Why play Samford: Big Hog needs a win; little Bulldog has to eat

Arkansas vs. Samford

Time: 6 p.m. Saturday
Location: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
TV: Pay per view

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If you are looking for drama Saturday, you might be more likely to find it in the stands of Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium than on the field when Arkansas plays host to the Samford Bulldogs at 6 p.m.

The debate concerning the Razorbacks’ unique stadium situation, which will no doubt be a topic of conversation among fans, could cause more friction than the action on the field.

Samford, based out of Birmingham, Ala., is an FCS squad, a division lower than the Hogs, a FBS team, and while the Bulldogs (1-0) showed themselves to be a solid team with a 31-21 victory over Georgia State last week — particularly considering their head coach Pat Sullivan was incapacitated while healing from back surgery — it’s clear the Bulldogs are not on the Hogs’ level.

The game is clearly a rent-a-win situation for the Hogs, and a paycheck game for the Bulldogs. Arkansas is paying Samford in the neighborhood of a half million dollars to play the game. Expect the Bulldogs, guided this week by defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio as interim coach, to compete hard, but also expect them to accept a loss along with that check.

Considering the circumstances some may ask why Arkansas would schedule such a game, and it’s a good question. Part of the reason is the NCAA allows them to do so. A FBS team can count one victory over an FCS team toward bowl eligibility each year. That’s one win almost in the bag and five to go before the season even starts. The game’s better than an open date this early for grooming a young team, and it provides a home game without having return it next year on Samford’s campus. What a deal.

Also, it’s usually a pretty good business decision. You may ask, “How can that be? Didn’t you just write Arkansas is forking over the better part of 500 grand to the Bulldogs for their services?”

Yep, but consider the fact the Razorbacks had to cough up nearly a million for last week’s Louisiana-Lafayette contest and will do the same next Saturday to get Southern Miss on the field, and the value of playing an FCS team like Samford once a season becomes more apparent.

For the Bulldogs and other FCS programs, playing a couple of FBS teams a year isn’t just a great deal; it’s a necessity that keeps their athletic department.

Just because such games are dubbed rent-a-wins doesn’t mean an Arkansas win is a given. This isn’t championship wrestling. Just ask Kansas State fans.

North Dakota State bushwhacked Bill Snyder’s Wildcats, 24-21, last week giving Bill Rovell’s FCS Bison program four wins over four FBS squads in as many seasons. Seven other FCS programs posted wins over FBS programs last week. Odds are there will be other FCS upsets this weekend as well.

That being said, are the Hogs ripe for the picking? Personally, I don’t think so.

It’s clear after last week’s performance in a 34-14 victory over ULL, the Razorbacks are tuned into their first-year head coach, and after just one game, it’s easy to tell Bret Bielema is a detail-oriented coach, who knows how to prepare a football team.

I have to think back to a 38-0 plastering of Tulsa in 1982 under Lou Holtz and a 21-0 route of Ole Miss in 1986 under Ken Hatfield to think of smoother season-opening victories for the Hogs, where things just clicked.

While I expected the Razorbacks to defeat the Ragin’ Cajuns, I did not expect them to so thoroughly dominate a team that is among the favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference. The Hogs did not look like a team playing their first game under an entirely different regime. By no means was it a perfect performance, but it was mighty crisp for a season opener.

Despite his gregarious personality and success at Wisconsin, Bielema is stepping into his first year in the SEC with something to prove, and from the Hogs’ performance, it seems the team has the same attitude.

So, if you’re taking a victory for granted Saturday, what’s the point in going to the game?

First, to see if this team brings the same discipline and focus to the field against Samford as it did in their opener. While the Bielema era opened sharp, will the Hogs have that same drive week to week no matter who the opponent is. This team counts on sophomores and freshmen filling key roles on offense, and a host of inexperienced linebackers manning the second level of Arkansas’ defense. It’s still uncertain how they will play.

If the Razorbacks are as dialed in as last week, it’s a good sign this team will be steady and not take unnecessary emotional roller coaster rides. There will be crests and troughs in SEC play, but they don’t need to be self-inflicted like so many were last season.

If the game goes as expected, Bielema and his assistants should be able to get a lot of players on the field for game experience. The Razorbacks had solid rotations on both sides of the ball in the opener, but this game should give some not-ready-for-prime-time Hogs a chance to get their snouts dirty. And, that’s the true value of this game.

While sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen needs time on the field, Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney needs to bend over backwards to get backup signal-caller A.J. Derby some playing time. Almost certainly Derby will be called upon to perform at some point in SEC play. It would be good if it were not his first snap of the season.

With this new staff and so many inexperienced Hogs just getting their hooves underneath them, Razorbacks fans ought to be excited to view their next stage of development. After Saturday there are just 10 more guaranteed opportunities to watch and call the Hogs this year.