The NCAA college football season begins tonight.
How neat is it that it begins right here in Arkansas?
Not only does it begin in Arkansas, it begins in my hometown of Arkadelphia.
And there’s not just one game. There are two.
Ouachita Baptist University kicks off at 6 p.m. on one side of U.S. Highway 67.
Henderson State University kicks off at 7 p.m. on the other side of the highway.
There was a time when some NCAA Division II teams would start their seasons on a Saturday in late August, a week before the Division I teams. But the NCAA ruled this year that no one could play prior to Thursday, Aug. 30.
Then Hurricane Isaac came along.
With heavy rains and wind expected to move into south Arkansas by Thursday night, the Great American Conference asked the NCAA for a waiver that would allow Ouachita and Henderson to play their season openers a day early.
The waiver was granted.
Thus the country’s first NCAA game of the season will kick off at 6 p.m. today at Ouachita’s A.U. Williams Field. I will be there, beginning my 30th season of doing Ouachita’s radio play-by-play.
Time flies when you’re having fun.
It’s the start of an interesting Labor Day weekend for Arkansas teams.
In Fayetteville on Saturday night, the John L. Smith era begins at the University of Arkansas. Granted it’s likely to be an era that lasts less than a year, but the talent level left behind by Bobby Petrino has Razorback fans thinking BCS.
How ironic is it that Jack Crowe must bring a team to Fayetteville exactly two decades after that fateful Labor Day weekend in 1992 when Frank Broyles fired him as the Razorback head coach following the first game of the season?
For my father, Labor Day weekend always meant dove hunting. We had finished a great hunt in a field across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia that first Saturday of September in 1992 when Arkansas took on The Citadel. We got in the truck, I turned on the radio and I could tell immediately by Paul Eells’ voice that things weren’t going well in the fourth quarter.
I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time, and Gov. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. I went to Hot Springs the following day to cover Clinton’s triumphant return to the town where he grew up (despite that Democratic National Convention film that made folks think he spent all of his formative years in Hope).
I remember calling the newsroom that Sunday afternoon to ask how much space I had for my story.
“Keep it tight,” I was told.
“Why?” I asked. “This is a big story. What else possibly could be going on the Sunday before Labor Day?”
I was told: “Frank Broyles just fired Jack Crowe.”
If there’s anything bigger than an Arkansas governor about to become president, it’s a change in Razorback football coaches.
I kept my Clinton story short.
Don’t expect Crowe to exact any revenge this weekend. The Hogs have far too many weapons for that to happen, even if it’s a sloppy performance.
Meanwhile, the Gus Malzahn era begins at Arkansas State as the Red Wolves travel to Oregon. ASU won’t win, but it’s an excellent opportunity for the program to receive nationwide attention. That’s because it’s the final ESPN game of the day. A lot of people will still have their televisions tuned to ESPN to get scores from other games across the country, and they’ll hear about what Malzahn is trying to build in Jonesboro.
“Priceless” as they say on the credit card ads.
Speaking earlier of Crowe, you’ll remember that he took Jacksonville State into Oxford, Miss., on opening weekend two years ago and shocked Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels.
The UCA Bears will try to do the same thing in Oxford this Saturday as the Hugh Freeze era opens at Ole Miss. I think the Bears will hang around for at least three quarters.
Out at busy War Memorial Stadium — which already will have hosted high school games on Monday, Tuesday and Friday of this week — the Delta Classic will be played Saturday as Monte Coleman’s Golden Lions from UAPB take on Langston.
Let’s get to the picks for Week One:
Ouachita 35, Northwestern Oklahoma 26 — The Tigers won the inaugural Great American Conference championship last year. Ouachita is the only college football program in the state, in fact, with four consecutive winning seasons. Arkansas can’t say that. ASU can’t say that. UCA can’t say that. Ouachita can. The Tigers return the GAC Offensive Player of the Year at quarterback (Casey Cooper), their most talented receiver (Brett Reece) and their best running back (Chris Rycraw). They should score a lot of points. But the secondary was suspect from start to finish last year and must go up against a Northwestern Oklahoma quarterback who passed for more than 2,000 yards in 2011. Ouachita was 7-3 last season. Northwestern was 4-6.
Henderson 42, Southern Nazarene 30 — The Reddies are the preseason favorites in the GAC as determined by a vote of league coaches. Southern Nazarene, which went 9-3 last year, is an NAIA team that’s hoping to move up to NCAA Division II and became a GAC member. Southern Nazarene lost a quarterback who threw for 2,988 yards last year and doesn’t have enough firepower returning to upset the Reddies.
Arkansas 50, Jacksonville State 28 — Warm up against Jacksonville State in Fayetteville this Saturday. Continue to improve against Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock next Saturday. Don’t get anyone hurt. Get ready for Alabama on Sept. 15. That’s the recipe for Arkansas. By the way, Louisiana-Monroe returned a large portion of its allotment for the Little Rock game and tickets are available for the Sept. 8 contest at War Memorial Stadium. It’s a good chance to take some kids to see the Hogs without having to make a foundation donation.
Oregon 49, Arkansas State 29 — If Malzahn indeed stays around and resists the temptation of being a head coach in a BCS conference, he will build ASU to a level it has never seen before. Just give him time. Red Wolf quarterback Ryan Aplin will have some success against Oregon early, but it will be a long night for the ASU defense. This game will end at about 1 a.m. Arkansas time, so don’t plan on getting up early Sunday if you’re going to watch it all.
Ole Miss 31, UCA 21 — Let’s tell it like it is. Houston Nutt didn’t leave much talent behind. Ole Miss is 1-15 in Southeastern Conference games the past two years, including a 14-game conference losing streak dating back to a 42-35 win against Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2010. Freeze was 10-2 last year at Arkansas State, but he will find the going rough in Oxford. UCA returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that went 9-4 overall and 6-1 in the Southland Conference last year. The Bears made their first FCS playoff appearance, winning at Tennessee Tech and then losing at Montana. As noted, they’ll hang around for at least three quarters in Oxford, making the refugees from The Grove nervous in the process.
UAPB 31, Langston 27 — The Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium always draws a good crowd, and fans are anxious to see if Monte Coleman’s fifth UAPB team can improve on last season’s 6-5 record. The Golden Lions are an NCAA FCS team. Langston is an NAIA team. But Langston has upset the Lions before. On paper, this appears to be Coleman’s most talented team at UAPB, where his overall record is 19-25.
UAM 59, College of Faith 9 — What on earth is College of Faith? Best I can tell, it’s a tiny Bible school with addresses in both West Memphis and Memphis operated by something called Total Change of Heart Ministries. They might have a change of heart about playing college football after this. Let’s face it. This is like playing an intramural team for the Boll Weevils. The only goal is not to get anyone hurt on Saturday night in Monticello.
Arkansas Tech 37, Bacone College 18 — While NCAA football starts tonight, some NAIA schools played last week. Bacone College beat the Tabor College Blue Jays out of Kansas, 25-20, last Saturday night in Muskogee. You’re excused if you missed that score. Playing an NAIA school will be a nice way for Tech to ease into the 2012 season after going 2-8 a year ago. The Wonder Boys were in the NCAA Division II playoffs just three years ago. Coming off the worst season since 1993, Tech has a new quarterback and a new defensive coordinator. A Sept. 15 showdown with Henderson looms large.