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Hogs' first opponent, La. Tech, depleted

Both teams are trying to replace seasoned, and oft-maligned quarterbacks.

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Two seasons ago, coming off a bitterly disappointing 3-9, 0-8 debut campaign, Arkansas was saddled with the ignominy of actually opening SEC play on the road in late August, against an Auburn team fresh off a Cinderella run to glory that fell seconds short of materializing.

That wasn't fair to the Hogs, and fortunately, that oddity didn't repeat itself last fall. Arkansas opened more conventionally, with UTEP, and dispatched with the Miners by 35 points on a sunny Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Hogs will be charged with again taking on a foe from the Conference USA West Division this weekend, namely the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, a team that put it all together for Coach Skip Holtz in a 9-4, 6-2 campaign that ended with a commanding win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl.

Bulldog backers have to be feeling quite good about the program. The mercurial, younger Holtz finally seems settled in a place like Ruston, where he can orchestrate a productive and showy offense without the pressure he had at prior stops. He's authored back-to-back nine-win seasons after a 4-8 go in his first season, so ironically he and Hog Coach Bret Bielema have some common ground: Both are beginning their fourth years at their respective programs with a healthy ideal of long-term program development in mind, but with some unknowns to address.

Right up under center, both teams are trying to replace seasoned, and oft-maligned quarterbacks. Both Brandon Allen and Jeff Driskel, ironically, were taken in the back end of the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and both had tumultuous but satisfying rises to that stature. Allen toughed it out over five years in Fayetteville; Driskel, on the other hand, sought out Louisiana Tech after some unsettling times in Florida playing for the ebullient and psychotic Will Muschamp. Both guys produced well in their final collegiate bows, and now it appears that while Austin Allen is going to take over for big bro for the Hogs, Ryan Higgins will return to the starting job for the Bulldogs.

Only trouble is, he'll do so after the first game. Higgins' preseason DWI left him suspended for the opener, so it's possible that stocky (6-1, 240) backup Price Wilson, who has thrown all of three passes for the Bulldogs, or another redshirt sophomore, J'Mar Smith, will get the bulk of the snaps. Either way, it's not encouraging for Holtz, who had the benefit of transfers Driskel and Cody Sokol the past two years. Higgins played extensively in 2013 but was turnover-prone, and then spent the past two years holding the clipboard.

Where Louisiana Tech had hoped to thrive, accordingly, was in the backfield. Former Strong High School (Union County) standout Kenneth Dixon just completed a record-setting career at tailback, though, and the second-leading rusher behind him last fall was Driskel, so the load will be shouldered by Boston Scott and Jerrad Craft, a speed-power tandem that will need to help unburden the quarterback of choice with productive early-down runs.

Assuming the Bulldogs can sustain a passing offense with such inexperience at the helm, there's a proven weapon outside in Trent Taylor. The diminutive flanker from Shreveport had 153 catches the past two seasons, and accounted for nine touchdown grabs in each of those campaigns. He's a deep threat and uncannily tough for his stature, but he may be asked to do a lot more than run drags and fly routes Saturday. Carlos Henderson is a great second option, and the backs will be asked to take some screens, but the tight end is hardly of use in this spread offense.

On the defensive side, Louisiana Tech also got burned by exhausted eligibility. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler had a steady four-year run and was rewarded by being picked in the first round by Carolina, the first Bulldog taken in the top round of the draft in 17 years. But he wasn't the only loss; there will likely be eight new starters on that side when the Hog offense takes the field Saturday afternoon, and the youthful replacements will have their conditioning tested immediately. The combination of Dan Enos' clock-bleeding offense and a large offensive line, on a sweltering late summer day in the Ozarks, doesn't bode well for the unit that only returns two players with significant experience. The best lineman, Jaylon Ferguson, is a physical specimen with speed, but he can only do so much.

Tech's best chance is for the two-headed monster at quarterback to keep an overexcited Hog defense unstable. Tennessee-Martin did a fine job of exposing holes in the Hog secondary last fall, but there's no question that Robb Smith is going to try to inflict substantial heat on Smith and Wilson this weekend. Arkansas needs a firm, efficient opener to take a degree of swagger to Fort Worth the following weekend.

Two seasons ago, coming off a bitterly disappointing 3-9, 0-8 debut campaign, Arkansas was saddled with the ignominy of actually opening SEC play on the road in late August, against an Auburn team fresh off a Cinderella run to glory that fell seconds short of materializing.

That wasn't fair to the Hogs, and fortunately, that oddity didn't repeat itself last fall. Arkansas opened more conventionally, with UTEP, and dispatched with the Miners by 35 points on a sunny Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Hogs will be charged with again taking on a foe from the Conference USA West Division this weekend, namely the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, a team that put it all together for Coach Skip Holtz in a 9-4, 6-2 campaign that ended with a commanding win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl.

Bulldog backers have to be feeling quite good about the program. The mercurial, younger Holtz finally seems settled in a place like Ruston, where he can orchestrate a productive and showy offense without the pressure he had at prior stops. He's authored back-to-back nine-win seasons after a 4-8 go in his first season, so ironically he and Hog Coach Bret Bielema have some common ground: Both are beginning their fourth years at their respective programs with a healthy ideal of long-term program development in mind, but with some unknowns to address.

Right up under center, both teams are trying to replace seasoned, and oft-maligned quarterbacks. Both Brandon Allen and Jeff Driskel, ironically, were taken in the back end of the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and both had tumultuous but satisfying rises to that stature. Allen toughed it out over five years in Fayetteville; Driskel, on the other hand, sought out Louisiana Tech after some unsettling times in Florida playing for the ebullient and psychotic Will Muschamp. Both guys produced well in their final collegiate bows, and now it appears that while Austin Allen is going to take over for big bro for the Hogs, Ryan Higgins will return to the starting job for the Bulldogs.

Only trouble is, he'll do so after the first game. Higgins' preseason DWI left him suspended for the opener, so it's possible that stocky (6-1, 240) backup Price Wilson, who has thrown all of three passes for the Bulldogs, or another redshirt sophomore, J'Mar Smith, will get the bulk of the snaps. Either way, it's not encouraging for Holtz, who had the benefit of transfers Driskel and Cody Sokol the past two years. Higgins played extensively in 2013 but was turnover-prone, and then spent the past two years holding the clipboard.

Where Louisiana Tech had hoped to thrive, accordingly, was in the backfield. Former Strong High School (Union County) standout Kenneth Dixon just completed a record-setting career at tailback, though, and the second-leading rusher behind him last fall was Driskel, so the load will be shouldered by Boston Scott and Jerrad Craft, a speed-power tandem that will need to help unburden the quarterback of choice with productive early-down runs.

Assuming the Bulldogs can sustain a passing offense with such inexperience at the helm, there's a proven weapon outside in Trent Taylor. The diminutive flanker from Shreveport had 153 catches the past two seasons, and accounted for nine touchdown grabs in each of those campaigns. He's a deep threat and uncannily tough for his stature, but he may be asked to do a lot more than run drags and fly routes Saturday.

On the defensive side, Louisiana Tech also got burned by exhausted eligibility. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler had a steady four-year run and was rewarded by being picked in the first round by Carolina, the first Bulldog taken in the top round of the draft in 17 years. But he wasn't the only loss; there will likely be eight new starters on that side when the Hog offense takes the field Saturday afternoon, and the youthful replacements will have their conditioning tested immediately. The combination of Dan Enos' clock-bleeding offense and a large offensive line, on a sweltering late summer day in the Ozarks, doesn't bode well for the unit that only returns two players with significant experience.

Tech's best chance is for the two-headed monster at quarterback to keep an overexcited Hog defense unstable. Tennessee-Martin did a fine job of exposing holes in the Hog secondary last fall, but there's no question that Robb Smith is going to try to inflict substantial heat on Smith and Wilson this weekend. Arkansas needs a firm, efficient opener to take a degree of swagger to Fort Worth the following weekend.

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