Every coaching chapter of Arkansas's sometimes-tortured football history has its own wrinkle. The natural progression of things is that an incoming coach is there because the predecessor measurably faltered in some way.
Bret Bielema starts authoring his portion of the anthology Saturday afternoon at Fayetteville against Louisiana-Lafayette, and it's only fitting that he'd start in a season bearing a traditionally hexed number like '13. This columnist projects that the team will fare marginally better than the consensus anticipates, as detailed in prior weeks, but if there's one dominant opinion about this squad, it's that nobody seems to have a grasp on what it will look like.
For those reasons, most generally peg this as a .500 team, give or take a win, but the events of the past year and the seismic shift in coaching philosophies amplifies the conjecture. It's even been awhile since the Razorback program had an opener quite like this one.
Mark Hudspeth quietly surfaced as a candidate for a number of higher-level jobs over the past two seasons based not only on how he shepherded the Ragin' Cajuns to consecutive 9-4 seasons, but also upon an impeccable eight-season run at Division II power North Alabama. Lafayette has won the last two New Orleans Bowls after spending the prior two decades anchored to the bottom rung of FBS football.
And it's no doubt caught Bielema's attention that the Cajuns mounted a fierce challenge to Florida last year at Gainesville. The Gators had a particularly lazy second-half showing in a 27-20 November win that they frankly didn't earn. Tied at 20 in the waning seconds, Will Muschamp called a timeout to force the Cajuns to punt on fourth down, hoping for a special teams spark. His long-odds betting paid off: Loucheiz Purifoy stuffed the kick and Jelani Jenkins came up with a 36-yard scoring return with only two seconds left.
It wasn't a game that caught as much attention as it should have, largely because it happened the same day that Texas A&M rattled the SEC cage with a win at Tuscaloosa. And because Florida was roundly viewed as a bit of a pretender on the national scene last fall, the narrow edge on which the Gators skated against the Cajuns just didn't carry the kind of sex appeal that a Sun Belt-over-SEC team normally would generate (after all, the Hogs' flatlining loss to Louisiana-Monroe two months earlier had pretty much taken the luster off that gem).
But Hudspeth has constructed a viable, rounded team in short order, and his Cajuns have that sour experience juicing them for a possible season-opening upset. You might also recall that Bielema's Wisconsin teams were, from time to time, a little shaky out of the gates against weak foes. So it's not a game that anyone on either side is leaving to chance.
In an immediate departure from the Petrino years, the defense is the unit that will move the Hogs' needle. There is experience there and depth is, by comparison, less of a concern than it has been. With the Cajuns having an electric dual-threat quarterback (Terrance Broadway) and a well-built tailback (Alonzo Harris) to grind up turf, the challenge is readily apparent.
The mystery, then, is whether this offensive unit will be steady on its collective feet against a ULL defense that was far from imposing last fall but did progress nicely over the latter half of the season. Brandon Allen has the reins of the team and is not looking over his shoulder at the departed Brandon Mitchell, but a rash of ailments and defections over the summer left him with few proven targets in the passing game.
This should accordingly present the first of many opportunities for two of the few experienced skill players — Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon — to exhibit a little leadership. Last year, even with Cobi Hamilton still logging most of the labor at flanker, Horton and Herndon were able to see enough field to snag 35 balls between them. That's not much more than pedestrian output to most, but it did show measurable progress (Horton and Herndon had 23 career grabs between them over 2010-11) for two players that were stuck in a logjam at the position early in their careers.
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