The college football season is off and running.
The John L. Smith era at the University of Arkansas began with fans grumbling about the defense, but what a difference two decades makes.
Consider this: Twenty years ago, Arkansas lost its opener in Fayetteville on Labor Day weekend to The Citadel, and Jack Crowe was fired the next day as head coach.
The attendance at the game was 35,868.
Now, Arkansas is 1-0 and in the Top 10. Attendance on Saturday against Crowe’s Jacksonville State team was 71,062.
So attendance for a first game on Labor Day weekend has doubled in two decades. It shows how college football has grown as a business since the early 1990s.
With that growth, however, comes donor expectations and increased pressure on head coaches. Smith is no rookie. He understands that his team is expected to show improvement on defense and win easily Saturday night in Little Rock against Louisiana-Monroe.
Arkansas had 564 yards of offense and 25 first downs in its 49-24 victory over Jacksonville State. But the Gamecocks also had some offensive success with 322 yards of offense and 20 first downs. Tyler Wilson was as good as expected at quarterback for Arkansas, going 19 of 27 through the air for 367 yards and three touchdowns. He set the school record for passing yards in a season opener.
It’s interesting to note that the last Razorback head coach to lose his opener was the man who fired Crowe, Frank Broyles, in 1958. Broyles’ Razorbacks fell to Baylor, 12-0.
On the West Coast, meanwhile, it was baptism by fire for Arkansas State University’s Gus Malzahn in his first game as a college head coach. Oregon had a 50-3 lead before the Red Wolves knew what hit.
ASU gave up 424 yards of offense in the first half.
The Red Wolves narrowed the final margin to 23 points at 57-34 after Oregon put in the subs. ASU’s defense returns just three starters from last season, and it showed.
Things should get much easier this week for the home opener in Jonesboro against a Memphis team that’s FBS in name only. The Tigers are really, really bad.
I was in Oxford last Saturday night and saw UCA play well for three quarters against Ole Miss before being overwhelmed at the end. It was quiet in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at halftime as the Bears led by six points, 20-14.
Wynrick Smothers is the real deal at quarterback for UCA. He was 25 of 32 passing for 247 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears finished the night with 347 yards of offense.
UCA’s opponent this week, Murray State, was taking a much worse beating at Florida State last Saturday.
We were 8-0 on picks in Week 1.
Let’s get to Week 2:
Arkansas 44, Louisiana Monroe 17 — The recipe is the same as it was going into the first game of the season — record a solid victory, rest the starters in the second half, don’t get anybody hurt, get ready for Alabama. The players should try to have some fun Saturday night at War Memorial Stadium. Based on Alabama’s opening-game performance against Michigan, the afternoon of Sept. 15 in Fayetteville might not be much fun at all.
Arkansas State 37, Memphis 19 — An FBS team such as Memphis has no business losing at home to Tennessee-Martin. Should they not just drop football at Memphis and concentrate on basketball, something they know a little something about? John Thompson’s young Red Wolf defense will give up points. But the ASU offense — which finished with 540 yards against Oregon — should score plenty of points of its own in front of what’s expected to be a big crowd in Jonesboro.
UCA 24, Murray State 22 — The Racers opened their 88th season of football last Saturday with a 69-3 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee. Murray State does have a quarterback, Casey Brockman, who’s one of the 20 players on the Walter Payton Award watch list. He threw for 3,276 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Coach Chris Hatcher has produced winning records in each of his first two years at Murray State. After seeing the Bears last weekend, we’ll go with UCA in a close road victory.
Missouri S&T 17, Arkansas Tech 15 — In the lone Thursday night game involving an Arkansas team, the Wonder Boys host a squad out of Rolla, Mo., that rolled up a 55-14 win over Oklahoma Panhandle State in Week 1. Tech won its opener, 16-14, against Bacone College, an NAIA school out of Oklahoma. The Wonder Boys should be much improved from the team that went 2-8 a year ago. Missouri S&T is picked to finish third in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Miners were 6-5 in 2011 and have 21 seniors on the roster.
Alabama A&M 27, UAPB 20 — As we noted last week, on paper this looks to be Monte Coleman’s most talented team at UAPB. But the FCS Golden Lions struggled to beat an NAIA team, Langston, last Saturday in the Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium. At least they didn’t lose to Langston like last year. UAPB recovered a fumble late, and junior college transfer Tyler Strickland kicked a 27-yard field goal as time expired to give the Golden Lions a 17-14 victory. It was UAPB’s first win in a season opener since 2004. Alabama A&M went 8-4 a year ago, losing by a point to Grambling in the SWAC championship game at Legion Field in Birmingham. A&M was back at Legion Field for the 2012 opener, defeating in-state rival Tuskegee, 7-6.
Henderson 47, McKendree 18 — The Reddies are loaded. They opened the season with a 63-21 win over Southern Nazarene. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Rodgers was 22 of 30 passing for 360 yards as Henderson scored on five of its first six drives. The Reddies finished the game with 564 yards of offense. McKendree, which is in Illinois, lost its opener, 23-13, to Tiffin University of Ohio. Making the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II, McKendree was 2-8 last season. The Bearcats are picked to finish sixth out of nine teams in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
Ouachita 39, Stillman 28 — Ouachita was as impressive in Week 1 as its crosstown rival, posting a 55-3 win over Northwestern Oklahoma, a future Great American Conference opponent. The Tigers lost 2011 GAC Offensive Player of the Year Casey Cooper to a knee injury on the first drive, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Benson Jordan from Lake Hamilton (grandson of the late Hall of Famer Buddy Benson) came in to complete 11 of his 15 passes for 186 yards. Ouachita outgained the Rangers 454-114. Stillman, an HBCU in Tuscaloosa, came from behind to defeat Central State of Ohio in its opener. Yes, Ouachita finds itself playing in Tuscaloosa on the same day as a Crimson Tide home game. Expect traffic jams.
Southern Arkansas 40, Texas College 10 — The Muleriders start the season a week later than most college teams. They’ll play on a high school field in Tyler, Texas, against the always-awful Steers of Texas College. It will be the third game of the season for Texas College, which already has lost 46-10 to the University of Saint Francis from Indiana and 19-12 to the University of the Incarnate Word from San Antonio.
North Alabama 30, Harding 21 — The Bisons also start the season a week late. Unfortunately, they don’t get to start against Texas College. Instead, Harding must go on the road to play former Gulf South Conference opponent North Alabama. Coach Terry Bowden — known locally around Alabama as Tater Tot — has departed North Alabama to coach the Akron Zips. Bobby Wallace, who led North Alabama to three consecutive national titles in the 1990s before going to Temple, has come out of retirement to coach the Lions. Wallace’s teams went 41-1 at the Florence school from 1993-95, making him the first college coach to win 40 games or more in three seasons. The Lions struggled last week in a 31-30 road win in Birmingham against Miles College, but North Alabama hasn’t lost a regular-season game to a non-GSC school since Aug. 29, 2002. The last time the Lions lost a regular-season home game to a non-GSC school was 1999.
Northwestern State 36, UAM 14 — What a difference a week makes. Last weekend, Northwestern was playing Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech Red Raiders, losing 44-6 in Lubbock. The Demons host UAM on Saturday. Last week, UAM was playing what was basically an intramural team, a largely online school from Memphis called College of Faith. It happens to field a football team. The Weevils won, 78-0. It’s hard to believe they’re allowed to count it as a varsity game, but so be it. UAM is 1-0, Northwestern is 0-1. Expect both teams to be 1-1 after this week.