- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett has read a few of the preseason college football magazines, many of which predict the Razorbacks will be talented enough to challenge defending BCS national champion Alabama in the SEC West this coming season.
From Little Rock to the Ozarks, Mallett has heard the hype about how opposing defenses won't be able to slow down Arkansas' Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback and his high-flying offense.
Mallett isn't buying any of it.
He remembers all too well the deflating feeling of his freshman season at Michigan in 2007.
With quarterback Chad Henne, tailback Mike Hart, left tackle Jake Long and receiver Mario Manningham returning in '07, the Wolverines were supposed to win the Big Ten and contend for a BCS national championship.
Instead, No. 5 Michigan lost 34-32 in its season opener against two-time defending FCS champion Appalachian State in one of the most shocking upsets in college football history.
"I played Appalachian State at Michigan," said Mallett, who transferred to Arkansas before his sophomore season in 2008. "I was part of that team. We got beat in the first game of the season. I kind of learned my lesson from that as far as overlooking people. We have to set the tone in the first game and keep building, keep progressing, keep getting better every week."
With Mallett and one of the country's deepest receiver corps returning this season, few fan bases are as giddy about the upcoming season as Arkansas' starved supporters.
"Expectations are very high," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "There's no question about that. It starts with our players, which is a good thing. Our players' expectations for the season are high. Our coaches' expectations for the season are high. Our administration's expectations for the season are high, and also [from] our fans. We're fired up just to get started and get going."
Teams are often anointed college football's next big thing for myriad reasons. With Mallett under center, the Razorbacks have plenty of star power. So does Washington, with quarterback Jake Locker returning to school.
Boise State has a wealth of experience with 21 of 22 starters coming back, and North Carolina has a boatload of NFL-type talent anchoring its defense.
Nebraska hopes to build on the momentum of the end of last season, after it came within an eyelash of upsetting Texas in the Big 12 championship game, then crushed Arizona 33-0 in the Holiday Bowl.
"When you have high expectations, it means that you played good football at the end of the year last year and you have a lot of returning players coming back," Petrino said. "To me, that's what the start of the season is all about. How you finished the year and who do you have coming back that played for you or started for you a year ago?"
Of course, a team's success the previous season doesn't always correlate into even bigger things the next year. The 2007 Wolverines weren't the only team to enter a season as the sport's flavor of the month only to buckle under the weight of such lofty expectations over the next three months.
In 2008, Georgia was a popular choice as the country's No. 1 team. The Bulldogs were led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, who would become the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL draft, and running back Knowshon Moreno, another NFL first-rounder.
But Georgia lost three times in 2008, including a 41-30 loss to Alabama (in which the Crimson Tide led 31-0 at the half) and a 49-10 rout against Florida. The Bulldogs finished 10-3, which wasn't a bad campaign, but far short of the expectations of the preseason.
Ole Miss replaced Georgia on the SEC's dartboard last season. With quarterback Jevan Snead and Dexter McCluster returning from a team that finished 9-4 in coach Houston Nutt's first season at Ole Miss in 2008, the Rebels were expected to be even better in '09.
But the Rebels lost at South Carolina 16-10 in their third game and lost three more times before season's end. Snead threw 20 interceptions, and star defensive end Greg Hardy was plagued by injuries and played in only nine games.
Ole Miss finished the 2009 season the same way it ended '08: with a 9-4 record and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. But because the Rebels faced such lofty expectations in the preseason (and because they lost the Egg Bowl against rival Mississippi State by a 41-27 score), the season seemed to be half-empty when it was over.
After losing Snead, Hardy and McCluster, the Rebels are picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC West this season.
"I've been [rated in the SEC] 13 times, and most of the time I've been picked towards the bottom," Nutt said. "I don't really worry about that. I never have. A lot of people say, 'You coach better when you're not under such high expectations.' I've always been under low expectations, so most of the time I don't really worry about that."
Boise State has grown accustomed to playing in the spotlight, having finished undefeated after winning a BCS bowl game in two of the past four seasons. But with so many starters returning this season, including quarterback Kellen Moore, the Broncos might finally be a legitimate BCS national championship threat.
The Broncos will have to navigate their way through the expectations that come with that, starting with their Labor Day night opener against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
"I don't care [about the expectations]," Moore said at last month's WAC media day in Salt Lake City. "I think it's all about the way you handle it. It obviously can be a distraction if you let it be. What it all means is that people care about Boise State football and they enjoy watching us. You have to handle it."
The Broncos will have to handle the pressure better than teams have in the past.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book will be available in bookstores Aug. 24 and can be preordered here. You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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