College football: Week 1

Another college football season has arrived.

Thank goodness.

In Fayetteville on what promises to be a sultry Saturday afternoon, more than 70,000 Arkansas fans will witness the debut of a new head coach along with tens of millions of dollars in stadium improvements.

In Jonesboro on Saturday night, Arkansas State will have the same head coach to go along with high expectations. There also have been stadium renovations there.

In Pine Bluff on Saturday night, the Golden Lions will have a new head coach along with stadium improvements at what’s now Simmons Bank Field.

UCA goes on the road to Tulsa with its new head coach.

If you’re doing the math, that’s rookie head coaches at three of the state’s four NCAA Division I schools and major stadium improvements at three of those four schools.

At the Division II level, all games for the 12 teams (six of them from Arkansas) in the Great American Conference are conference games. A bad start can doom you (ask Harding, which didn’t win the conference last year despite an 11-game winning streak). So teams need to start strong. There are two big games right off the bat Thursday night as Harding goes to Arkadelphia to take on Henderson while Arkansas Tech visits Magnolia to battle Southern Arkansas.

Here are the picks for the first week:

Arkansas 47, Eastern Illinois 19 — Labor Day weekend hasn’t always been kind to Razorback teams. Remember 1992 and The Citadel? Arkansas head coach Chad Morris appears to have said the right things and made the correct moves coming into the season. Of course, it’s easy to be popular when you’re undefeated. Morris, 49, has the ability to strengthen Arkansas’ recruiting ties to Texas since he was a legendary high school coach in that state. But Arkansas fans are going to have to be patient. By SEC West standards, there’s just not a lot of talent in Fayetteville right now. That said, Arkansas should have no problem dispatching Eastern Illinois, which went 6-5 a year ago. An Arkansas coach hasn’t lost his first game since Frank Broyles’ first team dropped a 12-0 decision to Baylor in Little Rock to open the 1958 season.

Arkansas State 34, Southeast Missouri State 13 — The Red Wolves have had winning records in all four years of the Blake Anderson regime, though a 7-5 finish in 2017 was a bit of a disappointment. ASU lost three of its final five games, including a 32-25 home loss to Troy to finish the regular season and a 35-30 loss to Middle Tennessee State in the Camellia Bowl. Quarterback Justice Hansen, the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year, is back. So is a talented group of receivers along with four offensive linemen. Anderson said: “The excitement and anticipation may be higher than it has ever been here.”

Tulsa 31, UCA 27 — The new head Bear at the University of Central Arkansas is Nathan Brown, who was the UCA quarterback from 2005-08. He’s one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. It will be interesting to see if he can keep things going after UCA won the Southland Conference championship in 2017, finished the regular season 10-1 (the only loss was to Kansas State from the Big 12) and made it to the FCS playoffs (where the Bears lost 21-15 to New Hampshire). Coach Steve Campbell then departed for South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference. Tulsa was just 2-10 a year ago and 1-7 in the American Conference. Tulsa is picked to finish last in the conference. Expect UCA to hang around on Saturday and even have a chance to win at the end.

UAPB 18, Morehouse 17 — Yes, it’s an FCS team playing a Division II team. That hasn’t meant much in recent years as UAPB has struggled to an 11-44 record during the past five seasons. New head coach Cedric Thomas, who played at UAPB, left his job as the defensive coordinator at Alcorn State to try to return the Golden Lions to respectability. He doesn’t inherit much talent so fans will need to give him time. Thomas said: “The biggest thing was changing the culture.” That journey continues at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Harding 35, Henderson 24 — The Bisons started the season 0-3 a year ago and then went on an 11-game winning streak that saw them advance to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The folks in Searcy are expecting more good things as Paul Simmons enters his second season as head coach. The Bisons were ranked seventh nationally in one of the preseason NCAA Division II polls. They must take on a Henderson team that struggled to a 6-5 record in 2017. It was an unusual down year for Scott Maxfield’s program, which has taken home three of the first seven GAC championships.

Southern Arkansas 28, Arkansas Tech 22 — These are two quality football teams. Arkansas Tech was 8-3 in the regular season a year ago and needed just one more victory to capture at least a share of the conference title. Southern Arkansas was 7-4. The Muleriders should be able to contend for a GAC championship this year with the return of quarterback Barrett Renner, who was the GAC Offensive Player of the Year last season. SAU also returns the GAC Defensive Player of the Year, Davondrick Lison.

Ouachita 40, Northwestern Oklahoma 33 — Ouachita went 9-2 in the regular season a year ago to win its third outright GAC title in seven years. Ouachita has the most consecutive winning seasons (10) of any college football program in the state and returns talented receivers and running backs such as Drew Harris (who scored seven touchdowns in the Battle of the Ravine against Henderson), Allie Freeman and Kris Oliver. The question mark on offense is at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Braden Brazeal from England takes the reins. The Tigers must make the long trip to Alva, Okla., for a Thursday night game against Northwestern Oklahoma, which finished 5-6 in 2017.

UAM 30, Southwestern Oklahoma 29 — The Boll Weevils finished 5-6 a year ago and look to be improved this season with the return of Cole Sears at quarterback. Sears passed for 2,668 yards and 29 touchdowns last year. UAM head coach Hud Jackson doesn’t hesitate when he says: “I think we’ve got a chance to be good.” Like Ouachita, UAM must make a long trip to west Oklahoma for a Thursday night game.  The opponent is Southwestern Oklahoma, which struggled to a 3-8 record in 2017. UAM, which lost its final three games, was the only one of the six GAC teams from Arkansas to have a losing record last year.

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