Over the next three weeks, A Boy Named Sooie will commemorate the return of his weekly column (and exorcise his needling doubts about the upcoming season) by playing a little devil's advocate. Week one will focus on the potential problems facing an offense that many believe will be one of the best in the country. Week two will focus on the potential redemption of a defense that many believe will be one of the worst in the conference. And week three will spit in fate's eye, casting about worst-case-scenarios for every game on the 2010 schedule.
Nothing's wrong with a little counter-narrative, right? Everyone has every reason to feel good about this upcoming season. I'm unusually sunshine and puppy central myself. But the conference (and national) landscape seems wide open. Anything can happen, even the best things — and also the worst.
Most take improvement as a given heading into Bobby Petrino's third year with the Razorbacks, but his offense actually regressed in his third year as head coach at Louisville. The Cardinals plummeted from first in the nation in total offense all the way down to ninth. They fell from first to third in points per game. This mostly manifested in a dramatic drop in rushing yardage, but the Cardinals also got off fewer plays and gained less yardage per play.
Granted, that can barely be deemed "regression." It's less "worse" than "not better." But it did cost them a championship.
On the surface, there are a couple of reasons that comparing Petrino's third year at Louisville to his third year at Arkansas doesn't seem immediately fair: 1) It was the Cardinals' first year in the Big East, and 2) It was Brian Brohm's first year as a starter.
However: 1) The transition to the Big East was no big whoop. South Florida made the same jump and improved. In fact, one of Louisville's three losses was to the Bulls. 2) Brohm, as a sophomore, was already far more accurate than Mallett. He completed 68.8% of his passes, and the Cards converted almost 50% of their third downs. Put that next to Mallet's 55.8% completion rate and Arkansas's abysmal 33.3% conversion rate from last year.
In addition, that 2005 offense boasted a highly regarded future pro (Michael Bush, who incidentally is now D-Mac's roommate in Oakland). Plus, the receiving corps was led by sterling upperclassmen. So Petrino can't wriggle completely off the hook.
But here's where the comparison can be truly instructive: The 2005 Louisville Cardinals offense was considerably better than the 2009 Arkansas squad in most major categories — efficiency, turnovers, total offense — and they still weren't good enough to win the Big East championship.
The Razorback offense has to improve dramatically in third down conversions and passing efficiency to compete for the conference championship, which I think is the most reasonable and attainable goal heading into this season. That inefficiency lost more games than the defense last year. It's the flipside of explosiveness, when you light the fuse on a dud: a three-and-out doesn't conjure the same adrenalized charge as a 70-yard touchdown reception. Inefficiency leaves the defense unduly exposed, breaks the back of otherwise fine performances (See: the Florida game). It will do the same again, no matter how the numbers add up.
Look: I think we'll be better. I hope we'll be better. I know we'll be better. But in the strange case that we are not better, it isn't hard to imagine how reasonable analysts might look back and say that, yes, Petrino regressed in his third year with the Razorbacks, but 1) He was competing in a division dominated by the national champion, filled to the brim with young, rebuilt programs suddenly reaching their potential, and 2) He was coaching for the first time without his little brother on the sidelines.
What? You forgot about the departure of Paul Petrino? The nominal offensive coordinator who has been a part of every team his big brother has coached? The receivers coach on the other end of 3,842 passing yards last season? The guy until recently in charge of one of the most fearsome receiving corps in the country? The man whose absence on the sideline and at practice is bound to have some (likely negative) effect, at least in terms of mojo? You forgot about him already?
That's what unguarded optimism will do for you.