Date: Saturday, September 3, 2016
Kickoff Time: 3:00 PM CDT
Location: Fayetteville, AR
Stadium: DWR Razorback Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Streaming Video: WatchESPN.com ; WatchESPN App
Streaming Audio: LaTechSports.com
Series Record: Arkansas leads 3-0
Betting Line: Arkansas -26
Louisiana Tech ended last season by defeating Arkansas State 47-28 in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. They now open 2016 at the Hogs hoping that 2 straight games against the Natural State will translate to owning the whole state if they could defeat both FBS teams from Arkansas.
There's precedent for this. In 2014, Toledo ended the season defeating A-State in a bowl game. Their season opener in 2015 was canceled due to weather, making their game against Arkansas the true season opener. They won. To add insult to injury, they then beat A-State again 2 weeks later. Now, La Tech has the same opportunity.
But can the Dawgs really pull this off?
I'm optimistic, but I'm not holding my breath.
La Tech has not defeated a Power 5 team in the regular season since joining C-USA (although they did defeat Illinois in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl). Their last outing against the SEC West looked promising as Tech posted an early 14-0 lead at Mississippi State. The final score? 20-45 State. The closest calls have been against Kansas 2013 (10-13) and Kansas State last year (33-39 in triple OT).
The fact Arkansas lost to Toledo last year gives hope that it's possible, but more likely means Bret Bielema will take extra care to prevent another upset.
But now, let's dive into to this game.
A Tale of Two Teams with the Same Questions
Both La Tech and Arkansas are replacing star QBs and star RBs (Driskel/Dixon and Allen/Collins).
The best answer so far seems to be Brandon Allen's replacement by his brother, Austin. The junior has mostly only played in garbage time, so his numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but he is 9-of-19 passing with 1 TD and 1 rushing TD. The Hogs' starting RB is listed as Kody Walker. Walker is a sixth-year senior after being granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA following his first two seasons both being cut short by injury. He also missed four games last year due to injury. This makes his health a concern for the Razorbacks. His numbers aren't overwhelming, but considering he was playing behind Alex Collins, we can give him a pass there. His placement on the Doak Walker Watch List suggests he could be a good back if he can stay healthy.
La Tech's answers aren't as solid, at least not yet. At QB, the starter was slated to be Ryan Higgins, but he will not start at Arkansas following a DUI arrest in early August. OC Todd Fitch reportedly stated J'Mar Smith will be starting. Smith Redshirted last year. He threw for 97 yards in the spring game but Fitch said he has come along well and hasn't turned the ball over.
Hopefully, Smith could simply be an unproven commodity, but having your first start on the road against an SEC team is a daunting task. Coach Holtz has indicated that Higgins may still play, but will not start. Higgins started 6 games in 2013 and wasn't impressive although he was just a freshman. At running back, the current plan seems to be running back by committee. Jarred Craft and Boston Scott are the returning names with other, younger players expected to see time as well. In what time they've played, they've shown flashes of potential.
Although the QB and RB positions don't scream confidence for La Tech, the rest of the offense does. The Dawgs return 3/4 starting wide receivers, with Biletnekoff watch list members Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson leading the way. Tech also returns *FOUR* starters on offensive line, with Kirby Wixson coming back from injury. Skip Holtz has also commented that this is one of the deepest O-lines he's had.
An experienced and deep O-line should do wonders for the passing game by providing enough time for an inexperienced QB to find a target and do even more for the running game. To top it all off, former La Tech QB Tim Rattay (who finished 10th in voting for the 1999 Heisman) is now the QB coach, so if anyone can get maximum production from Higgins/Smith, it should be him.
Defensively, La Tech is one big question mark. Officially, only 3 starters are returning. As dismal as that may sound, there's some hope. In addition to those 3 is DE Jaylon Ferguson, who was named to at least 1 Freshman All-American list. With him and 2 other linemen returning, the D-line should be solid. The rest of the defense? Grad transfers to the rescue! 2 Big XII linebackers come in. The secondary will be led by S Xavier Woods, but 2 more grad transfers should help fill out the secondary, whether starters or not. But will these transfers be gems or busts?
If there's one thing Tech shouldn't worry too much about, consider that all starters in special teams returns, led by Lou Groza watch list member Jonathan Barnes at kicker.
As for Arkansas, they only return 5 offensive starters: 2 linemen, 2 receivers, and a TE. The Hogs' new QB and RB won't have the luxury of being surrounded by experience the way Higgins/Smith and the committee will, but will that matter? If Austin is anything like his brother, it probably won't affect the passing game but Arkansas makes its living running the ball. So to me, the biggest question for the Hogs offense is the health of RB Kody Walker.
With the strength of the Arkansas defense, it may not matter. 9 returning starters from a solid 2015 squad. Only losing 1 lineman and 1 linebacker means this defense should be pretty scary.
The strongest unit on the field Saturday will be the Arkansas defense. Even with La Tech's experienced offense, the QB situation alone makes things look pretty bleak. Tech's defense has experience, but is basically a jigsaw puzzle of players with transfers from 4 different schools who will need time to gel.
Arkansas 31, La Tech 24