SEC West: Arkansas

The Tennessee Volunteers made one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Southeastern Conference football history 17 years ago, going from 5-6 in 1988 to 11-1 in ‘89. Don't be shocked if the Arkansas Razorbacks, coming off a 4-7 disappointment in 2005, register a similar turnaround in ‘06.

Houston Nutt's team returns 19 starters from last year – 10 on offense, 9 on defense – and adds superstar quarterback prospect Mitch Mustain to the mix. The Razorbacks have talent, experience and good coaching. With a little luck, they could finish 9-3, maybe 10-2, in 2006.

The most important of the 19 returnees is tailback Darren McFadden, a 6-2, 210-pounder who rushed for 1,113 yards as a freshman last fall. When he needs a breather, fellow sophomore Felix Jones (626 yards, 6.3 per-carry average last year) is nearly as effective. Moreover, Peyton Hillis, who rushed for 315 yards and caught a team-best 38 passes last fall, might be the SEC's best fullback.

Arkansas led the SEC in rushing last season and should be even better this season. If Mustain can upgrade the passing attack, the Hogs could be close to unstoppable.

Defensively, Arkansas's front four returns intact, led by end Desmond Sims. He recorded 60 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last fall. The only graduation losses from the 2005 stop unit were linebacker Pierre Brown and safety Vickiel Vaughn. Neither is irreplaceable.

The top returnee on defense is stumpy linebacker Sam Olajubutu, a 5-9, 227-pounder who recorded a team-high 110 tackles last season, including 14.5 tackles for loss.

The Hogs also return one of the SEC's best punters. Jacob Skinner averaged 41.8 yards per kick last fall.

Arkansas has proven it can run the ball and stop the run. The problem is executing and stopping the passing attack. The Hogs finished 11th among the 12 SEC teams in passing offense last fall and ninth in passing defense. If Nutt can tweak those two areas a bit, this could be a fabulous fall in Fayetteville.

TOMORROW: My take on Sylvester Croom's Mississippi State Bulldogs.


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