It’s football time in Arkansas.
The University of Arkansas Razorbacks will open the season on what looks to be a wet Thursday night in Little Rock with a glorified scrimmage against a 1-0 Florida A&M squad that can’t even afford to fly to the capital city. The Rattlers will make the long trip by bus.
Conspiracy theorists claim that the Thursday night slot against a no-name opponent is the university’s way of ensuring that the stadium isn’t sold out. When the current contract between the university and War Memorial Stadium ends next year (the Razorbacks are obligated to play a Southeastern Conference opponent in Little Rock in 2018), the conspiracy theorists contend that athletic department officials will point to empty seats in Little Rock as one reason for not signing a new contract.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories.
Or do I?
Let’s get to the picks:
Arkansas 44, Florida A&M 9 — We finally get to see the 3-4 Razorback defensive scheme that has been implemented by the new defensive coordinator, Paul Rhoads. On offense, if things go as planned, we likely will only see senior quarterback Austin Allen play for a half. Allen led the Southeastern Conference with 3,430 passing yards and threw 25 touchdown passes last season. The seat has warmed a bit for Coach Bret Bielema, who is 25-26 as the head Hog. The natives are restless following a 7-6 season in which Arkansas was outscored 56-0 in the second half of its final two games — at Missouri and in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech. Arkansas has yet to win an SEC championship as it enters its 26th season in the conference. Don’t expect this to be the breakthrough year, though it’s going to be hard to tell much until next week’s CBS game against TCU in Fayetteville.
Nebraska 30, Arkansas State 20 — Look for the Red Wolves to hang around for at least three quarters in Lincoln on Saturday night. “We truly want to bring that signature victory, that signature season to Jonesboro,” Coach Blake Anderson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “We love winning conference titles, and we want to continue to do that. But we want to take that next step.” Upsetting the Cornhuskers would be a huge next step. ASU has won four Sun Belt Conference championships in the past five seasons. The Red Wolves were 8-5 overall and 7-1 in conference play a year ago, winning seven of their final eight games following an 0-4 start.
Kansas State 35, UCA 21 — The Bears return eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters from a team that finished the 2016 season with records of 10-3 overall and 8-1 in the Southland Conference. UCA is ranked 15th in the FCS preseason coaches’ poll. Four of last year’s starting five offensive linemen are back, as is leading running back Carlos Blackmon. The Bears are usually competitive in the money games (they defeated Arkansas State, 28-23, last year in Jonesboro), and they’ll be competitive again Saturday night at Kansas State.
UAPB 19, Morehouse 12 — It has been rough for Monte Coleman’s program at UAPB since the Golden Lions won the SWAC championship in 2012. UAPB is 9-35 since that time, and Coleman is now 19-62 as head coach. The Golden Lions were 1-10 a year ago, defeating only Alcorn State. Seven offensive and eight defensive starters are back from that team. Given the number of starters returning and the weakness of the opponent, we’ll give the nod to the Golden Lions in the season opener at Pine Bluff on Saturday night.
Henderson 31, Harding 29 — This Thursday night game in Searcy should be a dandy. Harding went 11-0 in the regular season last year (the Bisons finished 13-1 overall) and won its first Great American Conference championship. Henderson had won three of the previous five GAC titles (Ouachita won the other two). The Reddies were 8-3 last year but return far more starters than Harding. The GAC coaches’ preseason poll had Harding second and Henderson third. In addition to a number of new starters, Harding has a new head coach in Paul Simmons, who had been the defensive coordinator since 2010. Expect it to take a few weeks before new starting quarterback Terrence Dingle has the Bisons’ Flexbone offense clicking on all cylinders.
Arkansas Tech 24, Southern Arkansas 23 — This is our upset special for Week 1. All signs points to a stellar season for the Muleriders. Southern Arkansas returns nine starters on defense and eight starters on offense. Quarterback Barrett Renner, who led the GAC in passing with 3,371 yards, is back. Running back Michael Nunnery, who had 1,110 yards rushing, is back. Leading tackler Elgin Moore is back. SAU was 9-3 last season. Arkansas Tech was 6-5. The coaches have Southern Arkansas picked to win the GAC. They have Tech picked sixth. Since Bill Keopple has been the Southern Arkansas head coach, the Muleriders are 0-4 in Russellville. And Thursday night’s game is in Russellville.
Ouachita 37, Northwestern Oklahoma 26 — The Tigers open their season at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia against a Northwestern Oklahoma team that finished 4-7. Ouachita finished 7-4 — including a victory at Henderson in the Battle of the Ravine to close the season — despite losing its starting quarterback, its top three running backs, its best wide receiver and two starters in the secondary to injuries. Quarterback Austin Warford out of Malvern, who missed the second half of the 2016 season, is back for his senior year. Ouachita has nine consecutive winning seasons, the most of any college program at any level in the state. The coaches picked Ouachita fourth and Northwestern Oklahoma ninth out of 12 GAC teams in the preseason poll.
Southwestern Oklahoma 39, UAM 36 — The Boll Weevils, who finished with a record of 4-7 a year ago, open the season at home in Monticello on Saturday night. Southwestern Oklahoma was 5-6 in 2016. The coaches picked Southwestern to finish seventh and the Boll Weevils to finish eighth. It should be a competitive game between two programs seeking to move into the GAC’s top tier.