Rebuilding jobs come and go in college football. Rarely does a program slam into reverse and find itself with the kind of radical reconstruction that Arkansas faces.
This is what happens when you lose a senior class of two dozen, and four talented juniors leave early for the NFL. Starting over is unavoidable. Eighteen of 22 starters have to be replaced -- by far the most among SEC teams.
"Some of these guys have played enough games and they know what it's like to run through the A. Some of these guys don't," Hogs coach Houston Nutt said, referring to a Arkansas pregame tradition. "They've been on the sidelines clapping and been to a bowl game with a baseball hat on, feeling good, getting their watch and all those things. So now it's their time."
So glaring are the looming growing pains that when Nebraska tried to hire Nutt, the most valuable concession he coaxed out of the Arkansas brass was not a raise, but a wink and a nod from athletic director Frank Broyles that the coach would be given a virtual free pass on the next two seasons.
OffenseIf you have only one returning starter on offense, then Matt Jones is the one you want. A long strider, the 6-foot-6 Jones might be responsible for driving up tranquilizer prescriptions for defensive coordinators with his unusual ability to sense and escape the rush and spring big plays. "If you're playing sandlot football, you'd want him on your team," said former Texas defensive coordinator Carl Reese.
But Jones will need help, and Arkansas usually puts together a physical running game. DeCori Birmingham is a speed back and De'Arrius Howard is a pounder, both with 100-yard games on their résumés. Five new starters are being groomed on the offensive line, though.
Balance might be more important than ever, and Jones will have a good mix of receivers to throw to. Carlos Ousley is a reliable go-to guy. But sophomores Cedric Washington and Chris Baker have the makings to be the program's most exciting receivers in five years.
DefenseWiped out is the only way to describe the losses the secondary incurred. It's especially bad for a defense that relies heavily on putting speed on the field with extra defensive backs.
Vickiel Vaughn and Lerinezo Robinson should shore up the safety spots. But smart teams will test the cornerbacks frequently because they're so green.
It all means less man-to-man coverage and more zone combinations to keep offenses from throwing over the top. Coordinator Dave Wommack might also have to scale back on his blitz variety early in the season as his defensive backs get their feet wet.
The good news is 10 of the top 13 defensive linemen return, led by Arrion Dixon and Jeb Huckeba. The front seven, including linebackers Clarke Moore and Sam Olajubutu, have to create a better pass rush to take pressure off the secondary.
SpecialistsChris Balseiro and David Carlton are game-tested kickers. Punter Jacob Skinner has a live leg that needs to be more consistent.
Two players need to emerge to replace the gunners who had been playmaking lightning bolts for two years. Washington is a candidate and he also is the best kick-return threat.
Nutt is going to either look brilliant or unstable if he follows through on a plan to use Jones as a punt returner. Jones has forged his own style of elusiveness and could break some returns, but he also would be exposed to head-hunting coverage units that would like nothing better than to knock Arkansas' only experienced quarterback out of the game.
Final AnalysisGiven the massive personnel losses, asking Arkansas to do more than win four or five games would be unrealistic. The biggest challenge will be finding a way to stop opponents.
Nutt can count a mostly sympathetic fan base that understands what he's up against as a blessing, but he won't be spared from one of the toughest schedules in school history.
Best-case scenario: The Hogs somehow squeeze out six wins and extend their bowl streak to seven seasons. A more likely outcome would be winning two non-conference games, taking care of business against Mississippi State and hoping for an upset somewhere else in league play.