SEC mailbag: Razorbacks poised for title run?

Our mailbag has returned to cap off our week of position rankings. There’s never a dull moment in the SEC, so there will always be questions that need to be answered around the league.

Enough with the boring intro, on to your questions:

Drew of Greenland, Ark., writes: Given Arkansas' success the last two years, and Bobby Petrino's high-paying contract which will most likely keep him at Arkansas for awhile, do you think there is serious potential for a national championship team in Fayetteville within five years? Ten years? What about this year?

Edward Aschoff: Bobby Petrino has really recruited well since he arrived at Fayetteville. He’s still looking to consistently recruit with the bigger recruiting powers – Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia – but he’s done enough to make this year’s Arkansas team arguably the best one he’s had. This year’s team has real chance at making a title run with the talent it has. The receiving corps is the best in the country and the defense is the best it’s been under Petrino. Road games at Alabama and LSU won’t make it easy, but nothing is easy in the SEC and someone out of this league has won it all in each of the last five seasons. As far as five or 10 years for the Hogs, it’s not out of the question at all. Petrino is an offensive genius and he’s been able to recruit athletes to Arkansas that he couldn’t at Louisville. Just looking at the young receivers and running backs he has is impressive. He’s been growing this program since he arrived and Arkansas should keep itself near the top of the pack as long as Petrino is at the helm. Next year could be tough with a lot of seniors leaving, but there is some good young depth to work with.

Jason of Frederick, Md., writes: Looking at the offense ratings you've given Tennessee could they possibly be a dark horse in the SEC East? I know I'm a fan so I'm biased, but this is a team that should have beaten LSU and UNC and was great in the first half last year (see game against Oregon). What that means to me is the team was good, but too young and not deep enough to go against top teams. This year they have built depth and have a year of experience under their belts. Florida is under a new system, and UGA is a perennial choke artist. With an easier schedule this year could UT not finish #1 or 2 in the East???

Edward Aschoff: It’s going to be really tough. The offense is going to score points with two talented receiving targets in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers for Tyler Bray to throw to. Tauren Poole is back at running back and he’ll have a pretty solid offensive line blocking for him. Bray has the skill to be very good, but he still has some maturing to do. Defensively, this team has issues and I don’t know if it can keep up with the offense. It’s young and there are some legitimate talent questions. This team will be much better if safety Janzen Jackson returns after leaving the team this spring for personal reasons. Prentiss Waggner was penciled in at safety, but was an All-SEC cornerback last year and he could move back to corner this fall. If he moves and Jackson isn’t back there will be a huge hole at safety. The linebackers still have a lot of questions marks, as does the defensive line, but there are some young athletes on this roster that could eventually make strong impacts for the Vols. I think this team is still a year away from really competing in the East. Another six-win season wouldn’t be surprising.

Ty of Tuscaloosa, Ala., writes: I am going to the Bama/Penn St game in State College in August and was wondering if you see ANY possible way the Tide will get upset by the Nittany Lions this season? I hear they are down, but not how much. Thanks!

Edward Aschoff: This game is on the road, these are two historical giants going at it and anything can happen on Saturdays in the fall. College Station has one of the best football atmospheres around and you better believe those Penn State fans will be going nuts before, during and after this game. Penn State had one of its youngest teams last year and must replace Mr. Reliable at running back in Evan Royster. Alabama’s defensive line might be the biggest area of concern for the Tide, so if Penn State can generate a successful running game, the Lions could stay in this one late. But Penn State has questions at quarterback and that has to be figured out of the Lions even want to have a chance against Alabama. In the end, the talent difference is just too much. Alabama is equipped with one of the best defensive units in the country and the speed on both sides of the ball should prove to be too much for the Lions. Penn State could be in the running for a Big Ten championship, but Alabama has the makings of a national championship team and Nick Saban isn’t about to let this team lose focus against an over-matched team.

Jonathan of Louisville, Kent., writes: With Vanderbilt making a surprise appearance in the initial recruiting rankings, do you think James Franklin may actually have what it takes to pull enough talent so that Vandy is consistently competitive? They may not be winning SEC championships, but a consistent .500 record is enough to give the fan base something to cheer for at this point.

Edward Aschoff: Franklin has really done a great job of selling the Vanderbilt program to recruits. There is still a lot of work to do on the field, but prospects are really buying into what Franklin has to say. He was an outstanding recruiter at Maryland and hasn’t let up since he arrived at Vandy. While talking with Franklin down in Destin, Fla., for the SEC meetings, he told me that he knows it’s going to be an uphill battle at Vandy because of the tremendous talent difference between Vandy and the rest of the league. He’s not running from that and he’s not being na├»ve about it. It’s tough for any coach to recruit there with the academic standards the school has and let’s be real, a lot of these top-tier athletes aren’t taking visits to Vanderbilt for that very reason. It would be easy for any coach to use that as a crutch for an excuse on why Vanderbilt will continue to struggle, but Franklin has yet to do that and he’s embraced the academics at Vanderbilt. He’s selling that to prospects and the chance to turn the program around. He won’t win the major recruiting battles, but he’s going to get some pretty good athletes here and there and the Commodores will become more competitive. If he can coach in the SEC as well as he can recruit, Vanderbilt could consistently reach .500.

Jacob of Charlotte, N.C., writes: Although Tennessee WR Justin Hunter is a good wide out and a sleeper, I think it's absurd to have him as a sleeper Heisman winner. It’s near impossible for a WR to win the Heisman these days and even harder for a no-name one to do it. I think the backup quarterback or running back at any school would have a better chance than he would. What made you go with him over all the other great WR's in the league besides the ones you mentioned in your original Heisman watch list?

Edward Aschoff: He’s a sleeper because he’s what you consider a “no-name” that could come out and really impress this fall. Remember Cam Newton? I don’t think Justin Hunter will win the Heisman and I don’t think a receiver will win the Heisman, but I have no problem listing him as a sleeper because he could be a real receiving gem in this league. He has great speed and athleticism and seven of his 16 catches went for touchdowns last season. He’s a big-play threat in Tennessee’s offense and has a chance to have a really good year this fall. He might not be as strong as Alshon Jeffery or as talented as Arkansas’ trio, but he’ll get by defenders this season and he’ll make the athletic plays. Not a lot of people really know Hunter, so that makes him that much more interesting and that much more of a sleeper. I expect him to make someone’s All-SEC team in some capacity.