With only three of the college football programs in the state playing last fall, we didn’t bother with predictions.
The pandemic isn’t whipped yet, but all four NCAA Division I programs and all six NCAA Division II programs are back in action, starting this week. Thus the weekly predictions are back for all 10 of those teams.
There’s just not enough time unfortunately to properly educate ourselves on the NCAA Division III and NAIA ranks, so we won’t include those schools.
Most Arkansans will have their eyes on Fayetteville and the Razorback opener against Rice. The Owls, a conference opponent for decades in the Southwest Conference era, now reside in Conference USA and were 2-3 in last fall’s shortened season. Mike Bloomgren has a record of 7-23 in three seasons at the school.
Marques Tuiasosopo has instituted a version of the West Coast offense in his first year as offensive coordinator at Rice. Arkansas has superior talent and should pull away in the second half on a hot afternoon at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Arkansas State’s Saturday night game against UCA in Jonesboro could be interesting. UAPB also opens at home on Saturday night.
Five of the state’s six teams in the Great American Conference (where all 11 games are conference affairs) open Thursday night. Harding, meanwhile, opens at home on Saturday evening.
Let’s get to the picks:
Arkansas 42, Rice 20 — The Razorbacks were 3-7 last year, and that’s considered improvement in this dark era of Arkansas football. Coach Sam Pittman is feeling optimistic in his second year at the helm. He says: “I love the team. I think they’re hungry. We’re a chip-on-the-shoulder, tough, proud, team.” The players have indeed been engaged during preseason practices. But the sobering stat is that Arkansas has twice as many last-place finishes in the SEC West (six) as it does top three finishes during the past 14 years. Rice might hang around for a half, but the talent deficit will show in the second half as the heat takes its toll on the Owls.
Arkansas State 38, UCA 23 — The Butch Jones era begins in Jonesboro with more than 50 newcomers on the roster. Quarterback Logan Bonner followed former head coach Blake Anderson to Utah State, leaving Little Rock’s Layne Hatcher as the lone experienced quarterback in camp. Jones, a former SEC head man, is 84-54 in 11 years as a head coach at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee. He spent the past three seasons on the Alabama staff. Much like Rice in Fayetteville, expect the FCS Bears to hang around for at least a half before the Red Wolves’ superior depth allows them to pull away at the end.
UAPB 39, Lane 15 — In a shortened spring schedule, the Golden Lions won the SWAC West Division title. Doc Gamble appears to be the right man at the right time in Pine Bluff. The Golden Lions return 19 starters, including junior quarterback Skyler Perry, who passed for 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns in the spring. He also rushed for 215 yards in just five games as the Golden Lions went 4-1. Tiny Lane shouldn’t provide much of a problem. The second game (at UCA on Sept. 18) will be the real measuring stick to see how far this UAPB program has come.
Ouachita 31, Oklahoma Baptist 19 — Division II schools haven’t played since 2019 so there are a lot of unknowns at all 12 (six in Arkansas and six in Oklahoma) GAC schools. Ouachita has won the past three GAC titles and enters the season with a 27-game conference winning streak, one of the longest at any level of college football. The Tigers will get a strong challenge at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia on Thursday night from Oklahoma Baptist, which appears to be the most talented of the six Oklahoma teams. Oklahoma Baptist quarterback Preston Haire was the 2019 GAC offensive player of the year. He completed 255 of 402 passes for more than 3,000 yards.
Henderson 27, Southwestern Oklahoma 17 — The Reddies were 9-2 in 2019, losing by a total of four points to Ouachita and Harding. Henderson was picked third in the GAC coaches’ preseason poll behind Ouachita and Harding. Southwestern Oklahoma was picked 10th. Henderson must make the long trip to Weatherford, Okla., on Thursday, but that shouldn’t matter due to the Reddies’ depth and talent. The Bulldogs return only seven starters.
UAM 25, Southern Nazarene 22 — The UAM program has struggled for years, but the Boll Weevils managed to go 5-6 in 2019, including a 4-1 record at home. And they’re at home on Thursday night. UAM was picked seventh in the preseason poll and Southern Nazarene was picked last out of 12 teams. Nazarene has a new coach in Dustin Hada, and little is known about the Crimson Storm. The Boll Weevils return quarterback Demilon Brown and running back Devontae Dean from 2019. Brown was the GAC freshman of the year after leading the Boll Weevils in passing and rushing.
Southern Arkansas 33, Northwestern Oklahoma 30 — The Muleriders have a new head coach in Mike McCarty. He has eight starters and 28 lettermen back from a team that was 8-4 in 2019. The returners include quarterback Hayden Mallory, who passed for almost 2,500 yards and 20 touchdowns. Northwestern was 4-7 in 2019. The Rangers have 14 returning starters. The GAC preseason poll had the Muleriders fifth and the Rangers ninth. Thursday night’s game is at Northwestern.
Arkansas Tech 26, Southeastern Oklahoma 16 — The Wonder Boys were eighth in the preseason poll while Southeastern was next-to-last at 11th. The Savage Storm went 1-10 in 2019. Sixteen starters return from that team. Tech boasts a number of Division I transfers, including Arkansas transfer Jack Lindsey at quarterback. Running back Caleb Batie returns from 2019. He led the team in rushing with 620 yards and five touchdowns. There are six returning starters on defense. The game is in Russellville on Thursday night.
Harding 44, East Central Oklahoma 21 — Harding was second in the preseason poll and East Central was sixth. Harding went 10-2 in 2019, advancing to the NCAA Division II playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. The Bisons’ flexbone offense led Division II in rushing two years ago with an average of 373.6 yards per game. Eight starters return off that offense, including quarterback Preston Paden and running backs Cole Chancey and Taylor Bissell. The Bisons should have no trouble scoring points against East Central in Searcy on Saturday night.