State of the Hogs: Year Four

Year four hasn't been great for many Arkansas coaches. But Bobby Petrino has some history on his side as the Hogs sail into 2011 with high expectations.

Hopes and expectations are both soaring at Arkansas as the fourth year of the Bobby Petrino era fast approaches.

There are already forecasts of a 10-win season although the schedule maker has handed the Razorbacks road games to national title contenders Alabama and LSU to start and end SEC play.

The good news is that there is more reason to expect than to hope for fantastic results. Experience -- except at offensive tackle -- suggests Razorback Nation will enjoy this campaign.

Arkansas fans can expect that unless they are true veterans. A look at the UA record book for head coaches in their fourth year puts it in perspective and suggests it may not be so easy. Only Frank Broyles did enough to make Razorback Nation proud in his fourth year.

The 1961 Hogs won a piece of their third straight SWC title, losing only to Texas in conference play. They had a beat-up defense that day -- stalwarts Dean Garrett, Jerry Mazzanti and Tommy Brasher were out -- and were shellacked, 33-7.

That 8-3 season also included a 16-0 loss to Ole Miss in the opener and a 10-3 defeat to national champ Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Here's the other fourth-year results for Arkansas coaches:

Francis Schmidt, 1925, 4-4-1.
Fred Thomsen, 1932, 1-6-2.
John Barnhill, 1949, 5-5.
Lou Holtz, 1980, 7-5.
Ken Hatfield, 1987, 9-4.
Danny Ford, 1996, 4-7.
Houston Nutt, 2001, 7-5.

There was only one bowl victory in any of those seasons, the 1980 Hall of Fame triumph over Tulane, 34-15.

What's the meaning of all of this? I think the point is that it appears Petrino has built this fourth-year team on solid foundation. Recruiting has been consistently better each year. There is depth and more talent on the way.

In comparison, most of those previous fourth-year Arkansas coaches had poor years in their fourth in the Ozarks because they did not do the same thing. We could see the end coming in some cases. Holtz didn't recruit and when he ran out of players, he had to move on. We all know the Nutt story since it's such recent history.

Hatfield actually improved recruiting throughout his time until the last two years when he and Broyles got sideways. But his last two seasons were the product of great recruiting in years two and three. Those 1988-89 teams were solid.

Frank's teams were good in years two through three and better in years seven and eight. So he was building as he went. His teams were not built on sandy soil.

But if you go back before then, there wasn't a lot to be happy about. There were some coaches who were gone before year four. We all understand that.

What Petrino has done over the past four years is not easy. If you don't believe that, then you are not looking hard at history.

But I don't think any of that will give Petrino concern. He has fond memories of the only fourth-year result in his career. That was a 12-1 thrill ride in 2006 at Louisville. Petrino's team defeated Wake Forest, 24-13, in the BCS Orange Bowl to finish at No. 6 nationally.

I have thought for some time this should be Petrino's best team at Arkansas. The experience is obvious. There could be as many as 19 seniors in the two-deep when fall camp opens.

In doing research for a column for the June issue of Hawgs Illustrated, I visited with Kirk McNair, publisher at Bama Magazine. McNair is the dean of SEC writers. He was sports information director for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Here's what he said about Arkansas and Tyler Wilson, likely to replace Ryan Mallett at quarterback:

"I put a lot of stock in good coaches and (Petrino is) very good," McNair said. "Wilson has been in Petrino's system how long? Four springs? Yeah, that's what I thought. Like I said, I put much stock in the coach and this is his fourth year at Arkansas. I like Petrino a lot."

And there's similar stuff from Mark Murphy, publisher at Inside the Auburn Tigers. He's seen almost as much SEC action as McNair. He's familiar with Petrino from his days as Auburn offensive coordinator.

"I've done some spring booster clubs and one of the first questions they ask is to pick the West race," Murphy said. "I'm telling you the same thing I've been saying the last few weeks -- Arkansas is the team to watch.

"I love the quarterback, Tyler Wilson. He looked very good against Auburn last year. We all know Petrino from his days as an assistant (at Auburn). He's a great offensive coach. They'll be very good on offense and I think everyone thinks the defensive talent he's recruited has improved that area of the team.

"I think Arkansas will be very tough to beat this season. Very tough."

I see it much the same as my counterparts at Alabama and Auburn. As history hints, it won't be easy. I'll wait a few weeks before making a prediction on the record, but for now how about a suggestion this is going to be the best a fourth-year coach has done at Arkansas?

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