Finally game time for eager Hogs

FAYETtEVILLE, Ark. -- For months, the Arkansas Razorbacks have embraced the expectations that they will make a no-excuses run at their first Southeastern Conference championship.

Now that the season is finally here, the No. 17 Hogs can barely contain their eagerness. So what if this weekend's opener is against what could be an overmatched Tennessee Tech team?

"You can call it what you want. This is a game for us," defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. "This is not a tuneup game. This is a game."

Ever since quarterback Ryan Mallett announced he was passing on the NFL and staying at Arkansas, the Razorbacks have been wondering if the stars might be aligning. The preseason ranking is their highest since 1990, when they still played in the Southwest Conference, so it's understandable that these players don't want to waste any opportunity to show they're worthy of such high hopes.

Their first chance is Saturday night against the Golden Eagles of the Football Championship Subdivision.

In 2007, the Razorbacks entered the season amid lofty expectations thanks to running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, but that team was coming off a tumultuous offseason and a portion of the fan base had already turned on then-coach Houston Nutt. The mood is much different now, with Bobby Petrino entering his third season at the helm and Mallett a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.

"I think we're anxious, ready to work after coming out here in this heat every day," offensive lineman DeMarcus Love said. "The whole state is ready to see what this offense is all about. I think a lot of people are ready to showcase their skills as a unit, and we're just ready to get this thing going."

Arkansas went 8-5 last season, scoring 40 or more points seven times. Mallett seemed to rewrite the school record book on a weekly basis and finished with 30 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Wide receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright all return, as does tight end D.J. Williams.

If there's a question mark, it's the defense, which might explain Robinson's feistiness. Although the Razorbacks will be expected to win easily the opener, they could use a dominant defensive performance to ward off any doubts about their ability to beat No. 23 Georgia and top-ranked Alabama later this month. Arkansas lost to both those teams last year and gave up 87 points in the process.

Tennessee Tech, of the Ohio Valley Conference, opens the season at Arkansas and No. 6 TCU, and coach Watson Brown figures both teams will be as good as advertised.

"These two teams we're playing back to back could be in the national championship," Brown said. "They're capable of being there at the end, in my opinion. What I want my kids to do is enjoy the moment, but play good."

Tre Lamb is listed as Tennessee Tech's starter at quarterback, although Brown indicated more than one player will likely take snaps for the Golden Eagles.

For the Razorbacks, Mallett has received rave reviews during preseason camp after a broken foot in February shook up his offseason.

"Ryan's had a very good camp. I've been very impressed with, missing that much time, how quickly he got right back to his accuracy," Petrino said. "Every day we go out there in practice, he makes a couple throws that you're amazed at."

In 2008, Petrino began his Arkansas career against Western Illinois in a game the Razorbacks were favored to win. They barely came away with a 28-24 victory, but a lot has changed since then.

"There's a huge difference (in confidence)," Williams said. "Not necessarily on a cocky level, but just confidence in knowing the offense and how things operate.

"We have veterans on the field. That brings experience, and you just don't know how important experience is until you have it."