Last week, we crossed the point in the offseason when we're now within 100 days to kickoff, so now is as good a time as any to start breaking down that first game, or at least, getting to know the opponent.
Each year, SB Nation's advanced stats wiz, Bill Connelly, does a team-by-team preview throughout the offseason, and he's now completed the previews for Arkansas' non-conference opponents so we can start digging into it. (This doesn't include Alcorn State since they're FCS, and we all know the storyline leading up to that game is simply "can Bret Bielema for once get the team ready to play a game in Little Rock?")
The first up are the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. They're coached by Skip Holtz, who last faced Arkansas as the coach of East Carolina in that gawd-awful Liberty Bowl following the 2009 season. Of course, he's also the son of former Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz and lived in Fayetteville during that time, graduating from Fayetteville High School in 1982.
Louisiana Tech is coming off a run in which they won 18 games over the last two years. They went 9-4 last season with a bowl win over Arkansas State. They've been known for having a high-powered offense led by Arkansas-native Kenneth Dixon at running back and Florida-transfer Jeff Driskel at quarterback - but both of those guys are in the NFL now.
Even with them, the Bulldogs lost both their games against Power 5 teams last season, losing to Kansas State and Mississippi State.
But it's not just those two big names that are gone. Louisiana Tech only brings back 39% of their overall starters from last year, fourth-lowest in all of FBS. They also bring in a new offensive coordinator in Todd Fitch who has 30 years of coaching experience but hasn't had much success at the FBS level. He led a pretty awful offense at Boston College last year and has only had one top-40 offense, which was back in 2007.
Their new quarterback is expected to be senior Ryan Higgins (not the same guy as the contributor on this site). He hasn't had much opportunity to show what he can do since he's been the backup for his entire career thus far, but here's what we know:
Higgins has been the runner-up to a transfer in each of the last two years. First, Cody Sokol overtook him for the starting job in 2014, then Driskel did the same last year. Higgins saw significant playing time in 2013, when he and a young two-deep were overmatched; he completed 59 percent of his passes but threw 10 interceptions in a four-game stretch. Over the last two years, he's completed 21 of 35 passes, mostly in mop-up duty.
Without Dixon and Driskel running the ball, they'll also be replacing their top two runners.
Junior Jarred Craft held down the backup role for much of the year, but didn't do much with it. But thanks in part to a Craft injury, tiny, explosive walk-on Boston Scott got a look and made the most of it. He rushed for 106 yards in just four carries against Arkansas State and showed spectacular explosiveness in minimal opportunities.
However, the Bulldogs don't lose much at receiver, but with a new quarterback and unknowns at running back, will they be able to get the ball to them?
Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson combined for 135 catches and a massive 10.5 yards per target, and reserves like Marcus Gaines and Kameron McKnight flashed ability as well. Holtz has recruited well at the receiver position.
The Bulldogs lose two starters off the offensive line from last year, including 2nd Team All-CUSA tackle Jens Danielson, but do get LSU transfer Derek Edinburgh, Jr eligible to take his spot. One of their returning starters, left tackle Darrell Brown, is a two-year starter and was also a 2nd Team All-CUSA last year. The Bulldogs should be alright along the line, but it will be a good test for them going against Arkansas' defensive line, which is expected to be a strength for the Hogs this year.
The Bulldogs haven't really been known as a great defensive team dating back to the Sonny Dykes era. Holtz and former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz led them to a solid year in 2014, but they returned to form in 2015 with significant turnover on that side of the ball.
The pass rush fell from 24th in Adj. Sack Rate to 80th. And while the secondary still made its share of plays, so did opponents. Tech fell from 22nd in Passing S&P+ to 86th, and it negated the impact of a surprisingly impressive run D. The Bulldogs stopped about one-quarter of rushes at or behind the line and ranked a healthy 36th in Rushing S&P+, but opponents leaned heavily on the pass to move the ball. The result: Tech fell 52 spots in Def. S&P+, from 24th to 76th.
And, unlike Arkansas, Tech's not bringing back a bunch of returning starters to help improve a bad defense from last year. They're replacing their top two tacklers along the defensive line, all three starting linebackers, and both starting cornerbacks.
Defensive tackle is one potential issue that Holtz is addressing with quantity; cornerback is another. Sophomores Aaron Roberson, Trey Spencer, Darryl Lewis, and Ephraim Kitchen all saw playing time as freshmen. Plus Holtz brought in two transfers (including Arizona State's Ronald Lewis), JUCO DaMarion King, and two three-star freshmen (David Beasley, L'Jarius Sneed).
If the corner position is stable, safety should be fine. Losing Kentrell Brice hurts, but senior Xavier Woods was even more active than Brice, and junior Secdrick Cooper saw quite a bit of action last year.
Though Woods is a senior, almost all of the exciting pieces of this defense are sophomores and juniors. That could mean a little bit more transition time in 2016 before the 2017 defense takes a nice step forward.
Overall, if this had been the season opener last year, I think it's a much more interesting game considering Arkansas' rocky start and spotty-at-best defense. But this year, with the turnover at Tech and the returning Razorbacks, particularly on defense, I think this is a very favorable matchup for the Hogs.
Arkansas is reportedly opening as a 20.5 point favorite, and Connelly's numbers give Arkansas an 89% chance of winning. Hopefully, all of Arkansas' new players will get a chance to shine, and we'll see if the now-experienced defense can take advantage of an offense breaking in a bunch of new skill players in their first game.