Arkansas was supposed to beat Boise State and South Florida to open the season. Most hoped that the Hogs would beat them badly, and they did. So, was anything gained in that 2-0 start? You bet. Plenty.
This is the best start of the Houston Nutt era. Yes, the Hogs have won their first two games before, but never in the way they whipped these two teams. In scoring 83 points, the Hogs have piled on more points in their first two games since putting 63 on Pacific and 30 on Tulsa to open the 1988 season. Not surprisingly, that team was ranked highly and finished strong. That was a good Arkansas team that took Miami to the wire.
This team may be as good as the 1988 team. For sure, it's the deepest team since 1988 and it may feature the most talent at quarterback since Quinn Grovey led the Hogs to back-to-back Cotton Bowls. Matt Jones has the same amount of talent as Grovey. Jones looked special against both Boise State and South Florida. He is the key player in the Hogs' hopes of getting back to the top 10.
There's one problem to all of that. The Hogs aren't even ranked right now. Is that a bad thing? Not really. If they take care of business, they'll zoom into the rankings over the next two weeks. If they don't do well in these next two games, against Alabama and Tennesee, it doesn't matter anyway. The rankings always take care of themselves.
The Hogs have more talent on the 2002 squad than in a long time. Much of it is still young, and will only get better. If this team stays healthy, it will win a lot of games this season. In preseason, I forecasted eight victories. I'd like to retain that prediction for now, but I think now that it could do better than that. Perhaps nine is a better prediction, but I'll stick with eight for the present time.
The thing that has been impressive to me so far this season has been the play of both the defensive line and linebackers. If there was an area on this team that I worried about in preseason it was in those two places.
There is more depth in the defensive front than I suspected with the emergence of both Gavin Walls and Keith Turner at defensive end. That has allowed Raymond House to move inside where he will rotate with Arrion Dixon at nose tackle. It appears that Jermaine Brooks and Scott Summers give the Hogs a pretty good tandem at the other tackle slot.
The linebackers, with the arrival of Marcus Whitmore and Sam Olajubutu, are salty. Jeb Huckeba, Clarke Moore, Caleb Miller, Pierre Brown, Tony Bua and Jimarr Gallon are scorpions. They are a bit undersized in some respects, but they more than make up for that shortcoming with fantastic speed and quickness. All are great playmakers and will be featured in Dave Wommack's defense.
If I had any other concerns in preseason, it was at wide receiver. But, the wideouts have performec better than expected, too. They improved late in preseason and impressed in the first two games. Can they do the same things against better defensive backs? That remains a bit of a concern, but it appears that Richard Smith, Sparky Hamilton, Decori Birmingham and Dedrick Poole are going to give the steady George Wilson just the help that this team needed.
If there was anything that has happened in the first two games to create concern, it has to do with the punt returner. With Marvin Jackson's knee injury, the Hogs had a serious void. Lawrence Richardson has yet to entrench himself as the punt returner, although he does hold plenty of promise. It may be that Decori Birmingham emerges as the punt returner. He got a brief tryout late in the South Florida game. This remains a bit of a concern, and it may be a week or two before it's a settled position.
The good news is that the Hogs have taken care of business in every respect for the last five months. Nothing has happened since the Cotton Bowl to cause any real fears about where the program is headed. The sky is the limit. It's going to take time to get there, but I think there is top 10 talent on hand at Arkansas.
Houston Nutt has an open date to fine tune any other trouble spots that may have been uncovered after two weeks. Then, it's on to SEC play with two of the nation's elite, Alabama and Tennessee. We'll find out after those two games where the Hogs really stand. I think we'll like what we learn.