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IN ITS SEARCH FOR BALANCE LAST SEASON ARKANSAS RALLIED around a team motto that conjured up images of potential disaster: Hold the rope, don't let anyone fall over the edge. Climbing higher than expected, the Razorbacks played in their first BCS bowl and finished with their best national ranking since 1988. Now on the edge of greatness, can they peak by winning their first SEC championship?
It's an ascent they'll try to make without their trusty Sherpa, Ryan Mallett, who last fall quarterbacked the Hogs to just their second 10-win season in 21 years and led the only offense in the country that produced a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and five 600-yard receivers.
That most balanced of attacks, which ranked second in the SEC behind Auburn's with 36.5 points per game, is back with players who accounted for all of its rushing yards, 84% of its receiving yards and 48 of 58 touchdowns. Now Arkansas will try to maintain its footing without Mallett, who left Fayetteville a year early for the NFL.
"I don't see any drop-off in production," says offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, paying junior QB Tyler Wilson the ultimate compliment even though the starting job is technically up for grabs. In a near upset of Auburn last October, Wilson stepped in for an injured Mallett and threw for 332 yards and four TDs. "In a lot of ways Tyler can deliver the ball better than Ryan," says McGee. "He doesn't have to have his feet set to make accurate passes." Wilson can also throw on the run, which should serve Arkansas well as it tries to plug three holes on an offensive line—the most pressing concern going into 2011—that started the same quintet every game last season.
The rest of the offense sparkles: Tailback Knile Davis, the SEC's second-leading rusher in 2010, is the headliner and is complemented by a deep receiving corps (Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright). Back on defense are the Razorbacks' top three tacklers: Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas (the interceptions leader).
With such a core in place Wilson just needs to get a grasp of that rope. "Tyler understands the responsibility of a quarterback," McGee says. "He understands the direction that we're headed."
The Hogs can see the mountaintop.
COACH Bobby Petrino (4th year) 23--15 (11--13 in SEC)