Rashad Madden and Moses Kingsley preview the ...
Road to postseason runs through Jersey
Arkansas cornerback Will Hines (9) slips as Rutgers wide receiver Brandon Coleman (17) sprints for a third quarter touchdown Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Most people agree that if Arkansas earns a bowl bid in 2013, Bret Bielema’s debut season as the Razorbacks’ head coach is a success.
After all, Bielema inherits a team that interim head coach John L. Smith and company subjected to disorganized chaos, which yielded one of the Razorbacks’ most crushing seasons ever. The thought of 2012’s 4-8 campaign makes most Hogs fans sick.
Bielema and his assistants are good enough to get this team to six wins and a bowl, even if it is a lower-tier game like the BBVA Compass Bowl or the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. Guiding this demoralized, inexperienced squad to the magic number of six wins while competing in the SEC West would be a huge accomplishment, though.
However, if the Hogs do go bowling, it will be because of a victory they earn in September, not during the throes of the SEC slate. The road to a bowl bid runs directly through Piscataway, N.J. — the home of Rutgers.
It’s a safe bet if Arkansas can win that game, they will be bowl eligible. If not, or if they lose any other nonconference game, it’s 4-8 and an early Christmas vacation.
Let’s assume Arkansas opens with three straight nonconference home wins. The toughest of those will be this weekend against Louisiana-Lafayette in the opener. The Ragin’ Cajuns strut into this season fresh off a 9-4 season and feature a loaded backfield. Still, I feel comfortable chalking this one up as a win for Arkansas. It may not be pretty, but a win in the opener should lead to more pronounced wins against FCS program Samford, in Little Rock, and Southern Mississippi, which was winless in 2012.
That brings us to the trip to New Jersey on Sept. 21. While High Points Solution Stadium isn’t even close to a big-time SEC atmosphere, Razorback fans take Rutgers seriously after they beat the Hogs 35-26 in Fayetteville last season.
The good news for Arkansas fans is that Rutgers has plenty of holes to fill with running back Jawan Jamison gone and seven starters missing on defense. Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood also had to hire two new coordinators in the offseason, too.
It’s that flux that makes this game winnable for Arkansas and could push the team to 4-0, as they begin the SEC slate with a home tilt against Texas A&M.
If the Scarlet Knights are successful early, it will be due to their four experienced offensive linemen, including two All-Big East performers in Kaleb Johnson and Antwan Lowery. They will pave the way for former star prep running back Savon Huggins. The strength of Arkansas’ defense should be their defensive line.
Rutgers only averaged 11 points in its final four games and only rushed for 121 yards per contest in those games. Quarterback Gary Nova torched the Razorbacks for 397 passing yards and five touchdowns. However, that was his best game, and he finished with 16 interceptions for the year. Don’t look for a repeat performance with new Razorback defensive coordinator Chris Ash at the helm.
Jamison, who rushed 33 times for 118 yards in that Rutgers win against Arkansas last year, made Rutgers dangerous a season ago. Huggins didn’t register any stats against the Hogs, and finished with 119 carries for 410 yards and two touchdowns. Huggins is going to have to adjust to being the featured back.
The Hogs’ offense, and its improvement over the first three games, will be important. Arkansas has relatively inexperienced (but talented) players at all skill positions, but the Scarlet Knights’ defense, which yielded more than 300 yards receiving to former Hog Cobi Hamilton last year, has its issues.
Arkansas’ offensive line should be solid enough to run the ball effectively and could take advantage of Rutgers, taking the pressure off starting quarterback Brandon Allen in his first career road start.
Whichever way they do it, a win in New Jersey is a big step in making sure 2013 is surprisingly successful for Bielema and the Razorbacks.