I hinted last week that we'd entrench our hooves a bit deeper into the 2013 Razorback football season, and alas, the eternal jokester was not joking. Akin to the way Pearls completely misfired in a running series of month-by-month prognostication but a year ago, we go headlong into the first schedule that stares down Bret Bielema and his staff.
The wrinkle here is immediate and significant: for the first time in well over a decade, Arkansas does not draw Alabama in September. The reshuffling of the conference slate may prove disastrous if the Hogs' confidence really starts to wane once the leaves turn, but for right now, it's another emblem of what is being pitched as a complete reboot of the program after very nearly a full calendar year of sorrows.
Arkansas opens on Aug. 31 against Louisiana-Lafayette in Fayetteville, and for the first time in a while, it's a kickoff game that seems way more foreboding than it should. The unknowns all amass on the Arkansas side of the ledger: How polished will a revamped offense run by a green quarterback be? Will the stands be bubbling over with cynicism the first time something bad happens? Who's going to catch passes or take charge in the secondary?
Meanwhile, ULL arrives with swagger. The Cajuns have a dynamic quarterback named Terrance Broadway whose acumen as a thrower and runner makes him a favorite for Sun Belt Player of the Year. It's also a 9-4 team that won a bowl game and has a top-shelf tailback and field-stretching receiver coming back to make more mid-major ripples.
I think this game will mirror Petrino's nearly disastrous debut against the nondescript FCS team, Western Illinois, which ended with the Hogs winning by a sliver in 2008. If Arkansas manages to play with any semblance of efficiency and sharpness, it will be an unqualified miracle. Regardless, talent is talent, and Arkansas does have enough of it to crest this first hurdle. Hogs 31, Cajuns 24.
The next week brings the now-customary lower-division foe into the state. Samford is a better-than-average little school, and trust that Coach Pat Sullivan knows what happened last September when the Razorbacks, then riding high, lollygagged into War Memorial Stadium. I don't expect the Bulldogs to be as capable of crafting a repeat of the Louisiana-Monroe horrorshow, but we're still in marvelously uncharted waters here.
This, I predict, turns into the breakout moment for the obscenely talented back Alex Collins, who starts to run with authority in the third quarter to bust open a closer-than-tolerable game. On the strength of two long TD runs by the freshman, liberated after Joan Crawford coat-hangered his signing day experience, the Hogs stretch out the margin late to reach 2-0. Hogs 44, Bulldogs 17.
It seems remarkably off-kilter to think that Southern Mississippi could be the easiest out of the bunch in a completely SEC-free September, but consider this: the Golden Eagles, which have a pretty appreciable football tradition to gloat about, just completed an 0-12 campaign, fired Ellis Johnson after that one miserable season and can't yet be too certain about what they have in Todd Monken, the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator who debuts as a head coach this fall. The rebuild in Hattiesburg is a more daunting one than what Bielema faces, even in a weaker league in a football-rich territory. Monken will likely guide the program well in these dark days, but Sept. 14 in Fayetteville is just gonna be nasty. Arkansas, buoyed by a 2-0 start and growing comfy, will absolutely vaporize the Golden Eagles, which leaves Fayetteville for a date with Boise State the following weekend. Brandon Allen shines with three scoring tosses while the defense forces five turnovers. Hogs 37, Eagles 13.
The last non-conference tilt whisks the Hogs out of state and up to Piscataway, N.J. for the rematch with Rutgers on Sept. 21. Last year, the Scarlet Knights caught Arkansas prone and whipped, and Gary Nova picked apart the secondary to the tune of five scoring tosses and nearly 400 yards in the Rutgers win. Nova's gone, along with tailback Jawan Jamison, so there's some encouragement to be had there, to say nothing of the fact that Jamison was one of seven Knights to go in the NFL Draft.
So, on the surface, it sounds like Kyle Flood is having to also take on the role of program reshaper. He does return a bona fide All-American receiver candidate in rangy Brandon Coleman, but the QB situation is in flux and Rutgers wasn't exactly a high-flying outfit with the erratic Nova at the helm. Arkansas will steal this one solely on the strength of its offensive line: two backs (Collins and Jonathan Williams) will hit the 100-yard rushing mark, and Allen will add a TD throw and a TD sneak for good measure. Hogs 27, Scarlet Knights 23.