|Tyler Wilson nearly led Arkansas to a win over Auburn last year after Ryan Mallett went down. (US Presswire)|
HOOVER, Ala. -- Slow, but steady probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when describing Bobby Petrino.
But that's exactly what has transpired in Petrino's first three seasons at Arkansas -- a gradual improvement. After winning only five games in his first season in Fayetteville in 2008, the Razorbacks had eight victories in 2009 followed by last season’s 10-3 record.
"I thought maybe we could do it quicker than this," said Petrino, who is 64-24 in seven seasons at Louisville and Arkansas. "That's something that I always believed."
To continue the Hogs' ascension this fall would mean their first season with at least 11 victories since 1977. A season with at least 11 wins also likely would mean the Razorbacks could be smack dab in contention for a national championship.
Could Arkansas be this year's Auburn-- minus the NCAA investigation? Last year the Tigers were picked to finish third by the media in the SEC West, but won the conference's fifth consecutive BCS national title. Can the Razorbacks, also picked third in the SEC West this fall, pull off the same predicted third-to-first trick?
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"I think the team as a whole is very confident," Arkansas junior running back Knile Davis said. "Since Coach Petrino got here, we've gotten a lot better every year and made improvements. We feel like setting big goals is the only way for us to get to the SEC Championship.
"We have the players to do it. We just don't see why we can't."
The Razorbacks return 13 starters, including Davis and one of the nation's top wide receiving corps in Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright.
The biggest difference will be at quarterback, where junior Tyler Wilson takes over for Ryan Mallett. Wilson, a 6-foot-3 junior, has earned his teammates' trust, being named a team captain.
In limited action last season, Wilson only threw for 453 yards. But when Mallett suffered a concussion against Auburn, Wilson came in and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns in three quarters. The Razorbacks led in the fourth quarter before losing 65-43.
"I wouldn't say there's too much difference [between Mallett and Wilson]," Wright said. "Both of them have great arm strength, great velocity with their throws and both can make pretty much any throw on the field."
A former NAIA All-American quarterback, Petrino always has dynamic offensive teams. But to have any shot at winning the SEC, the Razorbacks must continue their improvement on defense.
In 2008 and 2009, Arkansas ranked dead last in the SEC in total defense.
"We couldn’t stop the run, we couldn't stop the pass," said Arkansas senior linebacker/safety Jerico Nelson. "We gave up too many big plays."
Last year, the Hogs allowed 54 yards less a game than 2009 and improved to fifth in the league and 36th nationally in total defense.
Petrino said the drastic improvement last season was a combination of experience and confidence in the defensive coaches.
"They've all grown up, got stronger, faster, really understood what our scheme is and what we want to do defensively," Petrino said.
"I'm excited for our defense this year because I really feel like it's the first time when we're physically where we need to be on the defensive front. Our inside guys will be big and physical and athletic. We've got speed on the edges which matches what we see very week in the conference."
The Razorbacks return five starters among the front seven: tackles Alfred Davis and DeQuinta Jones, end Jake Bequette and linebackers Jerry Franklin and Nelson.
"I do believe we will be a very good defense," Petrino said. "Our size, speed, experience and depth really helps us."
After opening the season with what should be three blowout victories against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy, the Razorbacks will learn if they're a serious national contender. Beginning Sept. 24, Arkansas has consecutive games at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, and home against Auburn.
"I'm not afraid of high expectations," Petrino said. "I'm excited with the fact that two years in a row now we have very high expectations. It's fun to approach the year that way. That, hey, we're going to go out and be a contender, be a good football team, see what we can do to win ourselves a championship."
Arkansas is still seeking its first SEC championship in school history. While Alabama and LSU are the favorites to win the SEC, the Razorbacks believe their time is now.
"All of the guys who have been her four or five years, we know that we have to pick it up," Arkansas junior defensive end Tenarius Wright said. "We know it's going to take more than last year because we only made it to the Sugar Bowl. We want to be in the national championship."
For SEC teams the past five years, that's been a fairly simple formula: just win the league title.
CBSSports.com Predicted order of finish
1) LSU : As the wags have said for years: you can't spell Les Miles without two L's, not even when you win a national title. But this could be the year he finally becomes Es Mies, thanks primarily to a defense that has steadily improved in two seasons under coordinator John Chavis and could be the best of Miles's tenure. Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu will stake a claim towards being the best pair of cover corners in the country, Sam Montgomery and Keke Mingo should be the best pair of pass-rushing ends this side of South Carolina. The offense features a running game featuring four returning starters on the line and primed-to-explode tailback Spencer Ware. The only question -- aside from a rigorous schedule that features Oregon, Mississippi State West Virginia and Alabama -- is whether Jordan Jefferson has finally turned enough of a corner to resurrect the Tigers' 107th-ranked passing attack. Get real-time LSU updates
2) Alabama: Speaking of quarterbacking questions, hey, look, it's Alabama. Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain insist they have two legitimate options under center in redshirt sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, but with neither able to shake the other in the battle to replace Greg McElroy. If what they get is anything close to what McElroy gave them, though, it'll be 2009 all over again. The defense is absurdly loaded, with 10 blue-chip starters (including All-American safety Mark Barron) back from last year's fifth-ranked unit; Trent Richardson gives them a workhorse tailback even more explosive than Mark Ingram was in 2009; and the offensive line should rank among the nation's best with four NFL-caliber starters returning. Get real-time Alabama updates
3) Arkansas: The Razorbacks have gone from five wins to eight to 10 under Bobby Petrino, and there's a good chance they'll continue that trend of improvement this year despite the loss of Ryan Mallett. Exceptional as he was, Mallett's penchant for ill-advised deep throws and late-game meltdowns mean that the step down to junior Tyler Wilson won't be as steep as many believe; Wilson has been coached by Petrino for three years, after all. And during Mallett's run, the Hogs never fully utilized the ground game and Knile Davis, the SEC's leading returning rusher. This hands-down Petrino's best-looking defense, with seven starters returning and All-SEC candidates in the line (DE Jake Bequette), linebackers (MLB Jerry Franklin) and secondary (S Tramain Thomas). Even with the schedule taking them to LSU and Alabama, the Hogs are a bona fide SEC contender. Get real-time Arkansas updates
4) Mississippi State: Under Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs took the quantum leap forward in 2010 they never did under Sylvester Croom, winning nine games and coming within an overtime loss to Arkansas of double-digits. An encore won't be easy, not with all three starting linebackers, the Bulldogs' best lineman on either side of the ball, and revelatory defensive coordinator Manny Diaz all gone. But Mullen still has plenty to work with, starting with an option attack that between Tebow-lite quarterback Chris Relf, breakout running back Vick Ballard, and seven other returning starters should have plenty of teeth. The defensive line and secondary return seven of eight starters, too, with Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox one of the SEC's most-stout defensive tackle pairings. With LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina all set to visit Starkville, expect MSU to have a major say in who wins the SEC.
5) Auburn: The most surprising thing about picking a defending national champion fifth in its own division? How unsurprising it is when talking about this year's Tigers, an edition missing more than 30 players from the crystal football-winning squad of a year ago. While much of the offseason talk has centered on the quarterback battle between junior Barrett Trotter, sophomore Clint Moseley and freshman Kiehl Frazier, the presence of Gus Malzahn ensures that whoever wins the job will be plenty productive. The bigger issues are on the lines; on offense only one player (tackle Brandon Mosley, a second-year JUCO) has more than three career starts, and on defense only one junior features in the entire two-deep. With the Tigers playing all seven of the SEC's other ranked teams, any record that doesn't scream "rebuilding year" will be a huge coup for Gene Chizik. Get real-time Auburn updates
6) Mississippi: No doubt Houston Nutt would like to have a lot of continuity to help put things together again in Oxford after last year's 4-8 debacle. And in the running game, he's got it, with all five starting linemen returning and rock-solid tailback Brandon Bolden back for his senior season. Elsewhere? Not so much. True sophomore Barry Brunetti is set to start at quarterback despite just arriving from West Virginia this past offseason. Leading receiver Markeith Summers is gone. Only four starters return from a defense that finished dead last in the SEC in scoring defense and yards per-play allowed, and inspirational linebacker D.T. Shackelford already has been lost for the year with injury.
1) South Carolina: It's true: even sharing a division with Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, it's the Gamecocks who boast the most talented team in the SEC East. In fact, in Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore, and Alshon Jeffery they have arguably the best QB-RB-WR combination in the entire country. And it's not like the lines are shabby; Rokevious Watkins and Kyle Nunn give the offense a pair of experienced senior tackles, and Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, and No. 1 overall recruit/certified freak Jadeveon Clowney give the defense the best set of ends in the conference. If a wobbly secondary (10th in the SEC in pass defense) can improve there shouldn't be anything stopping Carolina from a second straight trip to Atlanta. Get real-time South Carolina updates
2) Georgia: So how much of a role does the luck of the scheduling draw really play in the SEC? We may find out this year, since South Carolina likely is best in the East ... but Georgia definitely has the most favorable slate. Not only do the Gamecocks visit Athens for a potential division decider, but the Dawgs also draw the bottom three schools from the West and don't face a true road test stiffer than Tennessee. Of course, that good fortune won't matter if Mark Richt can't patch some holes at receiver and linebacker, or if an experienced-but-paper thin offensive line gets hit by injuries. Get real-time Georgia updates
3) Florida: The last time expectations were this muted in Gainesville, Galen Hall might have walking the sidelines. But that's how it goes when a severely disappointing five-loss season gives way to a coaching transition and a squad with only 10 returning starters. One of those starters is quarterback John Brantley, too, who the jury remains overwhelmingly out on despite the move toward Charlie Weis's pocket-passer friendly pro-style scheme. Will Muschamp should have more than enough talent on hand to forge another stellar Gator D (particularly in a stacked defensive front), but abundant offensive question marks, the strength of South Carolina and Georgia's schedule limit the optimism. Get real-time Florida updates
4) Tennessee: It seems unfathomable for a program of the Volunteers' pedigree, but it's true: over the past six years, Tennessee has averaged 5.6 losses. The good news is that 2011 should get the Vols ever closer to digging out of the hole, thanks in large part to a bevy of young offensive talent at the skill positions (QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter) and up front (T JaWuan James, C James Stone). With All-SEC safety Janzen Jackson back, the secondary should be one of the conference's best, too. But a frighteningly green front seven and a brutal schedule (Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas out of the West) mean that loss-per-season average isn't going to improve much in 2011. Get real-time Tennessee updates
5) Kentucky: Does it count as a rut when it's the best rut the program has ever been stuck in? The Wildcats have finished with a regular season record of 7-5 or 6-6 each of the past five seasons -- quite the accomplishment for one of the SEC's traditionally saddest-sack teams, but also a reminder of how thick Kentucky's glass ceiling appears to be. The defense should be good enough to break through in 2011, with a whopping 10 starters returning and new veteran coordinator Rick Minter. But losing Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Chris Matthews and even QB Mike Hartline hurts. Another bowl seems certain, but Joker Phillips has his work cut out for him finding enough scoring to net that elusive eighth win.
6) Vanderbilt: Well, at least James Franklin can't say his team lacks experience; 19 starters from last year's Commodores are back, all 11 on offense. When those all those starters only amounted to a 2-10 record last year, though, it's hard to say how much that experience is worth. There's always some talent at Vandy, of course; linebacker Chris Marve, corner Casey Hayward, tight end Brandon Barden, running back Warren Norman, and offensive tackle Wesley Johnson are all prime SEC-caliber performers. But until Franklin finds a QB, receivers, some defensive and another linebacker or three the East cellar beckons.