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Arkansas v. Jacksonville State: a revealing opener


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The last time Jack Crowe walked out of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, there was no "Reynolds" badging at all, the stadium capacity was a tick above 50,000, the Hogs were yet to play a Southeastern Conference game, and Houston Nutt was standing on the same sideline as a rising assistant.

Crowe left the field that day — September 5, 1992 — to a few boos but mostly to awkward, pained silence. After the Hogs lost 10-3 to The Citadel, a Division I-AA power at the time, Crowe never got the chance to helm the program through the SEC's choppy waters. He resigned under likely duress less than 24 hours after the loss was in the books, and didn't resurface as a head coach until he was hired by Jacksonville State of the FCS in 2000, where he has guided the Gamecocks to nine straight winning seasons and generally polished up a program that had little luster to speak of.

This is mentioned not to pick at the scab that both Crowe and occasionally psychotic Arkansas fans have toted around for a couple of decades. A good man and a competent coach, Crowe was dealt a similar hand to the one Bobby Petrino received when he was hired in 2007. The bulk of the talent that Ken Hatfield parlayed into 10-win Cotton Bowl teams in 1988 and 1989 was gone when Crowe accepted the reins, and he was handed a most unenviable reconstruction project. Thankfully, he has crafted a fine head-coaching career in the aftermath of that awful loss, but he will not likely leave his former home with happy memories this weekend when his Gamecocks are the fodder for the Hogs' season opener.

A healthy portion of Arkansas's current roster was not even born when that loss occurred, and therefore has no frame of reference as to the condition of the program ever being that dire. These Hogs are ranked in the Top 10 and, even with Petrino's painful exile blanketing the offseason with a pall, they are in arguably the best shape they have been in since even before Crowe left to make an earnest push to reach the ultimate peak. There's still a shrewd offensive mind named Petrino on the sideline, a young and daring defensive coordinator who has pieces to work with, and premier veteran leadership on both sides and in all the critical positions.

Yet Arkansas simultaneously has a "work in progress" feel to it, what with the loss of numerous talents to the NFL (Jake Bequette, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright among them) and general, pervasive questions as to whether a purportedly lame duck 63-year-old head coach will be nothing more than a stopgap. The Hogs won't likely be challenged by the Gamecocks on Saturday night, but the game should theoretically be useful and revealing for a variety of reasons:

1. If there was anything remotely controversial about summer practices, it was Smith's decision to shield Knile Davis from contact. The junior running back is as physically well-rounded as any NFL prospect at the position, but the history of ankle and knee injuries is nothing to casually ignore. He will run often early to test his stamina and agility in live action, absorb a few hits, and likely leave early enough in the second half to avoid heightened risk.

2. Brandon Mitchell's quarterbacking days are ostensibly done. This seems likely, first because of Brandon Allen's emergence but lately because Mitchell, a bright and adaptable athlete, seems to be developing a natural rhythm as a wideout. He will start at one of the flanker positions Saturday, as will lanky true freshman Mekale McKay, who became the Hogs' rangy replacement for Dorial Green-Beckham when the latter chose Mizzou.

3. Tenarius Wright's position change should pay immediate dividends, but will it leave the defensive line prone? Wright's production at end was solid, and it is expected that he will bolster a linebacker corps thinned after Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson departed. The Gamecocks will not have the kind of size or mobility on the offensive line to thwart Chris Smith or Trey Flowers, so there would be just cause for alarm if neither player makes much of an impact Saturday night.

4. Otha Peters has a chance to be the Hogs' best freshman linebacker in years, and Jacksonville State's variable offense will test him often. Watch Peters closely when he is on the field: the former Tennessee commitment has looked sharp in practice and seems to have the discipline and size that Hog linebackers have traditionally not developed until later in their careers. The impact that he, Wright and Alonzo Highsmith will have this year is probably the greatest barometer for how much improvement this defense will truly make.

Arkansas will not suffer the same fate Ole Miss did when Crowe's bunch came calling two years ago. It borders on being redundant, but in a warm-up game like this one, the Hogs must establish and stretch a lead quickly, treat their foe with due respect, and make no substantial missteps. While Alabama, LSU and Auburn may draw more rigorous out-of-conference tests, Smith and the staff have to treat this game as if it's being played against higher-level competition as well.

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