Fans’ faith still shaken after Hogs’ finish to last season

There is a temptation by fans to think of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ season opener with the Florida A&M Rattlers as an exhibition game of sorts.

I get that, and if all goes as planned from a Razorbacks’ point of view, the Hogs will make quick work out of the Rattlers.

As of Monday morning, there is no betting line on the game that kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and will be televised by the SEC Network. My guess is there’s not enough money on both sides to make a line profitable and probably not enough interest in general.

Despite the fact that Florida A&M (1-0) walloped Texas Southern, 29-7, last Saturday in their season opener, Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks are expected by most to romp and stomp all over the Rattlers.

This is one of those games where the score can’t be big enough to please fans. Even if the Razorbacks roll over the Rattlers to the tune of 30-10 or 38-17, it won’t be enough to truly please Hog fans.

Most Razorback fans expect Arkansas to win something like 50-0, and even if the Hogs do that, many will say, “well, it was just Florida A&M.”

Such thoughts lead to a degree of mental apathy among fans. Sure, every football fan is excited about the start of the season, but Hog fans aren’t excited enough about playing the Rattlers on a Thursday night in Little Rock to make the season opener a sellout.

There are plenty of tickets left on sale at the War Memorial Stadium ticket office for a game that is almost certainly the next to last Razorback game, if not the last, in War Memorial Stadium for the foreseeable future.

Arkansas is contractually bound to play a game next season in War Memorial Stadium, but with the north end zone additions to Reynolds Razorback Stadium scheduled to be finished in time for the 2018 season, it’s popular thought Arkansas will buy their way out the game at War Memorial Stadium and play it on campus. Arkansas can make a million more dollars for a game at Fayetteville with the 20,000 additional seats, some of which are expensive luxury seats in indoor suites.

Economic reasons are why the Razorbacks began playing in Little Rock, and they are the reason why the Hogs won’t play there in the near future.

It’s hard to say how many fans will show up for Thursday’s game. Some have speculated as low as 35,000, while others have guessed close to 45,000. I would hope it would be closer to 50,000, but that’s probably wishful thinking.

With all games televised, a smaller and smaller portion feel like must-attend events, particularly with the Razorbacks coming off such a miserable finish to last season.

As you well know, the Hogs lost their final two games last season to Missouri at Columbia, Mo., and to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl after holding double-digit halftime leads.

If the Hogs had held on to win both games and finished with nine wins instead of seven, the attitude of fans would be entirely different.

While the Razorbacks open a totally new season Thursday, that cloud of doubt hangs over the players and coaching staff going into the season.

How long will those feeling linger?

That’s a good question. Victories over TCU and Texas A&M in the coming weeks would help, but I’m not sure even that would put the issue to rest for good.

Arkansas fans love their Razorbacks to the bone and will support them when given reason, but the letdown from last year has them apprehensive.

Now, if the Hogs were opening the season against TCU or an SEC squad this Thursday night, you wouldn’t be able to find a ticket.

However, to help prompt sellouts at Razorback Stadium, premiere opponents have to be saved for on-campus games. The exception is the A&M game, which is played yearly at Arlington, Texas, for a nice payout and recruiting exposure.

There was a time when fans would fill up War Memorial Stadium just to see the Hogs play. The opponent was somewhat irrelevant. Fans were going to see their Razorbacks and the opponent did not matter as much.

However, that time passed two or three decades ago. With every game televised today, matchups are more and more important to filling up stadiums.

For a middle-class family of four that has to pick its spots judiciously where it spends its entertainment dollars, staying home Thursday to watch the game on TV might be a necessity to make a trip to Razorback Stadium for the TCU or Auburn game a reality.

While teams like Arkansas do need tune-up games and pressure-relieving games mixed in with their SEC slate, if attendance remains an issue, attempting to schedule better opponents might be a bridge athletic directors have to cross.

Now, all that doesn’t mean diddley squat to Florida A&M. The Rattlers will come into Razorback Stadium on a high after the way they roughed up Texas Southern. They will enter the game with the intention of shocking the world by upsetting an SEC team.

Should Rattlers coach Alex Wood want ammunition to further motivate his team against the Razorbacks, he only has to look back to the 2012 when Louisiana-Monroe upset the Hogs in overtime, 34-31, and 2015 when Toledo beat the Razorbacks, 16-12. Both games were played at War Memorial Stadium.

Arkansas barely dodged a bullet in their season opener last year at Razorback Stadium, edging Louisiana Tech, 21-20.

Fans can afford to take Florida A&M lightly, but the Razorbacks can’t. I don’t think the Rattlers have a chance of winning Thursday, but that’s what I thought in 2012 against Louisiana-Monroe and in 2015 against Toledo, too.

One reason fans should be excited about Thursday’s opener is the fact that they have seen very little of this team. There was no Red-White game in the spring, and fans only saw the last hour of a scrimmage on fan day.

The media hasn’t seen much more. Reporters and broadcasters were allowed to see the entirety of the first scrimmage, but were also locked out of the varsity portion of the second scrimmage.

Media can attend the first 20 minutes of practice almost daily, but the biggest thing that can be learned that early is what players are dressed out and possibly if a player switched positions.

I’m very interested in seeing how the offensive line performs Thursday night. This time last year, I took for granted Arkansas’ offensive line would come together and play well based on the history of Bielema teams.

That did not happen. Arkansas struggled up front offensively most of last year. If Arkansas is to be improved, the offensive line has to be appreciably better both in the run and passing game.

On defense, the front seven is the key. It’s too much to ask for Arkansas’ crew to be a dominating bunch in SEC play, but they can’t give up long-distance touchdowns on sweeps like they did last year.

The 3-4 scheme is different, but the players have to decide they are going to work together and do their jobs, or it will be another tough season.

Overall, the vibe around the team seems confident, positive and resolute. Senior center and All-American candidate Frank Ragnow became slightly perturbed last week when questioned about why he believed the Razorbacks could compete for the SEC title.

That’s the exact attitude a senior leader should have. His confidence makes me have more confidence in this team. However, the Razorbacks’ coaching and play in those final two games leave questions that can’t be answered in an interview or press conference. The Hogs can only answer them by playing and coaching better on the football field.

The Razorbacks’ staff and players can take the first step toward regaining their fans trust on Thursday, but with all due respect to Florida A&M, it will take viewing the contests against TCU on Sept. 9 and Texas A&M on Sept. 23 before Hog fans can really develop a feel for the type of competitive spirit the 2017 Razorbacks have.