With the Hogs in the midst of their best season in, well, a long time, we wanted to check in with Jim Harris, the editor of ArkansasSports360, to get his take on the regular season and the upcoming Sugar Bowl. Once dubbed the "High Priest of Hogdom" by Max Brantley, Jim very well may know more about Razorback football and basketball than anyone else. In this first installment of a two-parter, Jim places the 2010 season in some historical context and discusses what surprised him the most about this year's Hogs. Several hearty thanks are due to Jim for his time.
Expats: We realize this season has one very big chapter left to be written, but we'll jump the gun a bit and ask you to put this year in some perspective: On a personal note, where does this season rank on your list of most enjoyable Hog seasons? And roughly where do you think this squad ranks on the list of great Hog teams?
Harris: My first game to pay any attention to Arkansas football was the 1965 Cotton Bowl, the win over Nebraska to cap an undefeated season. I was 7. I was "into" the Hogs fully the next season, which featured a 10-0 regular season and a heart-breaking loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl when the Hogs were ranked No. 2. I basically found the Razorbacks in the middle of a 22-game win streak, so my bar was established pretty high.
The best seasons I've seen since were all in the 1970s: the 1975 season, which this one is quite similar to; the 1977 season (which is probably the pinnacle of Hog seasons post 1965); and the 1979 season which, coincidentally, landed Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, the last time Arkansas has been there.
Ken Hatfield had three 10-win teams in the 1980s — two that were built when the Southwest Conference was at its probation-wracked low — but they were good teams nonetheless, teams that belong in the top 10 of all time at Arkansas.
For me, post-integration of the program, 1977 was the best overall team. The 1978 team is overlooked because, similar to this year, it suffered tough losses to the teams it HAD to beat. The 1979 team was young and overachieving, and lucky, but way over-matched in the Sugar Bowl against maybe Alabama 's greatest team ever. The 1975 team realized they were good down the stretch and finished in similar fashion to this one, winning six games in a row to finish with 10-2 record and a rousing bowl win over Georgia. I would place this Arkansas team among those teams historically.
My feeling about the Razorbacks is that for the first time since the 1970s, we have coaching, recruiting and player development on par with what Arkansas enjoyed during that era.
Expats: What has been the biggest surprise to you about this team? Have there been any significant disappointments?
Harris: The surprise for me was the development of Knile Davis. I was undersold on Davis his first year and early this year, and was wondering if his four-star billing out of high school was overblown. It was not. After finally shaking off a series of injuries, he developed into a premier SEC running back and perhaps the best overall running back in the league by the end of the season — and that includes being better than last year's Heisman Trophy winner.
Place kicking was a huge surprise. Punting was big-time. The safeties were very good. Anthony Leon was a great addition at linebacker with his speed. The offensive line, when it devoted significantly more time to run-blocking in practice, became dominant. I will never forget the time-consuming fourth-quarter drive against LSU in which Arkansas dominated a good Tigers line like maybe never before.
We knew what the quarterback and receivers could do, and the defensive line, if not great, was solid.
Maybe the biggest surprise to me was how easily a great coach as Petrino could change in midstream and put so much focus on the run game in practice to improve. I believe has shown us this year that no one truly knew him: the description of Petrino as a pass-happy, who-cares-about-defense job-hopper was destroyed in a scant two months.
No real disappointments on this team. I attribute breakdowns in the kicking game (coverage mostly) to still having to develop depth, which will come in the next recruiting class and from players who were redshirted.
Expats: Bobby Petrino certainly has the Razorback faithful eating out of his hand right now and understandably so. What do you think are his chances of building a program that consistently competes for SEC championships and is a regular member of the Top Ten?
Harris: His chances are excellent. I think he's proven he's as good as any coach in the league now, maybe the best coach for getting as much out of his weapons as he can.
It all boils down to continuing to recruit the players he feels fit his program best and getting some difference makers here and there. The 10-2 regular season and a BCS bowl are enhancing this year's class and will have a huge effect on next year's recruiting. When Arkansas high school players are all dying to be offered a chance to be a Razorback again, like when I was younger, and they know that Arkansas is also pulling in solid players from out of state, then Arkansas is there.
The SEC won't get any easier. The East will return (Georgia, Florida, Tennessee ). The West, you would think, can't be stronger than it was this year, but remember that one of the league's better coaches over the past decade is at the last-place school in the West.
It will usually boil down to the best talent, but I think Petrino can compete for the West first and then make the SEC Championship Game. I don't scoff, however, at finishing second in the division this year.