Time and Date: Saturday, September 4 at 2:00 p.m. ET
Location: Razorback Stadium — Fayetteville, AR
Spread: Arkansas (-19.5)
ESPN FPI: Arkansas has 94.6% chance to win
All-time series: Arkansas leads, 35-29-3
Last meeting: Arkansas 20, Rice 0 — November 23, 1991
Setting the scene
It’s been three decades since the former Southwest Conference rivals settled it on the field. Both teams have suffered lengthy bowl droughts, but signs of progress are evident in Houston and Fayetteville. Rice and Arkansas each earned a ranked victory last fall and improved their winning percentages from 2019 to 2020. In a rare head coaching battle between former offensive line coaches, Mike Bloomgren and Sam Pittman will each vie for a coveted win in their quests to attain bowl eligibility, and potentially more.
Rice’s quarterback battle
Rice will not reveal a starting quarterback until it runs out of the tunnel Saturday, but head coach Mike Bloomgren confirmed the Owls will trot out two signal callers for the opener. Wiley Green and Luke McCaffrey have been engaged in a battle for the starting quarterback job throughout the offseason without a winner being declared.
“The people at Arkansas are going to see two quarterbacks this weekend because they’ve both earned the right to do it,” Bloomgren said. “I’ve certainly see (a 2-quarterback system) be successful before... it takes maturity from both participants in the quarterback competition to continue to build each other up, encourage each other, and be positive when the other one goes in the game, and I think we’ve got two guys that love this team and really care about each other and are willing to do that.”
In terms of familiarity with the program, Green is the more veteran of the two quarterbacks by a country mile. He previously earned the role of the Week 1 starter during the 2019 season, and he presents 10 career starts of experience to the locker room. Green took a backseat to TCU transfer Mike Collins during the brief 2020 campaign but returns for another opportunity to take control of this offense.
“The difference between them right now is Wiley, this is year four for Wiley Green in this system,” Bloomgren said. “Luke has been with us for a month and a half or two months, and Luke has just closed the gap knowledge-wise so well.”
McCaffrey arrived at Rice in June after transferring from Nebraska, with a brief voyage to Louisville in between. He started two games for the Cornhuskers in 2020, leading an upset over Penn State by means of his mobility. Given roughly two months to learn the complexities of this pro-style offense, the former 4-star recruit is still integrating into the system, but his raw talent is undeniable.
“I knew from the film and from studying Luke from when he was in high school, I knew he had a good arm, but I didn’t know he had this kind of arm,” Bloomgren said. “I didn’t know he had a howitzer for a right arm, which is really cool, and the ability to keep plays alive.”
Bloomgren is planning to keep the starter for the first possession under wraps for as long as possible, but Arkansas should expect to see series led by both quarterbacks Saturday.
“Right now, I think the best chance for us to win this game and going forward is for both of them to utilize their talents for our football team,” Bloomgren concluded.
Handling the Hogs’ tempo
While Rice is still shuffling through quarterbacks, Arkansas defiantly named a starter. Replacing the departed Feleipe Franks will be a familiar face in K.J. Jefferson. The 6’3”, 245 pound redshirt sophomore started one game apiece in 2018 and 2019, while serving in a recurring week-to-week role as a quarterback for power running plays.
“For how big he is, he’s extremely mobile so we’re focusing on keeping him in the pocket, keeping him contained,” Rice defensive end Trey Schuman said. “We know that not only can he beat us with his arm. He can beat us with his feet.”
Jefferson cashed in 58 career rushes for 125 yards and four touchdowns. As a passer, his résumé includes 34 completions on 72 attempts, 492 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Jefferson is certainly the more experienced quarterback on Arkansas’ depth chart, but Bloomgren wouldn’t be shocked to see Malik Hornsby, the former 4-star dual threat quarterback recruit, earn reps as a backup.
“Both those guys bring so much to the table. K.J.’s experience last year is going to pay dividends for him and give him an opportunity to be more comfortable,” Bloomgren said. “Those guys can do similar things within their scheme, but Malik and his legs is pretty explosive and is a different concern if he enters the game.”
Quarterback is one of the rare positions where Arkansas is breaking in new talent. The Razorbacks return nine starters, headlined by All-SEC wide receiver Treylon Burks, to a Kendal Briles-led offense which hopes to run tempo on this Rice defense.
“I followed (Briles’) career as well and remember all the things he was able to do at Baylor when they were cutting edge and nobody had really seen that offense before,” Bloomgren said. “Everything you’ve studied about Kendal through the years, it was tempo, tempo, tempo, and it was so ahead of the curve. They get set, they get another play snapped, and a lot of defenses don’t have time to reset... We’re trying like crazy to replicate that tempo in practice.”
Even though Arkansas runs tempo at times, the Razorbacks present an interesting dynamic between Briles and head coach Sam Pittman. Pittman, a former offensive line coach, hails from a background of a grind-it-out, eat-the-clock physical rushing style — which allows Arkansas to alternate offensive philosophies throughout the game.
“They do tempo and they have some smoke and mirrors, but don’t get it twisted — that o-line, they’re some bruisers too,” Schuman said. “It’s gonna be a fun matchup in the trenches and matching their energy, if not trying to outmatch their energy.”
Maintaining defensive dominance
Rice played five games last fall. The Owls did not allow a single first quarter point all season. The program has been renowned for its defensive identity in the C-USA ever since Bloomgren and defensive coordinator Brian Smith arrived in 2018. Rice allowed 18.8 points per game in 2020, good for a 12th-place national ranking in scoring defense. The bulk of the defense returns, but new Owls must step up in place of First Team All-C-USA linebacker Blaze Alldredge, who transferred to Missouri, and defensive tackle De’Braylon Carroll, who suffered a season-ending injury in camp.
“Luckily, when you have 10 starters that could come back and you add back in a healthy (strong safety) Naeem Smith and a healthy (free safety) George Nyakwol who missed all of last season, I feel like our depth is so much better everywhere,” Bloomgren said. “Against a tempo team like Arkansas, you’re gonna need some people to jump in there. You’re gonna need the ability to roll people in there that you can trust to get in there and do their job.”
Rice’s defense presents plenty of problems for opponents, but there are still facets to improve. Amplifying the pass rush is one of these main focal points. For two consecutive years, the Owls have averaged under 1.5 sacks per game, landing in the bottom 20 in the country in 2019 and 2020. Arkansas tied for 12th in the FBS in most sacks allowed per game last fall, so there may be plentiful opportunities to invade the backfield. With health and an added layer of experience, the Owls believe they have the defensive line personnel to break through opposing lines this year.
“Ikenna Enechukwu last year was an animal at pretty much whatever position you put him in. You can ask our offensive line. He’s not been fun to block,” Schuman said. “And then you got a young guy like Miles Adams. He is 6’5” and long and he is strong too. We’ve got some young guys we’re really excited about who can finally debut their talents on Saturday. It’s been fun as the leader of the defensive line to finally see it all come together.”
Skill position contributors
One interesting feature of Rice’s Week 1 depth chart is the insertion of Jordan Myers at the No. 1 halfback slot. Myers has served as Rice’s Swiss Army knife since first taking the field in 2017, but the majority of his starts have stemmed from the tight end position. The “super senior” operated in a tailback role as a freshman, accruing 42 touches in the backfield in 2017. In the three years following, Myers has only fielded 14 handoffs, but his role as a rusher looks destined to increase in 2021 — all while maintaining his versatility.
“The value he has being on the field for our offense is extraordinary,” Bloomgren said. “Through his career, he’s played wildcat quarterback, he’s played fullback, he’s played in-line tight end, he’s played motion tight end, he’s played extended receiver, and he runs the ball extremely well. In his high school career, he rushed for 2,300 playing for Dickinson down the road, so when you’re at that 6A level of football and you have that kind of success, we know you’re capable of doing it.”
Similar to Arkansas, the majority of Rice’s first-team offense from 2020 returns with the exception of the starting quarterback (Mike Collins) and a premier receiver (Austin Trammell). The Owls receiving corps got a tremendous boost by the return of Brad Rozner, who led the team in receiving yards in 2019 before missing all of last season. But developing other talent at this position has been a focus for Rice, and wide receiver Jake Bailey is trending upward after a breakout season finishing second on the team in receptions and yardage.
“I don’t want to put a ceiling on Jake Bailey, but that same ascension you saw last year, we saw, and it’s really progressed more this offseason,” Bloomgren said. “His confidence and knowledge in this offense is really good. I think it’s really natural to compare him to some Austin Trammell-type roles because Austin was our go-to guy and a guy we targeted a lot of plays for on third down. There’s a lot of things designed for Jake Bailey to get open and we trust him to catch the ball.”
Rozner’s health and Bailey’s development bolsters the status of Rice’s receiving corps. This unit comes with plenty of potential, especially when working with the new concepts installed by first-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo. They’ll be tested by an Arkansas secondary which intercepted passes at the second highest rate in the SEC last season. Notable names to watch in that group include Jalen Catalon and Hudson Clark — two defensive backs which corralled three picks each in 2020.
“One guy that definitely sticks out is (strong safety) Jalen Catalon — the hard hat, the heavy hitter,” Bailey said. “Every game we’ve watched, he’s popped out as a guy that can fly around and make plays. A guy like that, you definitely have to keep your head on a swivel for, but at the same time, we’re excited to put our offense to the test and I think no one’s gonna back down from a good challenge.”
Analysis and prediction
While hints of explosiveness have been shown by both teams, neither offense in this contest is the type that drops 40 points on a consistent basis. This Week 1 matchup has the signs of being a ground-oriented, defensive-minded slugfest, and at least one team seems destined to score fewer than three touchdowns.
In 2019, Arkansas averaged 21.4 points per game while Rice managed 17.9. Last season, those numbers slightly augmented to 25.7 and 23.4, respectively. But neither team is with their primary starting quarterback from 2020 for this one, so expect these defenses, especially the front sevens, to have the early edge Saturday.
What separates these teams is the firepower in Arkansas’ linebacking corps. It will be difficult for Rice to run on the Razorbacks’ duo of Bumper Pool and First Team All-SEC selection Grant Morgan, forcing the Owls to turn to the air for offensive production. The Owls are most comfortable when running the ball and controlling the clock, so if that is limited, Arkansas will emerge victorious in Fayetteville.
Prediction: Arkansas 27, Rice 17