The anticipation is almost over. Game week is here. Bret Bielema’s fourth Arkansas Razorback football squad takes the field at 3 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium.
The opponent is Skip Holtz’ Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, who’ve won 18 games over the last two seasons and were last seen whipping Arkansas State, 47-28, in the New Orleans Bowl. Holtz spent his formative years in Fayetteville (1977-83) when his dad Lou was coaching the Hogs.
Incidentally, the elder Holtz joins the Razorback Hall of Honor this Friday with a group that includes hoops standout Oliver Miller and gridiron great Danny Rhoades. Bielema joked last week about the timing of Lou’s induction, saying that there would probably be three busloads of Holtz in town for the ceremony and the game, but that he didn’t need any of them.
While there are interesting angles for the game, the story this week for Hog Callers isn’t really the Bulldogs. I doubt even the most contrary Razorback fan would forecast a Tech upset for Saturday, although it could happen. We all remember last year’s Toledo game.
To me the story is how well will the Hogs play. How will Austin Allen handle his first start? Are the young running backs Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley the answer to providing a potent rushing attack? Can the restructured offensive line get a push in the running game, and give Allen the time to throw to talents like Drew Morgan, Jeremy Sprinkle, Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, Dominique Reed and Cody Hollister?
Is the defense as improved as much as touted? Can the defensive line actually pressure the quarterback? Is there really depth at linebacker or is that just a hope and a prayer? Will the defensive backfield rebound from being last in the league in passing yardage allowed last season, and by how much?
Those questions will only begin to be answered on Saturday and be played out over the course of the season, but my gut instinct is that Hog fans are going to ultimately like the answers.
Now, I freely admit I’m a fairly optimistic guy concerning the Razorbacks. Some would say I drink the Kool-Aid too deeply or this season the “Juice.”
If you haven’t heard what the “Juice” is you should definitely Google it in conjunction with Drew Morgan. The senior wide receiver from Greenwood said last week that he had what he called the “Juice.”
Morgan explained to his teammates in a meeting and then to the media that the “Juice” is a positive mental attitude, and he added that he wanted it to be contagious among his fellow Razorbacks.
One of Arkansas’ grad assistants then tagged Morgan with the nickname “Druice.” Again, search for the interview. Morgan, one of the more animated Hogs in years, explains the “Juice” much more effectively and infectiously than I can.
But this team does seem to exhibit a positive attitude that’s been lacking in the recent past. The reason why is the senior leadership is the best its been since Bielema began building the program after Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith left a fire burning in the Razorbacks’ dumpster.
Senior leadership is an intangible that’s hard to measure, but every good or great team has it. Coaches do provide essential leadership, but they don’t suit up on Saturdays, and they aren’t on the field. Teams that lack leadership from the upperclassmen never reach their full potential. It just doesn’t happen.
Senior leadership is the glue that binds teams together, and keeps them together through adversity and even success. Yes, success can be as challenging to deal with in its own way as failure.
Bielema has said he likes this team because he knows this team, and with only a few exceptions, he recruited every one of these players. From the confidence Bielema exudes, he and his staff might just have the Razorbacks poised for a very good season.
Now, I admit that might be the “Juice” talking.
To get a shot of reality, it only takes a glance at the Razorbacks’ schedule to know that this season is going to be as challenging as ever. The Hogs face No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 LSU, No. 11 Ole Miss, No. 13 TCU, and No. 25 Florida this season. Texas A&M and Auburn are also receiving votes.
The Razorbacks could be very good this year, but only win six or seven games. Personally, I think Arkansas’ going to be better than that. I envision nine or even 10 victories this year, if the team stays healthy overall and the defense truly is improved.
Like I said earlier, I’m optimistic. I’ve got the “Juice.” You might try a swig yourself.