TCU brings SEC-caliber squad to test the Razorbacks

Sophomore running back Devwah Whaley / Photo:

If Arkansas’ season opening 49-7 victory over Florida A&M was anticlimactic for fans, Saturday’s 2:30 p.m., CBS-televised clash with TCU ought to be titanic.

While it’s still hard for old fogies like me who grew up watching Southwest Conference football to wrap our minds around the Horned Frogs as a major threat to the Razorbacks, they absolutely are.

TCU head coach Gary Patterson has proven to be one the of the college game’s best coaches since the turn of the century, thus elevating the Horned Frogs’ program.

In the shadows of Texas and Texas A&M, Patterson worked the Horned Frogs’ program into one of significance without the benefit of playing in a Power Five conference until the Big 12 reached out to TCU for help in 2012 when the Aggies jumped ship to the SEC and Nebraska headed north to the Big 10.

At first shunned by the conference in 1996 when the Longhorns, Aggies, Baylor Bears, and Texas Tech Red Raiders left the SWC to merge with what was the Big Eight, TCU and West Virginia received a hearty welcome from the Big 12 with arms wide open. They were needed to help make the disarrayed league viable once again.

TCU got the invite thanks to the work of Patterson, his staff, and his record during the previous decade. The program earned their spot as a Power 5 program. It wasn’t bequeathed. In 2014, the Horned Frogs won the Big 12, proving their place among the Big 12 elite.

Of course, the highlight season for the Horned Frogs under Patterson came in 2010 when TCU went 13-0, capping their perfect season with a 21-19 victory over Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl.

Last September, Bielema’s Razorbacks led TCU 20-7 in the third quarter before the Horned Frogs rallied to force overtime behind the arm and legs of standout quarterback Kenny Hill.

The Hogs held on for a 41-38 double-overtime victory that proved to be one of the highlights of Arkansas’ ultimately disappointing 7-6 season. The Horned Frogs also had a disappointing year, finishing 6-7 after falling 31-23 to Georgia in the Liberty Bowl.

For both squads, Saturday’s nationally televised game is the first opportunity to make a statement in the burgeoning season. With TCU (1-0) sitting just outside of the Preseason Top 25, there is a chance the Horned Frogs might pop into the Associated Press Poll this week after whacking Jackson State, 63-0, last Saturday.

Arkansas’ offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders in its opener as quarterback Austin Allen struggled in working with an almost all-new group of the receivers, but they turned it around late in the first quarter and began to roll as offensive coordinator Dan Enos began to play to what appeared to be an inside running strength.

Arkansas’ defense ran to the ball and tackled well from the get-go in defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes’ debut. They could have posted a shutout, themselves if not for a special teams snafu that allowed a sorry FAMU snap for a punt to turn into a long run and first down.

The Rattlers scored on that drive because of the special teams gift by the Hogs, who all had their backs to the punter after the initial rusher ran past the tackle, totally disregarding the possibility of a fake.

That play might end up being a gift from the Rattlers, if Arkansas’ coaching staff corrects that special teams mistake. An opponent will no doubt test the Razorbacks at some point this season with a fake punt after noticing the Hogs being oblivious to early containment on the punt.

It might come this week if the right opportunity arises for Horned Frogs.

Of course, the Horned Frogs won’t come into the game thinking about punting. Hill and his cohorts will look to run the Razorbacks ragged with their up-tempo spread attack that can wow you through the air and pow you on the ground.

It’s hard to know just how strong TCU is ultimately going to be this season at this juncture in the season, but the Horned Frogs’ offense will give the Razorbacks a preview of type of play Arkansas can expect to see from SEC opponents on a regular basis this year.

Likewise, TCU’s defense should prove to be a stern test. Patterson built his reputation on the defensive side of the football before becoming a head coach, and his best teams weren’t only sound but also at times dominating.

Come to think of it, last year’s game with TCU gave Razorbacks fans a pretty good preview of what was to come for the season. The Hogs jumped out to a lead, but had to scramble at the end. Arkansas won the game, but a penalty for what was perceived to be “throat-slashing” gesture by Hill proved key in the victory.

The hope of all Razorbacks fans is that the defense will be more sound in every aspect this season, and that the Hogs’ offense will be improved by more consistent and improved play by the offensive line, particularly in the running game.

Yes, the Hogs also had pass-blocking issues last year, giving up 35 sacks; however, if Arkansas runs the ball more effectively, the issues with pass blocking should dissolve as well.

If Arkansas runs the football better, the Hogs will be able to throw when they want to and not out of necessity. The more defenders opponents have to commit to stopping the run, the more single coverage Arkansas receivers will see.

As for this particular game, Allen has to be on his game. While you can’t take much stock in the offensive numbers the Hogs and Horned Frogs piled up last week against FAMU and Jackson State last week, it does look like this game will be an offensive shootout.

Allen did not appear to be in sync with his receivers last week. That’s not all on him, of course. He just doesn’t have the same trust yet with this group as he did with last year’s veteran group.

At times when Allen was back to pass, it appeared he was looking for a familiar face, and he couldn’t find one.

That’s something he and his receivers have to get over quick, as in this week, if the Hogs are going to have a chance to win.

The next hurdle, and it may be the biggest, is what Arkansas’ secondary is going to look like without its best player.

Ryan Pulley was the Hogs best defensive back and their best cornerback, but he is out for the season with what is being described as a torn pectoral muscle. True freshman Kamren Curl is listed as the starter on the depth chart. Arkansas’ other backup cornerbacks are just as green with sophomore Britto Tutt and true freshman Chevin Calloway next in line.

Pulley proved himself as a player and potential pro last year in eliminating TCU go-to receiver Taj Williams from the game, holding him without a catch. Curl, Tutt, and Calloway will have the same opportunity as Hill will no doubt test the young cornerbacks repeatedly.

This should be a highly entertaining and competitive game. It is a SEC-caliber game that should have Hog fans revved up and at their best by kickoff.

It’s the type of game where the energy created by the fans could have an effect on the Razorbacks and their opponent.

Former Arkansas basketball coach Eddie Sutton used to talk about a “magic level” that Razorbacks fans could reach at old Barnhill Arena. That magic level from the fans helped his Hogs play at their own magic level.

Here’s hoping Arkansas fans can bury the disappointment they felt over the Hogs’ finish to last season before Saturday, and show up at Reynolds Razorback Stadium ready to rock the stadium. That might be the advantage the Hogs need to knock off the Horned Frogs.