Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
As a run-up to the last four seasons of Razorback football, Pearls About Swine has busted up the schedule month by month and tried to peg every game. Let's just say that 2012 was a huge, Dave Kingman-style whiff. We made up for it last year by correctly identifying the Hogs' progress most of the time; our prediction was that the team would get to 7-5 and beat LSU and Ole Miss in the process, and the only slipup was a misread of the Georgia game in Little Rock.
The consensus national view of Arkansas has morphed drastically over the past 12 months. When the Hogs got battered in the second half of last season's opener at Auburn, there were mournful wails that the program was still buried beneath its own prior problems, with a half-cooked defense and a one-dimensional offense. It all changed quickly, though, and as Robb Smith's defensive unit began to flourish and gain confidence throughout a vicious schedule, the offense similarly was bolstered. Brandon Allen gained footing for the first time as a Hog signal-caller, the offensive line coalesced and protected him, and it all culminated in the Razorbacks pulling a winning season out of the jaws of anguish.
Now the prognosticators see this team as one that theoretically falls short of contender status, but has been so competitive and fiery that this fall may represent the precipice of getting to those heights. Recent speculation has the Hogs at 8-4, which again would be a step forward if the team can then summon another bowl win, but I know you're all mostly waiting to see if Pearls will completely blow it like it did when John L. Smith was lurking around campus with five dollars to his name, or stay on the same finely tuned targeted path it forged last year.
Here's a look at the first third of the schedule:
UTEP at Arkansas, Sept. 5 — UTEP has the look of a traditional opening-game patsy, but there's an odd similarity between the programs. Sean Kugler, like Bret Bielema, is in his third year, and he also took a miserable 2013 team (2-10, 1-7 in Conference USA) and reshaped it into a fine competitor in a matter of months. The Miners went 7-6 in 2014, just like the Hogs, and actually ended up with a 5-3 league mark that could have been better but for a narrow defeat at Western Kentucky in mid-November.
That's the surface view, though. Unlike the Hogs, who shook off that loss to Auburn and then turned out to be damned salty the rest of the way, UTEP had some ugly marks on its backside, namely a 55-3 walloping by Louisiana Tech and listless, lopsided defeats to Rice and Utah State in two of the Miners' final three games. This isn't to suggest that the Miners are paper tigers, but they simply lack firepower and depth. In this one, Alex Collins breaks it clean early on a 75-yard touchdown run that is the longest he's had on his own turf, and the Hogs cruise from there. Allen is able to rest most of the second half after the Razorbacks build a 31-7 halftime advantage, and we get our first look at third-string quarterback Rafe Peavey in the fourth quarter. Hogs 48, Miners 17.
Toledo at Arkansas, Sept. 12 — The lone War Memorial Stadium game of 2015 is against a Rockets team that, like UTEP, appears laughable. Then you consider that (a) Toledo is a stellar 26-13 under fourth-year coach Matt Campbell, and (b) the Hogs haven't looked strong in the capital city since Bobby Petrino's final game there in 2011, a walloping of Mississippi State. It's as if the team feels burdened by the travel and unsettled in the spartan old place.
This, accordingly, isn't the projected cakewalk it would seem to be. Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside emerged as a pure and confident thrower last fall, and he'll test an Arkansas secondary early and often, even putting the Rockets ahead briefly in the first quarter with a long scoring throw. The fun ends thereafter when Brandon Allen sets out on a career-best four-touchdown game, and Hunter Henry catches two in front of an adoring hometown crowd. Hogs 38, Rockets 22.
Texas Tech at Arkansas, Sept. 19 — The game that arguably cemented the Hogs' rebuilt reputation last year was the one in Lubbock, where a lot of enthusiastic Red Raiders fans, buoyed by their debonair gunslinging coach, Kliff Kingsbury, felt like they had an SEC team right where they wanted them. Arkansas hadn't beaten any team of note in quite some time, and the Raiders were coming off a surprising 8-5 year.
Instead, Arkansas bowled over the Red Raiders, basically smothering them in the second half to the point that Texas Tech barely even got its hands on the ball. It was a pivotal point for both squads, as the Hogs rode that momentum forward and the Raiders regressed to a 4-8 team.
Texas Tech still won't have a defense, and the Raiders won't have any semblance of a fan presence on the Hill for the rematch. This is Jonathan Williams' time to demoralize a foe, and he runs for a career-best 203 yards and two scores in the rout. Hogs 51, Red Raiders 21.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington), Sept. 26 — For the first time since the Aggies entered SEC play, Arkansas has its best shot to take the upstart newbie down a few notches. They arrived in 2012 with swagger and Johnny Manziel, and the Hogs were a pitiable shell of what they had been. So after three wins in succession in Jerry World from 2009 to 2011, when the matchup was a contractual nonconference game, the Hogs gave away three SEC games in a row, but came agonizingly close last year in an overtime loss.
As much as anything, that one revealed the duality of the Jim Chaney offense. It was at times brilliant and daring on the pristine turf of north Texas, only to stall and be beset by misfortune and bad timing at others. With Dan Enos in charge, this offense is far more consistent, and Arkansas plays a turnover-free game and doesn't get sidetracked by penalties. En route to a 4-0 start and a Top 15 ranking, the Razorbacks harass Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen all afternoon and end up with the most satisfying September in years in the books. Hogs 34, Aggies 17.
Good analysis, something completely lacking from the daily newspaper's sports reporters/columnists.
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