Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Had the Arkansas Razorbacks been in any other conference other than the SEC last season, things could have ended much differently.
Under fourth-year head coach Bobby Petrino, the Hogs cruised to an 11-2 record, just the third 11-win season in program history. They waded through much of their treacherous schedule with relative ease, defeating ranked teams in Texas A&M (42-38), Auburn (38-14) and South Carolina (44-28) during the regular season. Their only losses came against powerhouses Alabama (38-14) and LSU (41-17), both of which went on to play for the BCS National Championship.
Arkansas missed out on a BCS at-large bid despite its impressive season. It accepted a bid to the Cotton Bowl, where it defeated No. 11 Kansas State in a 29-16 final. The Razorbacks finished the season ranked fifth, its highest national ranking since finishing No. 3 back in 1977.
OFFENSE: After Bobby Petrino was fired following an offseason scandal, John L. Smith was named the team's new head coach, and he spent the last three season as the Razorbacks' special teams coach. Petrino had implemented a high-flying offensive system, which led to the Razorbacks finishing first in the SEC in scoring (36.8 ppg), total offense (438.1 ypg) and passing offense (315 ypg) last year. While some aspects of the offense are bound to change under a new regime, the squad still has the pieces in place to put up similar numbers here in 2012.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson returns for his senior season after enjoying a break- out year in '11, as he led the conference in passing yard (3,638) and quarterback rating (148.4), while tossing 24 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions - earning First Team All-SEC honors in the process.
Wilson will be without last year's top receiver in Jarius Wright (66 receptions, 1,117 yards, 12 TDs), who is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings. While Wright's absence is sure to hinder the receiving corps, tight end Chris Gragg (41 receptions, 518 yards, 2 TDs) and wideout Cobi Hamilton (34 receptions, 542 yards, 4 TDs) figure to step up their production.
The Razorbacks will also benefit from the return of running back Knile Davis, who missed all of last season with a knee injury after a great sophomore campaign in which he ran for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr. combined for more than 1,100 yards rushing a year ago, but adding a bona fide feature back to the fold will make Arkansas a more balanced offensive team.
DEFENSE: A potent offense was able to help shield a mediocre defense a season ago - a unit that surrendered 28 points or more six times. Smith is a more defensive-minded coach than Petrino, and that combined with a couple of key returning starters on that side of the ball will hopefully result in better play.
Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith returns as the quarterback of the defense and he tries to build upon a season in which he recorded 80 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. Safety Eric Bennett (74 tackles, 3 interceptions) will also be a big factor in the Razorbacks' defensive game plan.
With the loss of Jake Bequette (10 sacks), the Hogs don't have much experience in terms of rushing the passer. They do however, retain a pair of solid run- stuffers in defensive tackles Byran Jones (47 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss) and Robert Thomas (23 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both of UA's kickers return for 2012. Placekicker Zach Hooker was solid a year ago, going 21-of-27 on field goal attempts, including 5-of-8 from 40 yards and longer. Punter Dylan Breeding was one of the SEC's best last season, putting together a 45.3 yard average while placing 16 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Dennis Johnson is likely to remain the team's primary kick returner after averaging 25.6 yard per return last season, and he scored a touchdown on a 98- yard return against South Carolina.
OUTLOOK: The Razorbacks proved a year ago that they are a force to be reckoned with in the SEC, and they have retained enough firepower on both sides of the ball to be right in the thick of things yet again in 2012. The loss of its head coach after such a successful season is sure to leave a lasting effect on the squad, thus putting Smith in the cross-hairs as he attempts to restore some stability back to the program.
"Our players have done a great job of saying, 'A little adversity will only make us stronger.' That's what they've done," Smith said at the SEC media day. "My coming in, walking in the door, it was unbelievable. I had to wipe the tears away because of the kids and the reception that I got. That being said, I told them, this is one thing we're going to continue to reiterate: this is a program; this is not about someone leaving or coming. This is a program."
The squad faces another challenging schedule but with one huge difference: where they had to face both Alabama and LSU on the road last season, both matchups this year will take place in Fayetteville, giving the Razorbacks a much better shot at stealing at least one of those games.