimmage with a broken ankle and was lost for the season. Davis recently was taken off the rehab list and is expected to go through a full spring. Head coach Bobby Petrino's ability to make adjustments has to be considered a strength, also. There haven't been many (if any) seasons where Arkansas has come out with a winning record when they were replacing a multi-year starter at quarterback (Ryan Mallett), when the offensive line was considered a weak spot with three new starters, when they had lost their two biggest playmakers to injury (Davis and receiver Greg Childs) and when they had a defense that finished ninth in the conference. To finish 11-2 and No. 5 in the nation is relatively remarkable."

How about weaknesses?

Biddy: "Arkansas has to replace three of the top receivers in school history. While there are quality candidates like Cobi Hamilton, Marquel Wade and tight end Chris Gragg, Arkansas needs a good rotation in this offense - not just reliable players but play-making players. It will be difficult to replace those seniors. Arkansas hired three new coaches to help shore up the defense, but Arkansas lost former All-SEC players in defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas as well as defensive leader Jerico Nelson, a hybrid safety/linebacker. The defensive line is a strength on defense, but Bequette will be missed. There are a lot of candidates at linebacker with size and athleticism, but aside from returning starter Alonzo Highsmith that unit is thin on experience. Hybrid linebacker/safety Ross Rasner is expected to move to strong safety full-time now, which will help the secondary. While the starting four should be solid, there are definitely question marks past them, and in this league one can expect to lose players to injury quite often."

A lot of Missouri fans feel like Arkansas will be their biggest rival long term in the SEC. Is that feeling similar in Arkansas?

Biddy: "Though these two teams have not faced off in years and may not for a few more, one definitely gets the sense there is some bad blood developing mainly because the states border one another and there have been some heated recruiting wars for prospects in Missouri and in Texas. Some feel either Missouri and Arkansas will eventually become regular Eastern-Western opponents or Missouri will move to the Western Division if the SEC expands to 16 teams. There is already a lot of smack talk both ways, and if it continues and the two teams start facing off regularly, it will get even worse/better (depending on how one looks at it). There is tremendous pressure to win in this conference, and until now, Arkansas did not have many neighbors. To steal a quote from longtime SEC coach Joe Kines, 'In the SEC, they'll slit your throat and drink your blood.'"

Trey Biddy is the publisher of HawgSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TreyBiddy.

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