In what is becoming a Pearls preseason rite of summer, we're going back to a full-tilt weekly dissection of all things porcine up in the Ozarks, and that starts with breaking down the 2014 football schedule into three parts:
At Auburn, Aug. 30: This game was announced in such a way that it reeked of SEC schadenfreude. The ailing Hogs and the surging Tigers were moving toward opposite ends of the football Earth last year and then Arkansas fans got this whack in the gourd. Not only does Arkansas not get the usual luxury of a mid-major (or lesser) opener of prior years, but the whole effort to climb out of last fall's smoking crater starts on the road, against the near-defending national champs, against the onetime state golden boy Gus Malzahn.
As such, the nasty aftertaste of the 2013 season has given Razorback legions a poor chaser to begin anew. But let's not forget two abundantly obvious trends. One is that the Hogs started last season in very promising fashion with a dominating win over Louisiana-Lafayette, which ended up being a nine-win bowl team, and the offense clicked almost flawlessly that afternoon. Bret Bielema teams, in fact, have a fair history of opening well, and he's never lost the first game of a season in eight years as a head coach. Perhaps most inspiring, though, is that Jordan-Hare Stadium is one place the Hogs have never shown much fear of, and in 2002, 2006 and 2012, the Hogs won there in impressive fashion.
And the pressure squarely resides on the home team, which has a suspended starting quarterback (the length of such benching is unknown right now, but likely not long), the great burden of trying to replicate its success a year ago with some personnel changes on the offensive line and in the backfield, and a defense that still doesn't elicit fear in its opponent. Auburn fans are going to be happy to win this one and start off 1-0, and ironically, it's also going to be the catalyst for a better than expected year for the Hogs, too. Jonathan Williams has a career rushing day in this one and Brandon Allen performs competently, but the Tigers pull away late. Tigers 37, Hogs 27.
Nicholls State, Sept. 6: This is the lesser opener mentioned above, delayed by a week, but don't necessarily discount Nicholls. The Southland Conference squad jumped from one win in 2012 to four wins last fall, which certainly qualifies as improvement, and Arkansas had so much difficulty with Samford and lowly Southern Miss before the bottom fell out last year that easy triumph cannot be presumed here.
Arkansas won't be too sharp in this one either, actually unveiling some flaws in coverage that weren't as prevalent against Auburn. But the Hogs' offense will be buoyed by the strong first game showing and Allen has a career passing night in only three quarters of action before giving way to his little brother, Austin. Hogs 44, Colonels 17.
At Texas Tech, Sept. 13: The real nonconference curiosity of this season is this jaunt down to Lubbock, where Arkansas hasn't played in a quarter-century, to play Kliff Kingsbury's feverish passing attack. Last year, the Red Raiders started mightily under the rookie head coach, winning seven straight against clearly softer competition, then faded badly in a five-game skid that exposed the Raiders' sieve defense (they surrendered 243 points over five games) and finished up all right with a win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Tech is so bad defensively that even in those victories there were serious deficiencies, and that's what Jim Chaney will be trying to exploit in a variety of ways. It's your quintessential Big 12 team, with lots of decent athletes on the defensive side, but not enough general depth, discipline or stamina in place to stymie a well-orchestrated scheme. Chaney can put that together and should be able to capitalize on the weakest aspects of Tech's back seven with short throws and zone blocking runs.
This game strikes fear into Hog fans' hearts but we'll take the Razorbacks against this kind of squad. Alex Collins has a field day, and it's the best day of Hunter Henry's young career, too, with each scoring twice. Hogs 38, Red Raiders 31.
Northern Illinois, Sept. 20: If the Razorbacks caught Auburn at the worst time, they're getting the MAC's onetime elite Huskies at a much better juncture. All-everything quarterback Jordan Lynch is gone and there's been another coaching change at the top, so UNI has the look of a team in transition rather than a juggernaut in the making. That's not to dismiss the value of the skill players they return on both sides, or the fact that they've been a paragon of consistency in recent years despite numerous personnel changes, but Arkansas gets the nod here because the Huskies will still be finding out about themselves.
It'll be relatively close, but the Hogs are starting to see conditioning pay off in these hot early games. The sizzling turf in Fayetteville doesn't faze Korliss Marshall, who scores on a long run and a kickoff return, and it winds up being Arkansas's best performance of the first one-third of the year. We won't call it an unqualified rout, but thanks to a turnover-free effort and a healthy crowd that's been motivated to attend by the first three performances, Arkansas punctuates this portion of the season nicely and Trey Flowers gets his first career TD on a fumble return to close it out. Hogs 34, Huskies 17.