Arkansas was overdue for a Thursday night game. After watching teams like South Carolina and Mississippi State (Cincinnati, for some reason, is the team I mostly associate with Thursday night college football) play several of these unfortunate games, the networks finally came calling for the Hogs.
In many ways, Thursday’s game is about getting things out of the way. It resets the clock on Thursday night games (“See, we just played one back in 2017!”). It takes care of the annual War Memorial game without putting anything serious on the line. The place has been cursed for half a decade: since Bobby Petrino’s untimely firing, Arkansas is 0-5 against FBS opponents inside the once-friendly walls of Little Rock’s stadium.
Finally, it takes care of the annual FCS opponent. Nearly every major program (that isn’t banned from doing so by their conference) has played one FCS opponent per year ever since the switch to 12 regular season games became permanent in 2006. The reason is that six wins are required for a bowl, and one of them can be an FCS win. So a team that would have gone 5-6 years ago can now get to bowl eligibility without actually being any better.
Hopefully Arkansas isn’t in a position by year’s end where it has to cite a win over Florida A&M in order to qualify for the postseason. But let’s take one game at a time, shall we?
Scouting the Rattlers
Florida A&M finished 4-7 in 2016. They finished 4-4 in the MEAC, which is generally considered among the worst FCS conferences. This team will be experienced, though, and may compete for the top of the conference. They return their top playmakers on both sides of the ball. The defense is probably a little bit better than the offense, so don’t be surprised if they pick up a couple first-half stops on Thursday.
- Solid pass defense (by FCS standards), led by a ball-hawking secondary. Florida A&M picked off 13 passes in 11 games last season, and the top three pick leaders (4 each) are all back. They surrendered just 158 passing yards per game last season, good for 5th-best in the FCS. And in Saturday’s 29-7 thumping of Texas Southern, the Rattlers held TSU to just 12 of 39 passing for 140 yards.
- Good receivers lead a veteran offense. A dismal offense generated just 297 yards and 18 points per game last fall, but there’s reason to believe the Rattlers will be better. They bring back almost everyone. Quarterback Ryan Stanley (who looks like he’ll ride to the game in the Mystery Machine with his dog Scooby) won the job after FAMU lost to Division II Tuskegee in Week 3 last year. He threw for 1,358 yards and rushed for 351. He hit just 56 percent of his passes, and they weren’t long throws, either: he averaged just 10.6 yards per completion (for comparison, Austin Allen averaged 14.0 yards per completion). While the trigger-man may not be exceptional, his targets are pretty good. Brandon Norwood (468 yards, 4 TDs) showed up on all-conference rolls earlier this month, while Montavius Williams (422 yards) is an experienced target as well. Four starters return up front.
- Very weak run game. Stanley’s meagre rushing ability (4.8 yards per carry) is probably the biggest run game threat that the Rattlers will offer. Tailback Devin Bowers generated just 398 yards and 3.8 yards per carry as the team leader a year ago. FAMU averaged just 107 rushing yards per game as a team. Bret Bielema claims his two middle linebackers are the best he’s coached at Arkansas so far; Thursday’s claim won’t be a chance for them to prove that bold claim.
- Porous run defense. One thing I’m looking forward to on Saturday is seeing a backup running back tote the rock, since the backup spot is still up for grabs. Whoever is carrying the football will likely see lots of green grass. FAMU surrendered 223 rushing yards per game, 5.6 yards per carry, and 32 rushing touchdowns last fall. They’ll probably be better with most of their starters returning up front, but they have a long way to go.
Overall, I’m expecting a 49-7 kind of game, although Arkansas could easily push into the 50s due to FAMU’s inability to slow the run. If FAMU generates more than one offensive score against the first-team defense, that could be a red flag.
Three things I’m looking for on Thursday
There aren’t any advanced stats, obviously, so I’ll replace that part of the preview with what I hope to see on the field.
- Can everyone get lined up right, and can the front seven make plays? The switch to the 3-4 defense has bee the talk of the offseason, with good reason. As a big X’s-and-O’s guy, I love the chatter. But games aren’t played on the chalkboard. Four of the front seven will make their first career start on Thursday (NT Bijhon Jackson, WDE T.J. Smith, OLB Randy Ramsey, and MLB De’Jon Harris) and WLB Dre Greenlaw is the only player who’s started a game prior to 2016... and even he’s coming back from an injury that sidelined him for the final 8 games of last year. As you can imagine, there’s reason to be concerned that guys won’t even get to the right place. Schemes take a while to implement. If guys are out of position, before or after the snap, it might be a sign to temper expectations of defensive improvement, at least early in the year. Thankfully, FAMU isn’t exactly equipped to exploit any potential weaknesses Arkansas may show.
- Can a receiver not named Jared Cornelius show rapport with Austin Allen? Cornelius is the only guy of last year’s top five receivers to return, so he’s likely headed for a big senior season. Injury could limit him on Thursday, though. Even when he’s healthy, Arkansas needs multiple studs, and right now there aren’t many obvious targets. The next go-to receiver could be from among the guys who have been on campus a couple years (Deon Stewart, La’Michael Pettway, Jordan Jones, T.J. Hammonds) or could be from among the newcomers (Jonathan Nance, Brandon Martin, others).
- Who’s the backup running back? I touched on this above, but with Devwah Whaley likely headed for a 1,000-yard season, the Hogs need either grad transfer David Williams or true freshman Chase Hayden to emerge (ideally both). Something to watch: Arkansas’ average yards per carry has fallen in each of Bielema’s four seasons (5.4 in 2013, 5.1 in 2014, 5.0 in 2015, and 4.1 in 2016). That’s obviously not a good sign for a coach that promises a strong running game. Arkansas can’t afford to average 4.1 yards per carry again this year, and having a deep set of backs is a huge part of running the ball well.