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Arkansas Football: Can the Razorbacks Win the SEC Without Bobby Petrino?


Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 13 Arkansas. Bobby Petrino was fired as the team's coach, prompting John L. Smith to be hired for the 2012 season. The offense is dangerous, but doubts remain about the Razorbacks without Petrino.

Is Arkansas Still a Threat to Win the SEC West Without Bobby Petrino?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Arkansas seems to think that’s possible as the Razorbacks brought in John L. Smith to patch the coaching staff without rocking the boat too much with an outsider coach or new philosophy. Smith can be something of a punchline at times. But he’s also been successful in spurts, which is pretty much all Arkansas is seeking from him. He turned a 4-8 Michigan State team into a 8-5 team in his first season there. He also led Louisville to an 11-2 season led by Dave Ragone and Deion Branch. At least for 2012, Smith is taking over a more established team. Arkansas’ personnel is good enough to win the West, especially on offense. Tyler Wilson was already the SEC’s top passer, and on top of that, he was on fire during spring practice. If Knile Davis is the same running back he was in during the second half of 2010, the Hogs’ offense will be that much more balanced. What Arkansas may miss most is Bobby Petrino’s play calling. The margin of error against SEC defenses is thin enough as it is, and even last season Petrino, Wilson and Arkansas couldn’t crack 20 points against either LSU or Alabama. It’s going to be tough to expect that to change this season. If there is an advantage, though, Arkansas will face Alabama on Sept. 15, perhaps while the Crimson Tide are still trying to work out the kinks on a defense returning only four starters. The Hogs’ will make up for it on the other end of the schedule with a road trip South Carolina and a home game against LSU in November. Arkansas can win the West without Petrino, but the Hogs don’t have much room for error.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
No. Arkansas will not compete for an SEC title in 2012 now that Bobby Petrino isn't ruling the roost in Fayetteville. Leadership is the only aspect of college football that trumps talent and that is exactly what Petrino had done for Arkansas football in recent years. Despite what most uninformed national media members tell you, the Razorbacks do not have a "top 10 roster". They do not have "elite talent" everywhere on the depth chart. No, Arkansas has finished ninth, 10th and eighth consecutively in the SEC recruiting rankings the last three seasons. There are plenty of nice pieces and this is a quality football team, but it does not boast the same level of overall talent and depth that Alabama and LSU can claim.

If anything, it's a crystal clear testament to the development, evaluation and game day preparation skills of Petrino. He overachieved during his time at Arkansas. The edge with which he works permeated every aspect of the football program and that edge led to victories. Additionally, there are few coaches in the nation who manage the game on Saturday's as well as Petrino. Calling plays, making adjustments and motivating greatness is an innate talent that is largely based on instincts and feel more than anything else. And Petrino can do it with the best in the nation.

Getting Alabama and LSU at home gave Arkansas a chance to compete in the West, but even with Bobby-P, I had the Hogs penciled in for 10-2. The Razorback defense does not operate at the same level as the Bayou Bengals or Crimson Tide, as the 79-31 combined score a year ago indicated. John L. Smith is a solid caretaker who will get this team to a bowl game, but he lost 32 games his last five seasons as a head coach and posted one bowl win in seven career tries. His antics play well at the local watering hole, but not in national primetime against Nick Saban. He will lose two games that Bobby-P would not have — my guess is at South Carolina and either at Auburn, Texas A&M or Mississippi State — and will win a bowl game for a 9-4 mark.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Even with Bobby Petrino on the sidelines, Arkansas was going to have a difficult time passing LSU and Alabama in the SEC West standings. Consider this: The 21 victories by the Razorbacks from 2010-11 was the best two-year stretch in school history. Although Petrino had his shortcomings, there’s no denying he was one of the top coaches in the SEC.

John L. Smith is a good short-term answer for the program and his experience in Fayetteville will allow the assistants to stay in their current roles. Bobby Petrino’s gameplans and play-calling will be missed, but his brother – Paul Petrino – is well-versed in this offense. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is one of the best in college football, and the Razorbacks will get a boost on the ground with the return of running back Knile Davis. Finding replacements at receiver for Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs will be crucial to keeping the passing attack among the best in the nation, but Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg are two reliable weapons.

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Scoring points won’t be a problem for Arkansas, but the defense is a question mark once again. New coordinator Paul Haynes has six returning starters, but must replace end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas. Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith missed spring practice due to a pectoral injury, but he is expected to return in time for the 2012 season. The Razorbacks have some pieces to work with on defense, but this unit needs to make strides to win the SEC West.

With Bobby Petrino, I think Arkansas would have been ranked in Athlon’s Top 10 for 2012. However, there’s too much uncertainty hanging around this program to expect the Razorbacks to win 10 or 11 games once again. Catching LSU and Alabama at home is a tremendous opportunity, but Arkansas won’t be able to capitalize off of that this season and will finish third in the SEC West. 

Mark Ross
Arkansas will no doubt look different with Bobby Petrino no longer roaming the Hogs' sidelines, but I don't think his absence will have that much effect on their SEC title aspirations. For one, the new head man is John L. Smith, a familiar face who was part of Petrino's staff the past three seasons before leaving (briefly) to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Weber State.

There also will still be a Petrino on the coaching staff, although he will be up in the press box rather than on the sidelines on game days. Paul Petrino, Bobby's younger brother, is back with the Hogs after serving as Illinois' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. The younger Petrino actually rejoined the team prior to last season's Cotton Bowl and he was Arkansas' offensive coordinator from 2008-09. Between Smith and the other Petrino, there's enough familiarity there that for most intents and purposes, it will seem like nothing's changed to the players.

And in the end, it's the players, not the coaches, who will ultimately decide whether Arkansas will contend for the SEC title or not. To get there, the Hogs will first have to take care of business in its own division, meaning beating defending national champion Alabama and defending SEC champion LSU and rest of the West teams in the standings so they end up playing in Atlanta on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game.

The last time Arkansas played in the SEC title game was in 2006, a game that they lost to eventual national champion Florida. That season, the Hogs beat Alabama, but lost to LSU. In fact, the last time Arkansas has defeated both Alabama and LSU In the same season was in 1998. This season the Hogs get both the Crimson Tide and LSU in Fayetteville, so the schedule appears to be set up for them, now it's up to the players, and not the coaches, to follow through.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not see the Razorbacks contending for the SEC crown after a tumultuous offseason. Competing against LSU and Alabama in the SEC West is tough enough, but the departure of offensive guru Petrino and other off-the-field issues may prevent the Hogs from closing the gap on the Crimson Tide and Tigers. Arkansas will still have a quality team, with quarterback Tyler Wilson leading a potentially potent aerial attack. The offense will also receive a boost with the return of running back Knile Davis, who rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010.

The Hogs should have top pass catchers in receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg, but no other returning wideout caught 10 balls last season. Legal issues could affect the eligibility of Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey, so a complement to Hamilton will need to emerge. The defense has talent but loses key players in Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas and Jake Bequette. It’s not doom and gloom in Fayetteville, but an SEC title looks too ambitious for a program going through a ton of issues at the current time.

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