Q&A: Phil Steele, Part 3

We'd be willing to bet than no one in the country knows more about college football than Phil Steele. Each summer, fans eagerly await the publication of the stat-laden Phil Steele's College Football Preview. Mr. Steele was gracious enough to talk with us recently about the 2010 Razorbacks. In this third and final installment of our Q&A (here are parts 1 and 2), Steele discusses Bobby Petrino's performance in Fayetteville, how the Hogs are likely to fare in the SEC West and whether the conference can claim its consecutive fifth national championship. Many thanks to Phil for his time and insight. You can find more of his analysis at  PhilSteele.com, a veritable treasure trove of stats and analysis that is updated daily.

Expats: How would you rate Bobby Petrino's coaching performance at Arkansas so far?

Steele: Good. Arkansas's pretty much finished where I thought they would both of the two seasons. So that means he's doing a good job coaching. That's really how I grade the coaches. I do a lot of work in the offseason. Quite frankly, when I put up my projections, I expect each and every one of them to be correct. That's not the way they're going to be but I've done enough work on ‘em, enough research on ‘em.

There are some certain coaches out there that tend to be beat me in a lot of years, and I put a couple of check marks next to their name. And then there are certain coaches that have the talent but their team doesn't achieve, and I put a couple of "X's" next to their name.

The last two years, Bobby Petrino has not [gotten] the check marks or the X's because they've done what I have expected. But I thought he did a great job at Louisville. Remember that one squad he had at Louisville - if they didn't lose their star running back at the beginning of the season, if they don't blow a third-quarter lead to Rutgers on the road the week after winning their big game - they very well could have been playing in the national title game.

And look at what's happened at Louisville since Bobby Petrino left. So I consider him a quality coach who's done as I've expected so far at Arkansas but did better than I expected at Louisville.

Expats: One of the common comparisons we've seen this off-season is between this year's Razorbacks team and last year's Ole Miss team. Do you see that as a valid comparison?

Steele: I wouldn't put it to the Mississippi level for this reason: Mississippi last year was in almost everybody's preseason Top 10. They were in some people's Top Five at the start of the year. And this [for] a Mississippi team that had really been there. It's what I call the rarefied air.

If you look at the preseason magazines that are out there right now, Arkansas is generally 16, 17, 21, 17, 20, 18. Nobody's really got them up there that high. They're not in the Top 10 heading into the season. Top 10, Top 20 - different levels.

Mississippi had never finished in the Top 10, so to project them in the Top 10 - like I did myself last year - it was sort of rarefied air.

Meanwhile, Arkansas just four years ago finished No. 15 in the country. They've been ranked 16 before. They were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country in 2006. So where they are currently ranked is not rarefied air for them. It's places they've been. They've been ranked before. And this level of ranking is not that high, so I don't really consider it overexpectations for Arkansas.

Expats: As far as expectations go, Arkansas fans have a reputation for getting rather excited about things, and that excitement is perhaps not always based on reality. Are the fans right to be excited this time around? Is there a level that we should be capping our expectations at? What do you think the right approach is?

Steele: Well, in the magazine, I projected ‘em No. 17 coming into the season. A lot of that has to do with the schedule, which I rate as very difficult. They have Georgia on the road, Auburn on the road, South Carolina on the road and also Alabama at home.

When I look at Arkansas this year, I projected them third in the SEC West. But two of my nine sets of power ratings actually call for Arkansas to go unbeaten this year, which sort of caught my attention. When I first saw that, I was like "Wow!" This is a team that theoretically could win all their games.

Can they beat Georgia? Georgia's got a young quarterback making a big start early in the season. Arkansas's got the more experienced passing game. Georgia's defense was not overwhelming last year. Is that a winnable game? Yes.

Is Alabama a winnable game? Yes. I went through the situation before.

Is Auburn a winnable game on the road? Well, let's face it: Arkansas has dominated Auburn recently. Last year, 44-23, and it probably wasn't even that close.

Can they beat South Carolina? I don't know - did you watch last year's South Carolina game? It was 33-16. They handled that one pretty well. They can win at South Carolina, and who knows what kind of shape South Carolina's going to be in. They're a team that's underachieved in recent years.

Can they beat Mississippi State on the road? Yes.

Can they win all their games? Yes, they can win each of their games this season. Now, can they put it together 12 straight weeks? That's a different story, but I think Arkansas fans have the right to be excited this year because this team is capable of achieving expectations.

In fact, I call them my No. 9 surprise team in the country. A surprise team, which I've had a very good track record with, is one not ranked in the Top 10 at the start of the year that I think has a shot of contending for all the marbles.

I've got ‘em playing in the Cotton Bowl against Texas. I've already talked to the folks over at the Cotton Bowl, and they'd be excited about that game. But Arkansas fans can expect to finish that or even higher this year.

Expats: So it sounds like a trip to Atlanta is within the realm of possibility?

Steele: Yes, I said I can see a situation where they beat Alabama and Auburn, but I'm not calling for it. Had I called for it in the magazine, I'd be shouting it.

If you follow Arkansas football and you follow my magazine, you know that in 2006, I was the only guy that had them ranked anywhere. I had ‘em ranked higher than everybody else. I had them winning the West, and they didn't disappoint me that year, even coming off a 5-6 and 4-7 seasons.

I think the difference between Arkansas and Auburn this year - I've got Arkansas rated my No. 16 team talent-wise in the back of the magazine. I've got Auburn No. 22, so why do you think I've got Auburn rated higher? Well, the schedule.

I went through Arkansas' schedule, and there are four games in which they could very well be an underdog in. Auburn just might be a favorite in their first 11 games. They have eight home games. Their road games are at Mississippi State, at Kentucky, at Mississippi - all three of those games are in the winnable category. They could very well be favored in all their home games this year.

They've got a far better schedule than does Arkansas. That's why I've got Auburn finishing second in the West, Arkansas third. It basically comes down to schedule. Once again, if you go to the [talent] power poll in the back of the magazine, I've got Arkansas rated ahead of both Auburn and LSU.

Expats: The SEC is on a pretty impressive streak of winning national championships. Do you see that continuing or is this going to be the year that streak ends?

Steele: Well, I called for it to end. And it's not because I think the SEC is down a notch from last year. If anything, I think the SEC is by far the toughest conference in all of football. I just can't imagine teams getting through this conference unscathed.

Let's take Florida's case, for example. They're my favorite to win the SEC East year this year. For them to get to the national title game, they have to not only beat Alabama Oct. 2 on the road without Tim Tebow - and I think Florida's capable of that - but if they do that and manage to beat all the other SEC teams during the season, then they'd have to beat Alabama again in the SEC title game.

With Alabama, they play a killer schedule. They got that game against Arkansas on the road [after] their inexperienced secondary takes on three very poor pass attacks to start the season and then takes a big step up.

If they survive that test, the very next week they have to play Florida at home. If they survive that, they have to go at South Carolina. Now not only is that their third road in four weeks, but it's also their third straight tough game. You can't play your A game three straight weeks.

Meanwhile, South Carolina, which last year had just 11 returning starters, this year has got 16 returning starters. It's Steve Spurrier's best team in his six years there. And South Carolina's off a bye. They're fresh. They're ready. They're loaded. They're going to catch South Carolina's A++ game, and Alabama can't play an A++ game there. So that's a very difficult situation.

In the second half of the year, all six opponents have a bye the week before playing Alabama. It makes for an extremely difficult schedule.

I can't call for the game in which they slip up but here's a fact for you: Alabama has gone 8-0 in the SEC the last two years. The last time a team had three straight unbeaten seasons in the SEC was 1982 when Georgia did it, and back then Georgia was playing six-game season.

And because I think the SEC is so tough, I actually did not call for an SEC team to get in the title game.

(This concludes our Q&A. Many thanks to Phil for his time. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.)

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