By the time you read this, Arkansas will have put in about a week's worth of gridiron prep for a 2017 season that has such an odd feel, what with the deflating close of 2016 a distant but still germane development and the cast of skill and special teams players looking substantially different. Two points of emphasis are worthy of note before we start a month-long dissection of the impending schedule, though:
"We," as it were, ain't Ole Miss, and this blessing resonates so much deeper now than it did about a month ago, right?
Outside of Tuscaloosa, the SEC West flat-out reeks of instability, with new coaches taking over in Baton Rouge and Oxford, embattled coaches in College Station and Auburn desperate to treat the stain of five-loss seasons with some shortcomings at quarterback in full flourish, and Dan Mullen trying his damnedest again to keep Mississippi State relevant in the post-Prescott age.
This all means, of course, that you cannot read too much into Arkansas's somewhat precarious standing. Yeah, Rawleigh Williams had to hang it up prematurely, and the bulk of the Hogs' pass-receiving production from the past two seasons is now gone, but there's a very real chance that this offense takes big leaps forward in the weeks ahead because of a shored-up line and a renewed commitment to keeping Austin Allen's uniform clean and body unbruised. Defensively, the Hogs still fall short of being imposing, but the transition from Robb Smith to Paul Rhoads as defensive coordinator should be both painless and productive.
Frankly, something else should help: Arkansas gets the benefit of ridding itself of the customary Little Rock albatross and a cupcake right out of the gate. The past three seasons, the Hogs have had to open with a trip to defending national runner-up Auburn in 2014 (a grossly unfair bit of scheduling by the honchos in Birmingham, natch) and then dates in Fayetteville against UTEP and Louisiana Tech, two squads coming off bowl bids. Now, in fairness, that's not some kind of murderous slate to start off against, but this go-around, the Hogs start on a Thursday night in War Memorial Stadium against MEAC also-ran Florida A&M. The Rattlers got pummeled by Miami last year 70-3 to start their 4-7 season, so let's be honest, it will not hurt for a somewhat beleaguered Arkansas team to have this kind of opponent right out of the gate.
Last year, Austin Allen had to pick himself up off the turf repeatedly in the face of an aggressive Louisiana Tech pass rush. The Hogs nipped their foes from Ruston by a single point on a late TD, and in retrospect that game was a harbinger of things to come. While the offensive line did make some strides and the offense sharpened generally, the abuse Allen withstood on Labor Day weekend became fairly thematic throughout the duration of the season.
Frankly, with no derision meant for the Rattlers here, this is the kind of game the entire Razorback program needs. One, it will soothe the wounds that opened up at the end of 2016 a little, and it will get Allen comfortable with a few of his newer and less tested weapons. This also marks the first Thursday night regular-season game for the program in over a decade, and that should stir things up on the old golf course for a lively evening to usher in the holiday weekend. Look for Devwah Whaley to show out early as well. Arkansas 48, Florida A&M 7.
The Thursday opener also provides two additional days of rest before TCU comes to Fayetteville, and that extra prep time will facilitate Rhoads' gameplan for containing quarterback Kenny Hill, who is set to finish out a star-crossed career that seemingly spanned a decade or so. The Horned Frogs' senior quarterback actually hasn't had his best collegiate moments against the Razorbacks, being largely unsteady before a big finish in leading Texas A&M to an overtime comeback win in 2014 and then sabotaging a possible victory for his new team last fall with a memorably ill-timed throat slash that set the Hogs up with a short field late in the game. Arkansas cruised down to tie the game on a touchdown and two-point conversion before stealing the win in overtime on Allen's plowing run to paydirt.
That loss damaged the Frogs' psyche more than anything else. TCU fell out of the rankings and lost six of its last nine games, getting embarrassed at home three more times by lowly Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Kansas State before bottoming out to a 6-7 finish with a loss to Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Gary Patterson is simply too polished a coach to let his team fold the tent again in 2017, though, and the Frogs will again challenge Arkansas on the strength of a variable offensive attack. In the end, though, the home-field edge will mean a lot — Allen's fourth-quarter moxie leads to a pair of scores and the Hogs survive their former SWC rivals again in another one that goes to the wire. Arkansas 34, TCU 28.
The 2-0 start buoys the program and a bye week makes life a little easier, too. This time, the Hogs go to Arlington to take on Texas A&M with an unusually cool and unaffected approach, knowing that after five straight losses to the Aggies since they began an SEC chapter of their long rivalry, the pressure rests on the team in maroon to keep their ridiculous knee-high boots on Arkansas's metaphorical throats. Kevin Sumlin, itching to prove he's worthy of being retained after a litany of late-season slippages, does not have the signal-caller to keep the Razorback defense befuddled this time.
In fact, this time, it's Allen who treats the springy turf at AT&T Stadium as a catalyst for the remainder of his senior season. His three first-half touchdown passes stake the Hogs to a 24-14 halftime lead, but it's his fiery halftime reminder to the team that they cannot wilt after halftime that really ramps up the momentum. A big pick-six by Ryan Pulley early in the third quarter pushes the inspired Razorback defense to a three-possession advantage and Rhoads turns lineman Sosa Agim loose for a couple of huge sacks thereafter. Arkansas bolts to 3-0 for the second straight season, but feels better positioned for the long haul after finally nut-punching Jackie Sherrill's ghost (yeah, I know he's not dead). Arkansas 41, Texas A&M 20.