After many months of wandering in the sports desert, the Arkansas Razorbacks 2010 football season begins in a mere FOUR DAYS. And, if that weren't enough reason for excitement on its own, this year's team could be the best Hog squad in a long, long time. An all-universe offense, an allegedly improved defense, a coaching staff that's up to the task...what could go wrong?
As for that last question, well, this is Arkansas football we're talking about. Events over the last 40 years or so have too often conspired to give Hog fans a bit more kinship with Charlie Brown trying to kick that ball from Lucy than I'd like to admit. Every time the pieces start to come together, something else happens to knock them apart again.
Personally, I feel like this really could be the year we kick the ball right out of Lucy's hands. But, because this is a reality-based blog, we're going to acknowledge that history could repeat itself once again.
So, if you're not too squeamish, follow me after the jump for five things that are worrying me about this season:
(In order of least worrisome to most worrisome)
5. Ryan Mallett's foot. Generally anything Mallett-related should fall under the "causes for optimism" post that was so obvious Stephen and I decided not to write it. But, the fact remains that he was hobbled pretty much the entire offseason with that famously hurt foot, and he's shown himself to be injury prone in the past. Given that football is a contact sport and all, and QBs tend to get knocked around from time to time, the chance certainly exists for bad things to happen to our Heisman candidate. As much as I have confidence in Bobby Petrino's QB-grooming ability, I think I speak for everyone when I say I'm not quite ready for the Tyler Wilson Era to begin just yet.
4. Running backs. Yes, the Hogs have four solid RBs and, yes, Petrino is famously a pass-first guy anyway. But, to win in the SEC you need to be able to grind out the tough yards, sustain long drives and generally give your defense a rest for as long as possible (more on that in a minute), and to do that you need guys who consistently run well. Our running game looked better on paper than it did on the field last year, and so far in this offseason that trend seems to be repeating - none of our runners have particularly distinguished themselves or separated from the pack. If we're holding on to a 4-point lead late in the game against, say, Auburn and need to convert a 3rd and 2 to keep things going, can we get those yards?
3. The road. Fact #1: Hog fans rightfully have expectations of at least challenging for an SEC West title this year. Fact #2: We play half our conference games on the road. Fact #3: The Razorbacks have sucked on the road the last few years, winning exactly one away SEC game under Petrino. Fact #4: Since fact #2 isn't changing, we're going to have to change the fact #3 trend in order to deliver on fact #1. The road schedule is easier this year than last, but going to Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and even Mississippi State will not be easy...can we grind out those wins?
2. The defense. Ripping the Hogs' defense has become such a cliche among football prognositcators that there's almost no way they'll be as bad as advertised...in fact, I think they'll surprise a few people this year. But, the fact remains that this is basically the same unit that allowed a bevy of painfully long TD plays. Until they prove that, say, they can tackle better than they did in last year's Bama game, or stop a team's final drive better than they did in the LSU game, the defense will be a cause for concern.
1. Special teams. Out of all the items on the list, this is the one that really worries me. The other four can largely be explained away, but absolutely nothing from the offseason has given me much confidence that our special teams will be better this year. So far our kickers and punters seem locked in a battle to *not* be the starter, and finding a punt returner hasn't been easy either. Even factoring in improvements, our defense isn't good enough to consistently defend a short field after poor punting and punt coverage. My guess is that we'll lose at least one winnable game because of a special teams error this season.
If you're not convinced, here's a scenario: on a beautiful late September day in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks have battled Alabama for nearly four full quarters and are down 28-27 with seconds left on the clock. A final drive has stalled at the Tide's 21 yard line, and out comes Alex Tejada for what should be a very makeable field goal. The biggest win in many, many years is only a 38 yard kick away. How confident do you feel?