Hogs wear 'hot team' label proudly

Alabama and Florida have been so hot that they’ve run off and left the rest of the league the past two seasons.

So when you’re identifying the so-called hot team in the SEC going into this season, a better way to couch it might be … the team other than Alabama and Florida most likely to win the league championship.

A handful of teams could make cases, but Arkansas seems most willing to carry that banner.

The expectations surrounding that program are enormous and growing all the time.

Quarterback Ryan Mallett is a Heisman Trophy contender. He has the best group of pass-catchers in the conference to throw to, and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino insists that the defense is finally SEC-ready.

“It’s taken us a while to get to the point where we have high expectations as a university and as a fan base and players,” Petrino said. “I think it’s a good thing. I think the one thing we can’t do is shy away from it. Let’s embrace it, let it motivate us, then let’s go out and do everything we can to make ‘em come true.”

We should know by the end of September if the Hogs are for real. They travel to Georgia on Sept. 18 and then return home to face Alabama on Sept. 25.

“All that did was make the summer that much more intense,” Arkansas senior tight end D.J. Williams said. “We know we have to be on top of our game right from the start.”

It goes without saying that the Arkansas fans will be disappointed if the Hogs aren’t in Atlanta playing for the SEC championship in December. That’s how much is expected of this team, which can be a dangerous thing.

Just ask Ole Miss.

The Rebels won nine games for the second straight season a year ago, marking the first time since the John Vaught era that they’d done that. But because they started the season ranked in the top 10 and climbed as high as No. 4 in the polls, it was a huge letdown when they were out of the West race by the middle of October.

Likewise, if Arkansas wins 10 games and doesn’t get to Atlanta, you get the feeling that’s not going to be good enough. Never mind that the Hogs have won more than nine games only once since joining the SEC in 1992.

Ultimately, their chances of unseating Alabama in the West are going to rest with their defense, which played well in spots a year ago, but was wildly inconsistent and gave up far too many big plays and easy scores.

Keep in mind that only two of the past 10 SEC champions have finished lower than 18th nationally in total defense. And of the SEC championship game losers the past decade, only three of those teams finished outside the top 20 nationally in total defense.

So, yes, this is a defensive league.

Can the Hogs win the title by racking up big numbers on offense and improving just enough on defense to get by?

One thing’s for sure: They’re not being defensive about their chances.