SEC PREVIEWS: Smith inherits major talent

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at Mississippi State.



SEC WEST

Arkansas (PREDICTED FINISH: 3RD IN WEST)


Arkansas is coming off its best football season since 1977, returns All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson and is deep in the offensive and defensive lines.

Yet there were questions about whether or not the Hogs could catch Alabama and LSU -- the nation's top two teams -- well before Bobby Petrino created the biggest scandal to ever hit the Ozarks when he put his motorcycle into a ditch early in spring practice with his mistress aboard.

Petrino is out as head coach, fired "with cause" by athletics director Jeff Long. John L. Smith, Petrino's mentor, was lured away from Weber State, after four months, with a 10-month, $850,000 contract. He'll coach the 2012 Razorbacks, a team he thinks has a chance to give him the most significant victories in a 19-year career as head coach.

Let's focus on the questions the Hogs must answer if they are to beat the SEC West kingpins before we get into the thought of what life will be without Petrino.

The defense has been average (or below that) in the SEC during Petrino's four-year rule. It's the offense that has carried the load, mostly as the SEC's best passing unit under quarterbacks Wilson and Ryan Mallett.

Paul Haynes, the coordinator and safeties coach, and Taver Johnson, in charge of linebackers, were brought in from Ohio State to retool the defense. Some of that took place as the Hogs prepared for what turned out to be a successful Cotton Bowl. The defense was as much a part of that victory as the spectacular special teams and Wilson's arm.

The defense lost several key playmakers, including leading tacklers Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson and sack man Jake Bequette. But the strength of that unit was the defensive line and it's good enough that top end Tenarius Wright moved to Franklin's old spot at middle linebacker with good results. Alonzo Highsmith, who missed spring with a pectoral tear, will man the other inside linebacker spot.

The defensive front is loaded. Tackles Byran Jones, Dede Jones and Robert Thomas are standouts. Ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are also outstanding and junior college transfer Austin Flynn is a similar player to Jake Bequette.

Safety looked improved with Eric Bennett sliding over to free safety and Jerry Mitchell, Ross Rasner and Rohan Gaines getting turns at the other safety spot. Rasner also will play outside linebacker in nickel situations.

The Hogs are improved at cornerback with Darius Winston and Tevin Mitchel the likely starters. Walk-on Kaelon Kellybrew was the surprise of the spring and will play.

But it's offense that has carried the load at Arkansas in recent years.

It should again. Wilson was spectacular in the spring. The fifth-year senior completed more than 77 percent of his passes in the five scrimmages. He had only one interception, on a tipped ball.

Knile Davis, first team All-SEC in 2010, is back at running back after missing last year with a broken ankle. He didn't get any contact in the spring, to his disappointment. He looked like the back that gained over 1,300 yards two years ago, most of it against SEC competition in November.

The Hogs lost three good receivers in Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs -- all taken in the fourth round of the NFL draft. But Cobi Hamilton was as good or better than any of them in a spectacular spring. Julian Horton, Javontee Herndon and Keante Minor are next in line.

The offensive line has three returnees led by All-SEC candidate Travis Swanson. Jason Peacock and Alvin Bailey are also returning talents, although were on the second team much of the spring.

There is top talent on special teams. Placekicker Zack Hocker, punter Dylan Breeding and kickoff returner Dennis Johnson are standouts. Marquel Wade was set to take over as punt returner for Adams, but his status is clouded by off-the-field issues. But the key issue for this team might be at the top. Can John L. Smith make a seamless return in Petrino's place? Can Paul Petrino, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, call plays like his brother?

Much of the structure in the Petrino system came from Smith. So everything will proceed in the same fashion as before. Of course, there is a difference. Smith, who was at Arkansas the last three seasons with the outside linebackers and special teams coordinator, is called a players' coach. Current players say he is quick with a tough critique, but also a pat on the back. Many players say this team will benefit from that change.

Smith made it clear why he left as head coach at Weber State, his alma mater, to return to Arkansas. He thinks this can be the best team he's ever coached and has a chance to win a national championship. He knows to do that, there must be breakthroughs against Alabama and LSU. Petrino's teams did beat LSU, but were 0-4 versus the Crimson Tide. Never have the Hogs played both in Fayetteville since coming to the SEC in 1992.

Wilson is happy with the Smith approach and thinks the team will flourish with the 63-year-old's ability to motivate. Wilson has a huge confidence about the 2012 season, even when those on the outside may have stepped back from the UA chances since Petrino was fired.

"I hear some of that stuff," Wilson said. "So be it. That's just more motivation for us. You can't control that, but you an use it. Nothing ever surprises me about the way people outside the program perceive our team. I will say that our players think that Coach Smith has helped our team."

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS:

EAST
Florida (3)
Missouri (4)
Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

WEST
Auburn (4)
Mississippi State (5)
Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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