It’s the time of year so many of you love.
It’s college football season.
Once again, we’ll be predicting the winners of all of the games involving NCAA Division I and Division II teams in the state.
No need for further introductions. Let’s get right to it:
Arkansas 48, UTEP 19 — The University of Texas at El Paso rolls into Fayetteville for a hot Saturday afternoon contest that likely will see a lot of the fans heading for the exits by the end of the third quarter. Hopes are high in Hogland, and there’s a reason for that. Coach Bret Bielema’s program has shown steady progress. It’s hard to fully comprehend just how bad things were on the Hill when Bielema arrived. Much of the success — or lack thereof — this season will depend on how Brandon Allen performs at quarterback. The term “manage the game” is often used for quarterbacks who aren’t super-talented, and Allen has worn the label “game manager” in recent seasons. It’s high time for him to go from “game manager” to “playmaker.” UTEP improved from 2-10 in 2013 to 7-6 last season. The Miners return a tailback who gained more than 1,000 yards in 2014, but let’s not kid ourselves. This really shouldn’t be a close game. The key for Arkansas in these first two games is to get the starters some solid reps, put points on the board early, let the backups play in the second half and don’t get anyone hurt.
USC 45, Arkansas State 20 — There’s simply no truth to the rumor that anyone who stays until the end of Saturday night’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is invited over to USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s house for drinks afterward. Fans of the Red Wolves are a bit spoiled after successful seasons in the one-year coaching stints of Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. Based on those standards, the first year of the Blake Anderson regime (7-6 overall and 5-3 in the Sun Belt Conference) was a disappointment. ASU had won at least a share of the conference title in 2011, 2012 and 2013. That wasn’t the case last year. With nine starters back on offense and six starters returning on defense, the Red Wolves should contend for a conference title. USC has 16 returning starters, including nine on offense. The quarterback, all five offensive linemen and two top receivers are back for the Trojans. The plan for the Red Wolves this week is to try to hang around for a half, avoid injuries and pick up that big check before flying home to Arkansas.
Samford 24, UCA 21 — Just as Arkansas State was somewhat of a disappointment last year under a first-year head coach, so too was UCA. The Bears finished 6-6 overall and 5-3 in the Southland Conference under head coach Steve Campbell, who replaced Clint Conque when Conque headed to the piney woods of east Texas to coach Stephen F. Austin. Samford (which played Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium a couple of years ago and led in the second half) has a new head coach following the retirement of Pat Sullivan, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn. He’s Chris Hatcher, who has a 121-57 record as a head coach. I covered the Gulf South Conference when Hatcher was at Valdosta State and can tell you that he’s the real deal. He led Valdosta to the NCAA Division II national championship in 2004. UCA will have its work cut out Thursday night in Birmingham.
South Carolina State 29, UAPB 23 — The Golden Lions head to Orlando for a rare Sunday game to open the season against South Carolina State. Monte Coleman is just 35-43 as the head coach at UAPB, and there’s pressure to improve on last year’s 4-7 record. The Golden Lions are a veteran team, returning nine offensive and eight defensive starters. South Carolina State, which has had a football program since 1907, has a rich tradition. The school has posted a record of 436-268-28 through the years. Buddy Pugh is 105-47 in his 13 years as the head coach. The Bulldogs were 8-4 last season and tied for the MEAC championship with a 6-2 record. South Carolina State returns nine offensive and eight defensive starters.
Ouachita 28, East Central Oklahoma 27 — It was a dream season in 2014 for Ouachita, which went undefeated in the regular season before losing in overtime in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Tigers had a former Southeastern Conference starter at quarterback — Auburn transfer Kiehl Frazier. Redshirt sophomore Austin Warford from Malvern will get the start on Thursday night in Ada, Okla., and this season will rest on how well he can fill Frazier’s big shoes. The Tigers have a solid offensive line, two quality running backs (Chris Oliver from Arkadelphia and Brandon Marks from Prescott) and two of their top receivers returning. East Central is probably the best of the six Oklahoma teams in the Great American Conference. Don’t necessarily be surprised if East Central pulls the upset in Ada on Thursday night against a Ouachita program that has posted seven consecutive winning seasons (the most of any college football program in Arkansas).
Henderson 36, Southeastern Oklahoma 33 — It’s the post-Kevin Rodgers era at Henderson. Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play at the Division II level in Arkansas, led the Reddies to 30 victories the past three seasons along with GAC championships in 2012 and 2013. His replacement, Dallas Hardison, is a winner. Hardison was 25-1 as a starter at Bentonville High School. The Reddies were 9-2 last season (losing to Ouachita and Harding) after undefeated regular seasons in 2012 and 2013. Scott Maxfield (69-38 in a decade as Henderson’s head coach) said: “Around here, we’re not satisfied with 9-2.” Durant, Okla., is not an easy place to win, and that’s where the Reddies must go Thursday. Armo Wood, who covers the Great American Conference for D2football.com, picked Southeastern to finish second in the conference behind Harding and writes: “This should be the year the Savage Storm finally synchronize their offense and defense and establish themselves as one of the GAC’s top teams.” In other words, the first game of the post-Rodgers era at Henderson could be interesting.
Arkansas Tech 30, Southern Nazarene 12 — Raymond Monica begins the third year of his rebuilding effort at Arkansas Tech with a new offensive coordinator, Brent Dearmon, who was on Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn last year (as an analyst rather than an assistant coach). Dearmon is trying to institute the same high-tempo offense that Auburn uses. Tech was 3-8 last year. The good news is that the opener Thursday is against a team that struggled even more. Southern Nazarene, which is having a difficult time making the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II, finished 0-11 in 2014.
Northwestern Oklahoma 41, UAM 39 — A UAM team that finished 2-8 a year ago takes the field in Monticello on Thursday night against a Northwestern Oklahoma team that finished 3-7. Both programs are seeking an identity. In the middle of last season, Alan Hall resigned as the head coach at Northwestern Oklahoma due to health reasons. Emporia State’s offensive coordinator was hired after the season and most expect the Rangers to be improved. Meanwhile, Hud Jackson continues his rebuilding effort at Monticello, which allowed itself to fall behind the other GAC schools in Arkansas from a facilities standpoint, hampering recruiting.
Harding 51, Oklahoma Baptist 26 — Harding has been a consistent winner in recent seasons. The Bisons were 9-2 in 2014, losing to Ouachita in overtime and then not losing again until the NCAA Division II playoffs. A large number of seniors graduated from that team, but that shouldn’t hamper the Bisons on Saturday as they go on the road to play the GAC’s newest member, Oklahoma Baptist. The move from the NAIA to NCAA Division II isn’t an easy one (just ask Southern Nazarene and Northwestern Oklahoma). Oklahoma Baptist will learn that the hard way on Saturday as it attempts and fails to stop Harding’s option offense. To use the cliché, Harding no longer rebuilds. It just reloads.
Southern Arkansas 32, Southwestern Oklahoma 22 — The Muleriders finished 5-5 a year ago but led in the fourth quarter of three of those five losses. Coach Bill Keopple thinks this has the potential to be his best team yet in Magnolia. The Muleriders open at home Saturday night against Southwestern Oklahoma, which was 3-7 a year ago. If SAU can finish games in the fourth quarter this time around, it might indeed lead to a move to the top tier of the GAC (a tier dominated by Ouachita, Henderson and Harding since the conference began playing football in 2011).