This entire opening game preview, I suppose, has a giant asterisk accompanying it. If the havoc that Harvey wrought upon Texas makes its way nor’easterly, then the Arkansas season debut Thursday night in Little Rock may be in jeopardy, and I suspect would not be rescheduled if such a cancellation came to pass. Arkansas may need that presumably easy win for bowl consideration later, but let’s presume for the moment the Hogs do get to take on Florida A&M at War Memorial Stadium.
It won’t be pretty even if the conditions hold out. Arkansas, despite having a bewildering lack of voter support in the early polls, is the far superior team and for Hog fans, this novelty of an opener piques the curiosity in so many ways. As we touched on a few weeks ago in this space, the questions that surround this team are pretty numerous, and a MEAC also-ran does not look like the type of opponent that will help answer any of those queries. Nevertheless, the Rattlers probably have spent much of the week reading about a scrappy 2012 Louisiana-Monroe team that figured to play the patsy at War Memorial Stadium and ended up leaving with a program-defining win, and one that also completely shook up the core of the state program here for a good while.
At the risk of a jinx, Austin Allen’s health is the paramount issue of concern throughout this season. The Rattlers will obviously feel like, with nothing to lose, they should model their defensive approach after the one Louisiana Tech used to shocking success in the 2016 opener. In that game, Allen’s mobility and durability were tested early and frequently, and that was when he had a more proven cast of safety valves at tight end and slot receiver. Now, Arkansas is a little light on skill position seasoning, although there were zero concerns about Allen’s ability to find new targets and develop a quick rapport with his supporting cast after the spring and summer scrimmages.
You can bet, as well, that this game will be the first of many that signifies some kind of tribute to Frank Broyles. It won’t be quite as emotional as a Fayetteville-based homage, but the recently departed coach, athletic director and all-around visionary put his stamp on games at War Memorial over the years, too. All things considered, though, this event will be humdrum and paint-by-numbers for the Hogs, and won’t even qualify as the most entertaining spectacle in the aging venue this month (Guns N’ Roses claimed that honor with a bullet back on Aug. 5).
Bret Bielema’s going to get to put a lot of reserves to work, and one of the really intriguing facets of a game likely to be bereft of them is how some of those younger Hogs show out in front of what should be around 50,000 folks. One of the freshmen most expect to see is tailback Chase Hayden, and based on early returns, he might well be good enough to steal carries away from incumbent sophomore Devwah Whaley, and not just in lopsided matchups like this one figures to be. Hayden has the feel of being an immediate dynamic addition to not only the offense, but potentially special teams as a kick returner, and his pedigree (father Aaron was an All-SEC tailback for Tennessee before fashioning a short NFL career) merits attention.
On the defensive side, FAMU’s shifty receivers will put the new 3-4 unit overseen by defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads to work early. Arkansas floundered so badly trying to rush defensive linemen into the backfield over the last two years that it makes sense to try to shore up the middle of the field. Anyone who doubts whether this experiment will work is justified in having a little healthy skepticism, but when you recall the likes of Trevor Knight — not exactly a Cam Newton type of burner, mind you — scorching through a barren middle of the Hog defense last year vs. Texas A&M, you probably need to be a bit more open-minded about this transition. Will there be rough spots? Certainly. Against the Rattlers, you would hope those do not surface, and it will be a relief to fans to see linebacker Dre Greenlaw out there again after injuries robbed him of most of 2016.
We’ve predicted a customary, dutiful rout by the Razorbacks here, and assuming this game goes off without any undue weather-related hitches, that’s what it will be. But, as always, the season opener will tell a story beyond what the uneven competition might suggest. Harking back to that 2012 disaster against Monroe, you’ll recall that the game before it at Fayetteville was a really ragged 49-24 win over FCS opponent Jacksonville State. The defense was absolutely befuddled at times, Knile Davis looked tentative and lacking burst in his return to the field after losing the entire 2011 campaign to injury, and Tyler Wilson wasn’t totally sharp. It had fans uneasy and nervous, sentiments that ended up being wholly justified a week later.
FAMU should not expose too many of the Hogs’ flaws, but even seeing a few shortcomings now can be useful down the road. And since John L. Smith doesn’t preside over this program anymore … .