Here is a somewhat reluctant congratulations to Auburn for last night's victory in the National Championship game. Auburn, congratulations. I admit that it is the Hogs' loss in the Sugar Bowl, among other things, that is putting a damper on my celebration for Auburn. Yeah, an SEC team wins it for the 5th year in a row. Good for the conference and its reputation. But last I checked, none of those teams wear a Hog on their helmet. But, hey, maybe next year? Could the Hogs be the sixth straight win for the SEC? Here are some thoughts about that possibility.
* Pre-Season Ranking: It always helps if you start out ranked. The higher the better, of course. The Hogs started out 2010 ranked in the Top 25 and went the whole season staying in the polls. We got as high as number eight and we finished the season at number twelve. If the Hogs had won the Sugar Bowl (SCOOP AND SCORE!) we no doubt get a top ten ranking to start next season. Losing Mallett to the NFL, I suspect the Hogs will be ranked again somewhere in the middle teens going into 2011. I think we deserve higher, but the pollsters have never been a group to give the Hogs a whole bunch of benefit of the doubt. Still, keep in mind that Auburn started the 2010 season off ranked below where the Hogs started.
* Coaches: Keeping people in place is important. So far nobody has left the Hogs' coaching staff, though Garrick McGee is in talks with the University of Connecticutt for their head coaching position. I think the perception that it is Bobby Petrino who is really running the Arkansas offense keeps Garrett here for at least another year. Howvever, we could lose him eventually like we lost Paul Petrino. He leaves to get more experience at the coordinator level. I think if a really good defensive coordinator were to come on the market that Bobby Petrino would consider replacing Willy Robinson. But for good or bad, I think Willy is going to be with us again next year unless he himself decides to leave.
* Defense: I encourage you to read Pete Fiutak's analysis of the national championship game over at collegefootballnews.com. He makes an excellent case for how high powered offenses just suffer in BCS games with the long lay-off to deal with. Advantage, always defense. The reason OSU lost to those SEC teams was that Florida and LSU brought better defenses to the game. Our own defense got after it in the second half of the Sugar Bowl, but in the end it wasn't enough, and I don't think you can say our offense ever completely found its regular season mojo. If we hold up the crystal football in January of 2012 in New Orleans, the trend says we will have done so because of a great defensive performance. We'll need a Cotton Bowl 2000 level performance.
* Offense: Childs, Adams, Wright, Davis, D. Johnson, Wingo, Green, Gragg, Hamilton . . . . There are plenty of playmakers coming back at the skilled positions and I don't doubt that new ones will emerge from the new group of guys. We do lose Record Book Ryan and an offensive lineman or two who were starters. Tyler Wilson, could he be the T-Martin of Arkansas? Or could Brandon Mitchell play that role? It remains to be seen, but you gotta feel some confidence that we have Bobby Petrino as their teacher. And I am excited about seeing Bobby Petrino calling plays with a more mobile quarterback in the backfield.
* Special Teams: Have you ever felt more confident in an Arkansas kicker after Hocker's super Sugar Bowl performance? If the Hogs had won, there would have been a good argument for Hocker as Arkansas' MVP. He put the chipping into chipping away at that OSU lead. Breeding had an average of over 40 yards per punt and pinned OSU back a number of times. Dennis Johnson will be back to returning kick-offs, so that will be a major plus. Joe Adams should get even better at returning punts. And just maybe we'll have enough depth to be better at kick-off coverage?
* Schedule: The Hogs will face Vanderbilt, South Carolina (Fayetteville) and Tennessee (Fayetteville) from the East. We don't have to deal with Florida or Georgia. From the West, LSU will be tough in Baton Rouge, but we might soon learn that they are breaking in a new coaching staff. (UPDATE: Miles is staying, which is still no bad news either, haha) Patrick Peterson is leaving early. Alabama will be breaking in a new quarterback and has lost some key players to early NFL departure (Ingram, Julio Jones). Auburn will likely be breaking in a new quarterback and they have to come to Fayetteville. I don't think David Lee's return to Oxford to "call plays" is putting much fear into anybody, and they still have a quarterback mess thanks to their use of a stop-gap solution (Masoli) that didn't allow for any experience to develop there at that position. Mississippi State has to come to Little Rock where the Hogs haven't lost since 2006. Texas A&M, should be better with their new quarterback, but they still aren't an SEC team. And of course neither are Missouri State, New Mexico, and Troy. And I like how we have three warm-up games before SEC play. Suffice-to-say, this is one of the more favorable schedules the Hogs have had in years!
* Luck: If the Hogs raise up the crystal football in New Orleans, a good bit of luck will have gone into it. I have no way of predicting just how much luck the Hogs will get next year. But they will need a good share of the ball bouncing their way. And they'll have to capitalize on things when they do go their way. Right now if you had to write the script for the Hogs and put them in the position that Tennessee was in 1998 after the Stoerner turnover, you would have to suspect that the Hogs would fail to drive it into the endzone. If you get gifts, you gotta take them, not drop them on the pavement on the run home. How well will the Hogs overcome this trend in 2011 is an important question to ask.
YOUR TURN: What do you members of the congregation see as positives for the Hogs making a run for a national championship next year? What negatives do you see? One other positive I forgot to add is just good old experience. The Hogs have now been to a BCS bowl. Many of these same players will be coming back in 2011. If we are in another big time BCS bowl game, you have to think that that experience will pay off, as I think it really did for Ohio State.