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University of Arkansas running back Alex Collins tries to shake a defender during Saturday afternoon's game against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE The Samford Bulldogs hail from Birmingham, Alabama, the home of the SEC offices. They are a member of the FCS’ Southern Conference.
Stanford jokes aside, there is good reason to take an FCS opponent seriously: seven FCS opponents knocked off FBS opponents in week one, and FBS stalwarts Kansas State and Oregon State were knocked down by FCS visitors.
That fact alone should be sufficient for coaches across the country, including Bielema, to use to keep players focused when playing an FCS foe. Unfortunately, as we’ll examine, that statistic is particularly misleading, particularly in Samford’s case.
Samford At a Glance
Head Coach: Pat Sullivan (33-34, 6th season)
2012 Record: 7-4 (5-3 Southern)
Starters Returning: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)
2013 Record: 1-0
Pat Sullivan, who won the 1971 Heisman trophy as the quarterback of Auburn, coaches Samford. He served as an assistant coach at Auburn under Pat Dye in 1980s, and then was the head coach of TCU from 1992-1997. He was the offensive coordinator under Watson Brown (Mack Brown’s older brother) at UAB from 1999-2006, and has been the head coach of Samford since 2007. Unfortunately, Sullivan had back surgery recently, and was unable to attend the Georgia State game. As of this publication a decision had not been made on whether or not Sullivan would make the trip to Little Rock.
As far a strategic history goes, there’s not much here. Samford’s offensive coordinator is Brandon Herring, who also coaches the offensive line, and got his coaching start at UAB while Sullivan was there. They’ll run some Tiller-inspired spread concepts, probably similar to Louisiana, and will attempt to stretch Arkansas’ linebackers in coverage with their tight ends and slot receivers.
Defensively, they get a little more interesting. Defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio, the interim coach while Sullivan is recovering, is a good coach, and Samford has had a defensive player drafted in each of the last two NFL drafts, an impressive feat for an FCS school. Samford has consistently ranked near the top of the SoCon in total defense, and in 2005, as the secondary coach at Tulane, the Green Wave lead the Conference-USA in pass defense.
FEAR THE FCS?
One fact that it seems many media members are missing is that the FCS is not unlike the FBS. It has power conferences and it has weaker conferences. Like the FBS, the weakest FCS team is probably about 40-50 points worse than the best FCS team. This enormous spread means that some FCS teams should be feared more than others.
The Big Sky conference, whose top teams include Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, and Sacramento State, is considered to be one of the premier conference in the FCS. The Southland, which includes Sam Houston State, Central Arkansas, and Stephen F. Austin, along with McNeese State, is another power conference. The third major conference is the Missouri Valley, which includes two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State along with Southern Illinois, who hung with Illinois for four quarters, and UNI, who upset Iowa State.
Outside of these three conferences, FCS power falls off significantly. Conferences such as the SWAC, Pioneer, and Northeast are the weaklings of the FCS. The Southern Conference, where Samford is from, is nearer to the bottom than to the top.
SOCON vs. FBS Week 1
Samford def. Georgia State 31-24
Baylor def. Wofford 69-3
Middle Tennessee def. Western Carolina 45-24
Georgia Tech def. Elon 70-0
As you can see, the Southern Conference had trouble joining in on the fun. If Samford’s win over Georgia State is scaring you, note that this is Georgia State’s first year as an FBS team….and they went 1-10 as an FCS member last year. They lost 51-7 to Maine. The 31-21 final is actually less impressive than you might think, given Georgia State’s extraordinary weakness (they may not win a game).
In all, the nine members of the SoCon went a combined 2-7 last week, with Samford and conference heavyweight Georgia Southern winning against inferior opponents. If an FCS team was going to upset Arkansas, it probably would not come from the SoCon.
A CLOSER LOOK
Perhaps the biggest indicator that Arkansas has nothing to fear is this 2012 final: Kentucky 34, Samford 3. Kentucky, if you’ll recall, went 2-10 last season, dropping 9 of their final 10 (this was their only victory). Those losses include a 49-7 loss to Arkansas in a weather-shortened game, a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt, a 37-17 loss to Tennessee, coached by Jim Chaney on an interim basis, and a 33-10 loss to Missouri.
Despite Kentucky’s woeful ineptness, the Cats outgained Samford 455-102, holding Samford to -2 rushing yards and 104 passing yards. Kentucky rolled up 342 rushing yards (!!!) against the Bulldogs. Samford tailback Fabian Truss, who had a good game against Georgia State, rushed 12 times for 37 yards. Samford’s quarterback was sacked five times.
In their only game in 2013, Samford knocked off Georgia State, 31-21. Georgia State won the yardage battle, 463-298, but were undone by two turnovers, five penalties, and the allowance of a kick return touchdown. Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin hit 19 of 31 passes for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Talented running back Fabian Truss rushed 26 times for 78 yards (just 3.0 yards per carry) with a touchdown, and also returned the kickoff for a score.
After giving up 342 rushing yards to Kentucky last year, Samford reversed trends by giving up 391 passing yards to Georgia State, whose only 2012 win came against 0-11 Rhode Island.
Samford doesn’t qualify for a full-fledged film review, but here’s one concept to keep an eye on that they’ll use to try and get the running game going.
This is very similar to the read option that we saw Louisiana-Lafayette running. This is a run concept called a zone read, which is very similar to the read option. The zone read was made popular when used by Oklahoma quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. It’s a more conservative read option that doesn’t require a running quarterback (neither Bradford nor Jones was particularly mobile). Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin, likewise, isn’t a runner.
Here, we see the tailback align left of the quarterback and come across the quarterback’s front with a run over the right tackle. The quarterback is reading the backside defensive end, who is left unblocked. If the end is athletic enough to crash across the line, the quarterback must keep the ball and run right. However, this rarely happens, so the usual result is that the offense can execute a simple handoff but leave a defender unblocked…freeing the line to block other defenders.
In this play, the defensive end tried but failed to break across the line, so the quarterback has handed the ball off (arrow is on running back).
So what’s the difference between the read option and the zone read? First, in a read option, both options go to the same side, while in a zone read they go different ways. Second, in a read option both options have roughly equal chances of being called, while in a zone read a defender rarely gets himself into position to force the second option, so the first option is almost always favored.
The bad news for Samford is that their zone read will be testing Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, both of whom are perfectly capable of breaking across the line against the running back. Unless we see some kind of modification made by Samford, the Bulldog QB Andy Summerlin, who can get under five seconds on his 40-time only on a good day (his official scouting report gives him 4.96 seconds), will be running the football against the Hog defense, something Samford probably doesn’t want.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It’s unnecessary to visit the matchups because Arkansas wins all of them on paper, but here are some keys to the game.
ARKANSAS MUST establish the run early. Georgia State isn’t much of a running team, but Samford didn’t do them any favors, holding the Panthers to 72 yards rushing despite getting torched through the air. This is important because once the run is established, the playbook is opened up for Jim Chaney, so Brandon Allen, who probably won’t play the whole game, can get some valuable experience.
SAMFORD MUST hope that Zach Hocker still has an injured groin. Samford’s most dangerous playmaker is Fabian Truss returning kickoffs. He took a kick back last week and averaged 27 yards per return in 2012. If Hocker follows up last weeks’ act with another 100% touchback rate, Samford’s best bet to score or make a big play is probably gone.
ARKANSAS MUST improve its linebacker coverage. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash said on Wednesday that nickel packages (one linebacker replaced by a defensive back for passing situations) would be considered based on available personnel. By available personnel he’s probably referring to safety Rohan Gaines, who may not play or be limited on Saturday after an injury against ULL. Either way, Samford will test the Hog linebackers with short routes to tight ends and slot receivers, a relative weakness on the Hog D.
THE MATCHUP TO WATCH FOR IS Hog wide receiver Javontee Herndon vs. Samford cornerback Jaquiski Tartt. Samford has a history of talented cornerbacks, including Courtland Finnegan and 2012 NFL draft pick Corey White. Tartt led the Bulldogs in tackles in 2012 (94 tackles) and picked off 4 passes. He returned an impressive one-handed interception for a touchdown against Georgia State last week. Samford’s pass defense is pretty bad (hence a defensive back making so many tackles), but Tartt is a playmaker with good hands that could snag Brandon Allen’s first interception of the year.
Score predictions (especially on the Hog side) are largely unnecessary in this game, as Bielema can probably name the score and exactly how many points the Hogs get will depend on how long the starters play and how much of the playbook is opened up. Arkansas hasn’t forced a shutout since 2006 (Utah State), but this may be the best opportunity to get one since that date. As far as score predictions go, that’s the number worth keeping an eye on.
Prediction: Arkansas 49, Samford 7