Here we go.
Labor Day weekend approaches, and that always meant three things when I was growing up in southwest Arkansas: My birthday was coming up (it falls on the day after Labor Day this year), dove season was about to start (Saturday, Sept. 6, this year) and college football season was beginning.
I love this time of year.
Once more I’ll make predictions for all of the NCAA Division I and Division II schools in the state.
The Division II schools don’t get started until next week, but the four Division I programs kick off their seasons Saturday.
Arkansas travels to Auburn to play an afternoon game on the plains of Alabama. After launching the new SEC Network’s extensive schedule of games on Thursday night with Texas A&M at South Carolina, the No. 1 crew of Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer will be in Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday’s game.
Meanwhile, Arkansas State unveils its new video board in Jonesboro with a game against traditional FCS power Montana State.
UCA begins the Steve Campbell era with a trip to west Texas to take on Texas Tech.
And UAPB travels to the hills of central Texas to take on Texas State, coached by Dennis Franchione.
I’ll try to attend all or parts of 17 to 18 college football games this year. I say “parts of” since there are several Saturdays when I’ll broadcast a Ouachita game in Arkadelphia and then rush across the street to catch the second half of a Henderson game. Those are golden Saturdays: Tigers, Reddies and steak night at Fat Boys in Caddo Valley all on the same day. I make it a point each season of seeing as many of the Arkansas schools as possible. This Saturday will take me to Jonesboro, where excitement is high following the announcement this week of Johnny Allison’s $5 million gift. The money will go toward a new press box and private suites. Even with the fifth head coach in as many years, the perception still is that this is a program on the way up.
For the first time since 1980, Arkansas opens a season with a conference game. That brings back a lot of memories.
ABC moved up the Arkansas-Texas game in Austin to the evening of Labor Day that year. Wally Hall and I decided to make a Texas road trip in my Olds Cutlass. Wally was not yet the sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat, but he was the lead sports columnist. I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. We covered a Dallas Cowboys preseason game in Irving on Saturday night. We headed to Austin on Sunday, in plenty of time for Mexican food at Matt’s El Rancho. We covered the Arkansas-Texas game on Monday.
I was even cursed by Jones Ramsey, the legendary Texas sports information director. Ramsey was the man who once uttered the famous quote: “The only thing worse than track is field.” And this one: “There are only two sports in Texas. Football and spring football.”
Long after the game had concluded, I noticed a typed sheet of seating assignments taped to the wall of the press box. I wanted to write a column about how writers had come from across the country to cover the game. I figured no one would have use for that sheet. I could take it back home to Arkansas for reference. Ramsey saw me and let me know — in no uncertain terms — that he saved the seating charts from past games.
It’s hard to believe it has been 34 years. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Enough ancient history. On to the picks for Week 1 of the 2014 season:
Auburn 29, Arkansas 17 — Thank goodness they’re actually playing a game. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love college football, but my interests are just too broad to listen to radio talk shows in April, May, June and July with people calling up day after day to ask: “How do you think the Hogs are going to do?” I don’t know how the hosts do it. Now we have an actual game to play, a conference game at that. Will the Gus Malzahn magic continue in 2014? It’s hard to believe that anyone could repeat that kind of season. Once August hit and I decided it was time to get fired up for football, I went to the computer and listened to Auburn play-by-play man Rod Bramblett’s call of the late scoring play against Georgia and the final play of the Iron Bowl. If those calls don’t excite you, you just don’t love college football (or you’re a Georgia or Alabama fan). Yes, I think Arkansas will be better. It’s hard to be worse than 0-8 in the SEC, isn’t it? And, yes, I think Brandon Allen will be improved at quarterback. Let’s rally ’round the old burning truck and say that Arkansas hangs around for at least three quarters Saturday afternoon before being worn down by a team with superior talent and depth.
Arkansas State 39, Montana State 24 — ASU opened the season last year with a 62-11 victory over UAPB in Jonesboro. This won’t be the same type of game. At No. 19 nationally, Montana State is one of four Big Sky Conference schools in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll. Montana State has been nationally ranked for 61 consecutive weeks. Coach Rob Ash is a legend in Montana. He is 233-126-5 in 34 seasons overall as a head coach and 57-27 at Montana State. Due to a massive buyout provision in his contract, it certainly seems as if Blake Anderson will be the head coach at ASU for more than one season. The school is making all the right moves to keep him around. The 39,000-square-foot addition to the stadium will cost more than $15 million and include not only a new press box but also 18 private suites and 300 club seats. As noted, a new video board debuts Saturday. An indoor practice facility is being built. And ASU officials still say that a $28 million football operations center is in the works. ASU fans also were excited when athletic director Terry Mohajir announced this week that Missouri will be coming to Jonesboro next year rather than playing the game at a neutral side — Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Texas Tech 42, UCA 21 — The Bears’ new coach has won national titles at the junior college and the NCAA Division II levels. Now we’ll see what he can do at the FCS level. Clint Conque has moved on to the Piney Woods of east Texas as the head coach at conference foe Stephen F. Austin, and Steve Campbell has moved north from south Mississippi to Conway. The Bears were picked fourth in the preseason Southland Conference polls. The Red Raiders enter their second season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Texas Tech jumped out to a 7-0 start in 2013 and moved to No. 9 in the USA Today coaches’ poll on Oct. 27. They faded down the stretch, though, and finished with an 8-5 record. They were 4-5 in Big 12 play but ended the season on a high note with a 37-23 win over No. 16 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. The Red Raiders enter the 2014 season unranked for a sixth consecutive year.
Texas State 40, UAPB 19 — The Golden Lions won’t take the beating they suffered in the opener at Jonesboro last year, but it probably won’t be pretty. Texas State begins its second season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference and is playing an FBS schedule for a third year. Texas State beat Houston in the season opener in 2012 and defeated Southern Mississippi in the season opener last year. Franchione is in the fourth season of his second term as the Bobcats’ head coach. He’s 29-29 at Texas State and 203-121-2 as a head coach, a career that has included stops at Alabama and Texas A&M. His new defensive coordinator is Forrest City native John Thompson, who was not retained by Anderson at Arkansas State despite the fact that Thompson is 2-0 in bowl games as the Red Wolves’ interim head coach.