The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 17th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks open up their highly anticipated 2010 season this weekend, as the welcome the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles to Fayetteville.
Bobby Petrino is in his third year at the helm at Arkansas and has obviously made an impact in a short time considering the team comes into the season with its highest ranking since 1990. The Razorbacks went 8-5 overall in 2009, including posting their first bowl victory since 2003, a 20-17 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
The Golden Eagles are an FCS squad out of the Ohio Valley Conference. Tech finished last season with a winning record at 6-5, but fourth-year coach Watson Brown has his work cut out for him in trying to replace a record- setting QB. However, with 55 lettermen and 16 starters back in the fold, there is a good chance that Tech will be vying for a conference crown this season. Overall depth and a quick start are keys according to Brown.
"We need to play well on the road early in the year to have a chance to win the OVC championship. If we do that, then we'll be in the hunt when we host those games later in the year. It could make for a really exciting season for our fans. I believe that our depth will give us the chance to win every week. We might not have the best player in the league at any one position, but taken altogether I think that we?re as good as every team in the league at every position."
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
The Golden Eagles must first and foremost find a replacement for Lee Sweeney under center. The team will start the season with sophomore Tre Lamb leading the way. As a freshman, Lamb saw spot duty, completing just 8-of-18 passes, for 113 yards. The good news is that the team has a slew of returning playmakers, as well as an offensive line that brings back three starters. The ground game last year was paced by sophomore Dontey Gay, who averaged a solid 5.6 yards per carry and was tied for the team lead in rushing scores at six. More is expected in his junior campaign. Fellow junior Tim Benford will resume his role as primary target downfield, after the wideout led the Golden Eagles in receptions (33) and receiving yards (580).
Tech's defense struggled at times last year, especially against the run, allowing an alarming 194.7 yards per game rushing. The team will certainly need to shore that area up if success is to follow. The hope is that with the return of veteran leaders in all three areas will be able to do just that. The defensive front is highlighted by DE Charlie Seivers (19 tackles, one sack) and DT Dedrick Miley (39 tackles, four sacks). The linebacking corps is led by Kelechi Ordu (55 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, one sack) and the secondary features standout DB Dustin Dillehay (team-high 78 tackles, three INTs, one fumble recovery).
The Arkansas offense will center around All-American candidate Ryan Mallett at the quarterback position.
"He's a young man that's a tremendous leader for us, has amazing talent," says Petrino of his signal caller. "Every Saturday when you watch the video after the game, he makes two or three throws that you say, Wow, nobody else might be able to make that throw in America."
In his first season as the starter for Arkansas, Mallett, a transfer from Michigan, led his team to 36.0 ppg (first in the SEC). The Razorbacks paced the SEC in passing (295.3 ypg), and Mallett finished the campaign with 3,624 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He is expected to be one of the top draft picks whenever he decides to come out of school, but has his immediate sights on winning the SEC Championship.
Mallett is not the only talent on the offensive side of the ball, as there is playmakers at all the skill positions. Three returning starters at wide receiver and the return of the SEC's best tight end in D.J. Williams, will make Mallett that much more effective. The top guy on the outside is WR Greg Childs, who turned 48 catches into 894 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009.
Talented tailback Michael Smith is gone, but there are a few runners who are more than capable of filling the void. Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson are two obvious candidates, along with Knile Davis and Broderick Green.
Arkansas' sub par finish in the SEC last season had a lot to do with inconsistent play on the defensive side of the ball. The Razorbacks ranked last in the league in passing defense and total defense, while placing ninth in scoring defense (25.1 ppg).
Jerry Franklin posted 94 tackles last season, including 51 of the solo variety, but there is enough significant talent at linebacker that Franklin may have to fight for playing time. Up front, junior defensive end Jake Bequette hopes to build on the 5.5 sacks he posted a year ago. Willy Robinson, the defensive coordinator of the squad, was the target of much criticism in 2009, largely because his secondary couldn't stop anyone. Things should be better this year, as an improved pass rush and an infusion of young talent will help.
"We're excited about Isaac coming back," says Petrino of Isaac Madison, a junior corner. "He played almost every snap two years ago for us. In camp last year, he got injured, missed the entire season. He's done an excellent job in his rehab."
The Razorbacks will only go as far as Mallett takes them this year, but the 6-7 gunslinger is capable of taking them far. The Golden Eagles are simply out of their league in this one and will struggle to keep this one close.