HOOVER, Ala. — Arkansas has emerged as a sexy pick to challenge the Florida-Alabama status quo in the Southeastern Conference.
Bobby Petrino's squad returns a Heisman Trophy candidate and potential No. 1 NFL Draft pick in quarterback Ryan Mallett. And the Razorbacks had top-ranked Florida on the ropes in the Swamp last year and probably would have won the game if not for a couple of questionable calls.
But the past two SEC Media Days have illustrated first-hand how programs can crumble under high expectations.
In 2008, Georgia strolled into Hoover looking like the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. The offense was loaded, featuring eventual NFL top pick Matthew Stafford and another eventual first-round draft choice in running back Knowshon Moreno.
The Bulldogs didn't exactly fall flat, but their 10-3 record and No. 13 final ranking wasn't what the fans in Athens had in mind in the pre-season.
Last season, Mississippi was the flavor of the month. The Rebels were the only team in the nation that beat national champion Florida the year before and had a hot name at quarterback in Jevan Snead.
It took the Rebels, a preseason top-10 team, a little more than a month to fall out of the rankings completely after humbling early-season losses to South Carolina and Alabama. Ole Miss also got stomped by in-state rival Mississippi State at the tail end of a 9-4 campaign. Snead, viewed as a possible first-round draft pick before the season, turned pro a year early and went undrafted.
The Razorbacks figure to be ranked in the pre-season top 15, but Petrino isn't running from the high expectations. In fact, he says bring them on.
"I like the high expectations," he said. "I think that's why you're in the profession, is you want to have people think that you're going to be good. You want our players to understand we have an opportunity to be good, and our coaches to really be driven by that. It's taken us awhile to get to the point where we have high expectations as a university and as a fan base and players. I think it's a good thing. I think the one thing we can't do is shy away from it. Let's embrace it, let it motivate us, then let's go out and do everything we can to make them come true."
Mallett was center stage at Media Days on Thursday. A 6-foot-7, 238-pound pocket passer with a rifle arm, Mallett should become the fourth quarterback in Petrino's seven-year college head coaching career to play in the NFL, joining three Petrino tutored at Louisville: Stefan LeFors, Brian Brohm and Hunter Cantwell.
But Mallett still has some fine-tuning to do. While he threw for a school-record 3,624 yards with a 30-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season, his completion percentage was a pedestrian 55.8 percent, including just 43 percent on the road. Mallett wasn't satisfied.
"I missed a lot of easy throws that are really uncharacteristic," Mallett said. "It really didn't sit well with me. If I just take what I do in practice to the game, we might be a hundred percent every game."
With Mallett's strong arm and three receivers who averaged 17 yards per catch or better (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams), the Razorbacks were perhaps the league's most dangerous downfield passing team last season. But Petrino would like to see Mallett harness that big arm a bit and take advantage of more throws underneath using All-SEC tight end D.J. Williams. If that happens, Mallett's completion percentage should rise dramatically.
"We actually have to tone him down a little bit and worry about making some touch throws, not throwing the (deep) ball all the time, not throwing the fastball all the time, which he's done a great job of," Petrino said. "I've been very proud how he's worked at that."
Whether Arkansas can live up to the hype will ultimately depend on whether its defense progresses. The Razorbacks' overall numbers weren't too bad last season, but they were torched for more than 248 yards per game through the air, by far the worst in the league.
"Defensively, we're going to continue to emphasize what we did well a year ago, which was create turnovers and play very good red-zone defense," Petrino said. "Then we must learn how to eliminate the big play. There's times we played very, very good defense and got beat by the big play. We started working on that in spring ball, and we're going to continue to emphasize it."
Arkansas' schedule is a bear: The Razorbacks get Alabama at home but must travel to Georgia, Auburn and South Carolina in addition to a tough non-conference game against Texas A&M at Cowboys Stadium. The back-to-back games at Georgia and home against Alabama will probably determine whether the Razorbacks are due for a breakthrough or will be just another pre-season flash in the pan.
Mallett isn't taking anything for granted, pointing out that Arkansas opens with Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe before facing Georgia and Alabama.
"I mean, those are two great teams, but we have two games before those guys that we can't overlook," Mallett said. "I was part of the Michigan team when we lost to Appalachian State in the first game of the season. I kind of learned my lesson from that as far as overlooking people. We have to set the tone in the first game and keep building, keep progressing, keep getting better every week."