Philadelphia, PA – Had the Arkansas Razorbacks been in any conference other than the SEC in 2011, they could have been looking at a BCS National Championship Game berth.
Still, the Hogs had a fantastic season under head coach Bobby Petrino, going 11-2 overall -- their only losses coming to the conference championship game participants in Alabama and LSU. The season was capped off with a 29-16 win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
The squad had high hopes heading into the off-season, and rightfully so. However, the program took an unexpected detour following the bowl win as a bizarre turn of events regarding a motorcycle crash involving Petrino led investigators to an unfortunate conclusion. Petrino was fired by athletic director Jeff Long after it was discovered that Petrino was involved in an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete development coordinator.
The incident sent shock waves through not only the university, but the sports world in general. Arkansas didn't dwell on it for long though, naming John L. Smith the team's next head coach.
Smith, who served as the Razorbacks' special teams coach from 2009-11, was hired as the head coach at Weber State this off season, but when he learned of the opening at Arkansas, he could not pass it up.
"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said. "During my coaching career, I have always been dedicated to developing student-athletes to their fullest potential. I came to the realization I could provide guidance and stability to a program I'm extremely invested in."
Though Smith is surely aware that his path to get here was a surprising one, he has the same outlook that the program had with Petrino at the helm.
"I want to say that our expectations here are the same," Smith said. "Nothing is going to slow down. In fact, we're going to speed up. Our expectations are that we're going to go ahead and we're going to battle. We're going to fight for a national title. That was the way it was when I walked in the door here three years ago, and it's going to continue to be that way."
Things may be a little different for the team in training camp, but Arkansas still has a chance to make headlines, in a positive way, this fall thanks to a roster that remains largely intact following a highly successful 2011 season.
Senior quarterback and team captain Tyler Wilson is back for another go, and he is coming off a year in which he became the first signal-caller in school history to be named First Team All-SEC after throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns against only six interceptions. Wilson lost his No. 1 target in Jarius Wright (66 receptions, 1,117 yards, 12 TDs) to the Minnesota Vikings, but expect tight end Chris Gragg (41 receptions, 518 yards, two TDs) and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (34 receptions, 542 yards, four TDs) to play bigger roles in the offense.
A committee of guys combined to keep the running game afloat in 2011, logging 1,786 yards and an average of 4.3 yards per carry, but that facet of the game is expected to receive a big boost with the return of running back Knile Davis. Davis missed the entire 2011 season with a left ankle injury after scoring 13 touchdowns in 2010 while leading the SEC in rushing with 1,322 yards.
"My injury was unfortunate, but I feel I have worked extremely hard for the opportunity to lead the Razorbacks on the field," Davis said, who was also named one of the team captains. "Through my setback last season, I remained positive and was committed to persevering and I plan to apply those principles to this year's team."
With Heisman hopefuls Wilson and Davis leading the charge, the Razorbacks may have the most explosive offense in the conference. And while the defense may not be able to compare to that of powerhouses Alabama and LSU, the unit returns plenty of game-changing players. Alonzo Highsmith quarterbacks the defense from his middle linebacker position and will try to improve upon his 80-tackle, 12.5-TFL, 4.5-sack 2011 campaign. Safety Eric Bennett and cornerback Tevin Mitchel lead an impressive defensive backfield, while athletic defensive end Chris Smith tries to replace the 10 sacks from the departing Jake Bequette, who is now a member of the New England Patriots.
Arkansas once again has one of the most difficult schedules in the country -- a customary assignment for any team in the SEC West -- but just like last season, the Razorbacks have two very big games circled on the calendar: September 15 vs. Alabama, and the final game of the regular season on November 23 against LSU. Though they lost to both of those teams last season, there is hope this time around as both took place on the road, while this year's matchups will both take place in Fayetteville.
If the Razorbacks manage to steal even one of those two games, a shot at the national title is a very real possibility. But with a new regime at the helm, it seems as though the fate of the entire season remains up in the air until they hit the field and prove they have what it takes.