Shockingly, Pearls has done this “season preview” thing for just shy of a full decade now, starting with its debut before the 2011 season. That team went 11-2 and finished in the Top 5, and I guess some would say I’m kind of a journalistic hex on the Arkansas football program, because no team has since come within shouting range of that high-water mark.
Chad Morris’ first Razorback team doesn’t figure to shatter the earth, either, but there are a few variables that may alter conventional perception of a coach taking the reins of his inaugural SEC team, too. For beginners, Bret Bielema and his exiled staff did not leave a bare cupboard behind, and this fall’s schedule has some unusually favorable week-in, week-out matchups based on the projections at hand. And even as always I contort myself into a ritualistic late-summer belief that this might be an unexpectedly accomplished squad, I’m doing so with a bit more confidence than I had when John L. Smith was put in charge in the spring of 2012 or when Bielema got the joysticks in his hands the following season.
As we’ve done in the past in this space, we’ll break down the schedule game by game, and maybe my Svengali-like ways will have you seeing the potential for 2018 to be a surprisingly fun one, starting with what should be a string of possible confidence-boosting games in September.
Eastern Illinois, Sept. 1: Maybe the biggest unknown for this opener will be the state of the north end zone expansion at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but this should be a far more enthused crowd than the one that showed up for the Hogs’ 2017 opener against Florida A&M in Little Rock. A proper home opener, with a 3 p.m. kickoff against the Panthers of the Ohio Valley Conference, might appear an odd choice of opposition, but the Panthers’ head coach, Kim Dameron, is a Rogers native who played for the Hogs under Lou Holtz before launching into a long, respectable career. His homecoming won’t be a pleasant one, though, because Arkansas is the first FBS power conference team that Eastern Illinois will be facing since Northwestern whitewashed the Panthers 41-0 in 2015. The Panthers managed a 6-5 record last fall despite offensive woes (they averaged less than 18 points and 294 total yards per game), and that spells an early showcase for John Chavis’ rebuilt unit. McTelvin Agim posts a career-high three sacks, Cole Kelley and Ty Storey each throw touchdowns, and the Hogs roll. Arkansas 48, Eastern Illinois 10.
At Colorado State, Sept. 8: The Hogs get a rare opportunity to see Fort Collins at a lovely time of year and take advantage, though not without a fight. Former Georgia quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s fourth Rams team will have put two games under their belt (hosting Hawaii on Aug. 25 and clashing with Colorado in Denver the next weekend). Bobo’s teams have been maddeningly consistent, posting an identical 7-5, 5-3 in each of his three regular seasons, following that with three mid-level bowl losses. This, accordingly, will exact some pressure on Bobo to prove his long-term value to a program that has always played second fiddle in the Rockies. Arkansas gets the Rams’ best shot, particularly from new starting signal-caller K.J. Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Washington. Chavis’ defense is tested early as the Hogs fall behind 17-7, but Joe Craddock’s offense gets rolling behind the running game in the second half and Chase Hayden and T.J. Hammonds break out for big scoring runs late to seal a win. Arkansas 41, Colorado State 31.
North Texas, Sept. 15: The Mean Green spent years getting thumped mercilessly when the brass there experimented with Todd Dodge and Dan McCarney as head coaches from 2007 to 2015. Seth Littrell was brought in to breathe life into the program, and the response was favorable in 2017, as UNT won nine games, took the Conference-USA title outright, and made the New Orleans Bowl. Littrell has a solid pedigree and exuberance, but that won’t get him far against the Hogs. Two weeks after facing Morris’ old charges at SMU in the opener for both, the Mean Green will get a rough reminder from Arkansas that they’re still not on par with SEC competition. This will be Devwah Whaley’s breakout game, a 200-plus yard performance with two scoring runs, and the defense is boosted by Dre Greenlaw’s first-ever touchdown on a fumble recovery. Arkansas 44, North Texas 17.