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College football: Week 1

So what to make of these Razorbacks of 2016?

Bret Bielema, a man for whom the glass is always half full, enters his fourth season at the University of Arkansas thinking the Hogs have a chance to be in the running late in the season for an SEC championship.

Senior leadership is important in college football, and Bielema is a believer in this senior class. The captains are Dan Skipper, Kody Walker, Brooks Ellis and Deatrich Wise.

“One thing that’s very apparent with this team is we have great senior leadership,” Bielema says. “I don’t think I’ve ever, going into my 11th year as a head coach, been blessed to literally have a senior at every position. … They’re great role models, leaders and players.”

Redshirt junior Austin Allen is, of course, untested at quarterback but reportedly has looked good in preseason drills.

Enough of the preseason talk. It’s time to suit up and see how this edition of the Razorbacks looks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on what should be a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 1:

Arkansas 40, Louisiana Tech 29 — Tech should provide a decent test for this Arkansas team even though the Bulldogs return just three starters on defense and six on offense from a team that went 9-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA last season. Coach Skip Holtz is 22-17 in his three seasons at Ruston. A major weapon is senior wide receiver Trent Taylor, who had 99 catches for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Those who have departed include tailback Kenneth Dixon from Strong, quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. A media panel picked the Bulldogs to finish second in Conference USA West. Tech is one of just 18 FBS programs to win nine or more games in each of the past two seasons.

Toledo 34, Arkansas State 31 — Razorback fans remember Toledo all too well. That’s the school that shocked Arkansas, 16-12, on Sept. 12 of last year at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Two weeks later, Toledo easily disposed of Arkansas State, 37-7. The Rockets have a new head coach in Jason Candle, who had been an assistant at the school since 2009. Toledo was 10-2 in 2015, its sixth consecutive winning season. This is a rare Friday night game (I hate Friday night college football since it infringes on the high school game, but television now calls the shots) in Jonesboro. It will be the third game between the two schools in the past three seasons. The Rockets also defeated Arkansas State in January 2015 (63-44) in the GoDaddy Bowl. On offense, the Rockets return two All-MAC running backs, senior Kareem Hunt and junior Terry Swanson. Blake Anderson is 16-10 in two years at ASU, including a 9-4 record last year when the Red Wolves went to the New Orleans Bowl (and fell 47-28 to Louisiana Tech). ASU lost key skilled position players. The Red Wolves likely will play both Chad Voytik and Justice Hansen at quarterback Friday.

UCA 28, Houston Baptist 17 — The Bears open at home Thursday. UCA finished 7-4 a year ago, making Steve Campbell 13-10 in his two years as the head coach. Five starters return on defense, and four starters return on offense. Houston Baptist was 2-9 last season and 0-8 in the Southland Conference. The Bears won last year’s meeting in Houston, 43-7, and should be able to roll to victory again Thursday on the stripes in Conway despite having a young team. Campbell says several new assistant coaches have infused a sense of energy into the program. It probably won’t be enough for a conference championship given the number of first-time starters, but the Bears appear poised for another winning season.

Tennessee State 19, UAPB 16 — Two teams that struggled a year ago square off in Nashville on Saturday. UAPB was 2-9 overall and 1-8 in the SWAC last year. Tennessee State finished the season 4-6. The Golden Lions have had three consecutive losing seasons. UAPB won a SWAC title in 2012 but has gone 8-25 since then. Head coach Monte Coleman added four new coaches to his staff in an attempt to address the problems. Last year, UAPB averaged just 19.5 points per game. That ranked ninth in the conference and 93rd nationally. We’ll give a slight edge to the home team in what should be a close game.

Ouachita 30, East Central Oklahoma 22 — Ouachita has had eight consecutive winning seasons, the most of any college program in the state. The Tigers were 10-0 in the regular season two years ago en route to a Great American Conference championship but fell to 7-4 last year. There are, however, 17 starters returning. A key to the season will be how junior Austin Warford out of Malvern performs at quarterback in his second season as a starter. East Central always plays Ouachita tough, and Thursday night’s game at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia should be no exception. East Central finished 6-5 last year, including a 31-24 loss to Ouachita in the season opener at Ada.

Henderson 41, Southeastern Oklahoma 27 — The Reddies also open at home in Arkadelphia on Thursday night. Henderson has won three of the past four GAC titles and is favored by most people to win the conference again this year. The Reddies were 11-2 in 2015 and won an NCAA Division II playoff game for the first time. There are six All-GAC performers returning. Among that group is JaQuan Cole, who led the GAC in rushing last year with 1,189 yards. There also are four offensive linemen returning to block for Cole. Southeastern Oklahoma was 6-5 last season.

Arkansas Tech 44, Southern Nazarene 21 — Arkansas Tech was 9-3 last year, including a victory over Eastern New Mexico in the Heart of Texas Bowl. It was the Wonder Boys’ best record since 2009, but Tech must find a way to replace quarterback Arsenio Favor and defensive standout Logan Genz. Still, the Wonder Boys should start the season 3-0 with the first three opponents being Southern Nazarene, Oklahoma Baptist and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Southern Nazarene, which comes to Russellville on Thursday night, was 1-10 in 2015.

Southwestern Oklahoma 35, Southern Arkansas 33 — This could be the best of the GAC games in the first week of the season as the Muleriders make the long trip to Weatherford, Okla., for a Thursday night game. Southern Arkansas returns 15 starters from a 7-4 team. Quarterback Barrett Renner was a first team all-conference selection as just a freshman, passing for 3,333 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also has four of his top five receivers returning. Renner set team records for passing attempts, pass completions, touchdowns and total yards in a season. Southwestern Oklahoma was 8-3 a year ago and has high expectations for this season. We’ll give the edge to the home team in a game that could easily go either way.

Northwestern Oklahoma 25, UAM 23 — Again, let’s give a small edge to the home team. This is a battle between programs that struggled a year ago. Northwestern Oklahoma was 3-8, and UAM was 1-10. The Boll Weevils have won just three games the past two seasons.

Harding 50, Oklahoma Baptist 20 — The Bisons were 7-4 in 2015 following three consecutive 9-2 seasons. Harding has a 75.5 winning percentage in GAC games since the conference was formed in 2011 and expects to be strong again in the final season for head coach Ronnie Huckeba, who became an assistant at the school in 1986. Oklahoma Baptist finished 2-9 last year as it struggled to make the move up from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. Harding returns its quarterback and top two running backs from a team that averaged 377 yards per game rushing in 2015. Harding should have no problem in Searcy on Saturday night against Oklahoma Baptist.

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