For the sixth straight August, Pearls embarks on a methodical journey through the Arkansas Razorbacks' 12-game slate to try to project how this rendering of the squad will fare over this long haul of a season. (Read parts II and III)
The 2016 slate is one of the most balanced the team will play: Nonconference matchups are a bit thornier than in prior years, which is a bit unnerving given that the Hogs have dropped three out-of-SEC games in Bret Bielema's three years as coach. That said, Arkansas gets the Ole Miss-Alabama-LSU gauntlet entirely in Fayetteville, giving the Hogs a sporting chance to snap a 10-year dry run against the Tide and an opportunity to extend their two-game win streaks against the others to three. The road games, accordingly, are not all that intimidating.
September provides an immediate proving ground for a rebuilt offense and a defense looking to surge back to the way it performed late in the 2014 season.
Louisiana Tech in Fayetteville, Sept. 3: Arkansas no doubt learned from its stumbles to Toledo and Texas Tech last year that you cannot, in this age of transferring players and up-tempo offenses, forsake an opportunity to win the games you should win.
The Bulldogs had a nice 2015 campaign under Skip Holtz's direction, 9-4 and culminated with a New Orleans Bowl thrashing of Arkansas State. They've got an offense that tends to mirror what Dan Enos employs for the Razorbacks: lots of power running mixed with a steady pass game reliant on solid protection and a quarterback with some mobility.
Unfortunately for Tech, the lead cogs of last year's offense — quarterback Jeff Driskel and tailback Kenneth Dixon — are gone. Ironically, both went in the draft near where the Hogs' Alex Collins and Brandon Allen did, so two teams needing to see their replacements show out will open the year with a quick showcase. Austin Allen will get the better of Ryan Higgins on the passing side, and the Hogs' defensive line will play a big role in that, getting untracked with five sacks and two picks. Hogs 41, Bulldogs 21.
TCU in Fort Worth, Sept. 10: This game has a lot of Hog fans jittery because of the exceptional job that Gary Patterson has done in constructing a national power. But the Horned Frogs also face uncertainty: onetime Texas A&M flash-in-the-pan Kenny Hill is at the helm of this offense now, and he's got little proven weaponry around him.
The Frogs consistently have a nice defense that they lean on when the offense isn't producing. Patterson has always had the kinds of players who overachieve and mesh well, but the team's sudden success in the Big 12 means that recruiting has hit an unprecedented high.
Arkansas will struggle early in this one, with two big first-half turnovers leading to 10 TCU points and a 17-10 halftime deficit. But the Hogs' ball-control in the second half is too much as Kody Walker registers a 100-yard rushing game for the first time in his six-season career, and Rawleigh Williams rushes for the go-ahead score early in the fourth. Hogs 31, Horned Frogs 24.
Texas State in Fayetteville, Sept. 17: The last of three out-of-league games to start the season is thankfully the easiest for the Hogs, a team now ranked after a 2-0 start. The fans are rewarded with a complete showing against the Sun Belt Conference team from San Marcos, which went only 3-9 last fall, and a 3-0 start. Hogs 51, Bobcats 10.
Texas A&M in Arlington, Sept. 24: This one will be laden with motivation for the Razorbacks after two consecutive overtime losses where the Hogs gave up fourth-quarter leads. The Aggies are in a state of upheaval and the Hogs' fury shows early: Thanks to a TD on a fumble recovery and runback by senior linebacker Brooks Ellis, the Hogs start this one on fire, up 21-0 scarcely 10 minutes in.
The Aggie offense recovers somewhat to score twice before halftime, but the Hogs pour it on in the fourth quarter with two more scores off turnovers. It's a coming-out party for touted freshman tailback Devwah Whaley, who rips off a long scoring run to punctuate an unexpected but overdue rout. Hogs 38, Aggies 20.
After the first month, Arkansas is a healthy and surging 4-0, and into the Top 15 comfortably. We'll examine an October anticipated to be much harder on the Hogs next week.