Saturday was a marvelous day for football. The weather was more like what you would expect to find in late September rather than the middle of November. In case you’ve forgotten, it can get awfully cold in Fayetteville for a night game in the middle of November.
This past Saturday night, however, I never put my jacket on in Fayetteville.
My football Saturday had started by being the first person in the door when C.J.’s at Russellville opened at 11 a.m. Is there a better hamburger in the state than what’s served at C.J.’s? If so, cast your vote. I want to know about it.
From there, it was off to the campus of Arkansas Tech University for the noon kickoff of the NCAA Division II playoff game between the Wonder Boys and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Nick Graziano, the Wonder Boys’ senior transfer from the University of Nevada, is the real deal at quarterback. He was 33 of 54 passing with no interceptions, four touchdowns and 465 yards.
UNC-Pembroke, mind you, came in with a 9-1 record and ranked No. 11 in Division II. At 8-2 coming in, Tech was ranked No. 21. But we suspected all along that the visitors from the East Coast had not seen the kind of speed one sees in the Gulf South Conference.
The Gulf South is to Division II what the SEC is to Division I — the finest football conference in the land. Those Arkansans who have never checked out a Gulf South game need to make it a point to do so next fall. It was never a game Saturday afternoon. Tech jumped out to a 24-0 lead and won going away, 41-13.
Now the Wonder Boys must travel to Florence, Ala., to play Terry Bowden’s University of North Alabama squad that was ranked first in the country before being upset in the final game of the regular season by West Alabama. North Alabama defeated Tech, 42-17, back on Oct. 3. We expect it will be much closer this time around.
After the Tech game, we made the drive to Fayetteville, arriving early enough to grab something at Foghorn’s down by Baum Stadium. Then, we watched another amazing performance by a quarterback. With the quality coaching of Bobby Petrino, Ryan Mallett gets better each game. He was 23 of 30 passing for 405 yards and five touchdowns against a Troy team that had won seven consecutive games.
This was not Eastern Michigan. This was a decent opponent. But the Razorback offense is clicking at this point. It will be interesting to see if the offensive magic continues Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.
The two quarterbacks I saw lead their teams to victory Saturday were a combined 56 of 84 passing for 870 yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception.
So on the same day, I had the best hamburger in the state, saw the only two college football games being played in the state, saw both Arkansas teams win, saw one of the best Division II quarterbacks in the country and saw one of the best Division I quarterbacks in the country. It was a perfect Saturday.
Playing on the road, Arkansas State and UCA continued to disappoint us. We had picked all four Arkansas schools — Arkansas, Arkansas State, UCA and Arkansas Tech — to win Saturday.
ASU benched quarterback Corey Leonard, the school’s all-time leader in total offense, and played redshirt freshman Ryan Aplin instead. The freshman was 20 of 27 passing for 168 yards, but it wasn’t enough in a 35-18 loss to Howard Schnellenberger’s Florida Atlantic squard. The Red Wolves fall to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the Sun Belt Conference.
UCA, meanwhile, has now lost five games by a total of 18 points. Saturday’s loss was by a score of 17-14 on the road at Sam Houston State. The Bears fall to 5-5 overall and 2-4 in the Southland Conference. I bet this season has aged Coach Clint Conque by a decade.
What’s especially frustrating is that both ASU and UCA were supposed to have great seasons this year. That’s why we keep picking them, thinking they will live up to their potential. We’ll pick against both this week and see what happens.
We were 2-2 last week, making us 51-28 for the season.
Here are this week’s picks:
Arkansas 38, Mississippi State 21 — Here’s a reality check: Both of these teams are 2-4 in the SEC and tied for last place in the SEC West. Thus the game Saturday is a battle to see who will be alone in last place for at least a week. So why is it such a tough ticket? It’s a hot ticket because Arkansas fans can see the progress. They know where this program is headed under Petrino. And they know they may have something really special in Mallett. The Bulldogs are 4-6 overall with one of the toughest schedules in the country. The wins have come over Jackson State, Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Kentucky. The losses have come to Auburn, LSU, Georgia Tech, Houston, Florida and Alabama. The Hogs go to 7-4 overall with a win Saturday, meaning a berth in the Cotton Bowl will be on the line the following week when they head to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.
Middle Tennessee 31, Arkansas State 28 — We just don’t see the Red Wolves getting it done of the road at this point against a Middle Tennessee team that is 7-3. The Middle Tennessee losses were to Clemson, Troy and Mississippi State. The wins have come over Memphis, Maryland, North Texas, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Louisiana-Lafayette.
McNeese State 35, UCA 32 — The Bears’ five losses have been by margins of five, four, three, three and three points. So we will pick them to lose by three in Lake Charles. McNeese is 8-2 and tied for first in the Southland Conference with Stephen F. Austin. McNeese’s losses were to Tulane and Stephen F. Austin. The victories have come over Henderson, Appalachian State, Savannah State, Northwestern State of Louisiana, Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State, Sam Houston State and Texas State.
Prairie View A&M 24, UAPB 14 — The Golden Lions have had two weeks to prepare for a road game against a Prairie View team that is 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the SWAC. Prairie View secured its first SWAC Western Division title Saturday with a 34-14 victory over Alcorn State. Faced with scheduling problems, Prairie View plays only nine regular season games this year. So this is the final game of the regular season for Prairie View. But the Panthers have secured a spot in the SWAC championship game on Dec. 12 at Legion Field in Birmingham. UAPB is much improved in its second year under Monte Coleman with records of 3-2 in conference and 5-3 overall.
North Alabama 38, Arkansas Tech 34 — Graziano has been on fire the past several weeks. I would not be suprised if the Wonder Boys pull the upset. They’re playing with confidence. But we’ll stick with the home team for now.