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College football: Week 1

It’s finally here.

I’m talking about football season.

And I’m catching up for lost time.

On Saturday afternoon, my youngest son and I drove over to historic Quigley-Cox Stadium in Little Rock to watch Arkansas Baptist College open its season with a 24-16 loss to Joliet Junior College from Illinois. Despite the defeat, it was evident that the state’s only junior college football program has made vast improvement since starting from scratch in 2007.

Congratulations to Arkansas Baptist president Fitz Hill, athletic director Charles Ripley and head coach Richard Wilson for doing what many said couldn’t be done.

That’s not to mention how good the pork chop sandwich we bought at the concession stand was. I always have my priorities straight.

On Monday, I was among the more than 700 people who listened intently as Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino addressed the season’s first meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club.

What a difference two years makes.

When Petrino addressed the club two years ago, he was wound tight; a bit distracted even.

On Monday, he was loose, funny and fun. It’s clear he likes this team and where his program is headed.

On Monday night, I went out to War Memorial Stadium for parts of two high school football games as Parkview defeated Mills and Pulaski Academy defeated Central Arkansas Christian.

I’ll be back out at the stadium tonight for the second evening of the annual Kickoff Classic. It’s a nice way to start the high school football season.

On Thursday night, I’ll likely catch Henderson against UCA on the new purple-and-gray turf of Estes Stadium in Conway.

On Friday night, it’s back to War Memorial Stadium for the Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant. That will be followed by a quick drive to the KARN studios in order to co-host the high school scoreboard show for another year.

On Saturday, I’m going down to Monticello to watch UAM host Arkansas Tech.

If it all works out, that means I’ll be at games on six of the first eight days of the season. That’s not a bad way to celebrate my birthday week.

For a third consecutive year, I’ll make predictions on this blog each week for all of the college programs in the state.

Here we go with Week 1:

Arkansas 51, Missouri State 17 — The goals for these first three games of the 2011 season are to be 3-0, get the starters at least a half of work each Saturday, get the backups plenty of work and avoid injuries if at all possible. One has to wonder if games against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy will properly prepare the Hogs for their Sept. 24 contest at Alabama. Arkansas and what’s now Missouri State first played in 1911. The schools most recently played each other two years ago. Arkansas has won all six meetings between the two schools — four of them in Fayetteville and two in Little Rock. Enjoy your first tailgate party of the season because the game will be decided well before halftime.

Illinois 36, Arkansas State 22 — Having been in Jonesboro for two days last week, I can tell you that Hugh Freeze has created excitement across northeast Arkansas as the new head man at Arkansas State. When Steve Roberts was the head coach, Arkansas State had a way of playing better than expected in these early season “money games” (just ask Texas A&M). I think the Red Wolves will do the same under Freeze. Ron Zook’s team is pretty good, though. The Illini ended the 2010 season with a 38-14 romp over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Illinois is 51-27-4 when opening the season at home. Look for an Illinois victory — but one that has to be earned — as Zook begins his seventh season at the school.

UCA 38, Henderson 24 — The Bears would be wise not to take the Reddies lightly. Henderson won a share of the Gulf South Conference championship last season. Coach Scott Maxfield has his program at Arkadelphia right where he wants it. As for the Bears, they return 10 offensive and seven defensive starters off a squad that went 7-4 in 2010. If Nathan Dick has a good year at quarterback, UCA should contend for a Southland Conference championship.

UAPB 28, Langston 13 — The Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium is always fun. It’s not Grambling coming to town this year, but the UAPB band will still put on a tremendous show despite not having its biggest “band rival” playing across the way. Whether the football team also puts on a good show is yet to be seen. Monte Coleman has gone 13-20 in three years as the UAPB head coach. The Golden Lions return six offensive and six defensive starters. They should be OK on Saturday as they step down in classification to battle an NAIA school. Langston is coming off a 6-4 campaign in which it missed the NAIA playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

Harding 30, Southern Arkansas 21 — Harding would seem to have the upper hand to start the season even though the Bisons are on the road. Bill Keopple has gone 4-16 in his first two seasons at the helm in Magnolia. The Muleriders are going to be better this year than they were when they went 1-9 in 2010, but it’s likely to be later in the year before the progress is evident. Harding seems poised to make a run for the first Great American Conference championship.

Arkansas Tech 20, UAM 10 — I’ll go with yet another road team as play begins in the new Great American Conference. Tech rarely has a down year under Steve Mullins (who is 89-61 at the school). But last year was one of those down years as the Wonder Boys struggled to a 4-7 record. To add to the frustration, Mullins kicked quarterback Rico Keller off the team at the end of spring practice. UAM, however, has even more of a building job. Hud Jackson, the former UCA assistant, headed south following the resignation of former Boll Weevil head coach Gwaine Matthews. Jackson brought three other former UCA assistants with him. They take over a program with just five returning starters. Seventeen players who participated in spring practice aren’t around due to problems with their grades. Jackson will get this program turned around, but you’ll need to give him two or three years.

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