Bearcats pose stout obstacle for Hogs’ season opener

The countdown to the No. 19 Arkansas Razorbacks’ season opener is down to single digits.

The No. 23 Cincinnati Bearcats will invade Reynolds Razorback Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for an ESPN-televised clash of Top-25 programs.

It’s the first time the Hogs have opened the season as a ranked team against a ranked team since Lou Holtz’ No. 6 Hogs kicked off the season in Austin against Fred Akers’ No. 9 Texas Longhorns. That game was moved by ABC Sports from its regular third week of October date to Labor Day on Sept. 1 to be the first game of the season. Both squads were expected to be in the hunt for the Cotton Bowl and perhaps more.

The Longhorns won the game, 23-17, but Texas and Arkansas both struggled that season with injuries and finished with 7-5 records. The Baylor Bears, led by the great middle linebacker Mike Singletary, won the Southwest Conference that season by going undefeated in conference play and winning 10 games for the first time in school history. Despite running the table in the SWC, the Bears surprisingly lost to San Jose State, 30-22, in the middle of the season and got thumped, 30-2, by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

Forty-two years later, that might seem like some superfluous information, and really it is, but it does go to show that expectations don’t always jibe with reality.

The Longhorns and Hogs were expected to be powerhouses that season, but both barely had .500 seasons. They both needed wins in minor bowls to reach seven wins. Baylor was expected to be good, but they arguably had their best season in history up to that point.

Next up for the No. 19 Razorbacks

Opponent: Cincinnati
When:  2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Streaming: ESPN

Remaining Schedule

Sept. 10 – South Carolina
Sept. 17 – Missouri State
Sept. 24 – Texas A&M at Arlington
Oct. 1 – Alabama
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman has said his Razorbacks are a good football team, but Monday in his press conference, he did express some trepidation about the Hogs’ showdown with coach Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati squad.

The Bearcats went 13-1 last season with their only loss coming to Alabama, 27-6, in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Cincinnati returns its entire starting offensive line from last year, but the Bearcats are replacing starting quarterback Desmond Ridder, running back Jerome Ford, and wide receiver Alec Pierce.

Fickell hasn’t announced if senior Ben Bryant or sophomore Evan Prater will start. They reportedly split time rather evenly in the Bearcats’ final scrimmage last week. That might mean the Hogs will see both of them on Saturday, or it might not. Either way, when breaking in a new starter at quarterback, it instills some confidence in the player and the coach to do it behind a veteran offensive line.

The Hogs probably should expect to see a heavy dose of running backs Corey Kiner, a transfer from LSU, and Ryan Montgomery. Tight end Josh Whyle is a good one, whom the Razorbacks will have to account for all day long.

Defensively, the Bearcats are retooling after losing a lot of talent off the nation’s 10th-ranked defense last season. Key loses were NFL draft picks Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant at corner back and Bryan Cook at safety. Ja’von Hicks returns as a starter at the other safety and Arquon Bush saw a lot of playing time as a back-up corner last year, snaring three interceptions.

While the Razorbacks are a run first team, it will have to be tempting for Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendall Briles to allow returning starter quarterback K.J. Jefferson to test the Bearcats’ retooled secondary with tight end Trey Knox and a receiving corps that was suspect coming out of spring but which has earned his and Pittman’s confidence over the last month.

The Bearcats could be stout in the box against the run like last year with the return of end Malik Vann and 315-pound Virginia transfer Jowon Briggs making his presence known in their three-man front.

Junior linebacker Deshawn Pace is a headhunter from his outside linebacker/nickel back spot, and Wilson Huber returns as a leader on the inside.

The biggest mistake for the Razorbacks and their fans would be to underestimate this Bearcats squad just because of the matriculation of talent into the NFL. Fickell, in his sixth season with the Bearcats, has a mature program. Who is to say that Cincinnati isn’t reloading rather than rebuilding. Alabama was pretty good last year in what Nick Saban described as a “rebuilding year.”

Last year the Bearcats upset Notre Dame as their claim to fame, and it won them the right to play in the playoffs after rolling through the rest of their schedule. This year the Razorbacks, with their SEC pedigree, stand to be the Bearcats’ most formidable opponent. If Cincinnati is to make a splash this season, it’s going to be this Saturday against the Hogs.

Expectations among Razorback fans are high, too. Many are eying the Oct. 1 date with Alabama as THE game of the season. The Razorbacks scored well with Alabama last season in a 42-35 loss at Tuscaloosa. Some might say talk of upsetting Alabama is unrealistic. Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2006.

If the Alabama game is going to be truly meaningful, the Razorbacks need to take care of business on Saturday.

Even though the Hogs are a 6 to 6.5-point favorite, that’s purely a guess by oddsmakers based on last season, home-field advantage, what both teams have returning, and where the early money has been bet. First-game odds don’t even qualify as an educated guess.

Razorbacks fans need to show up and show out with passion. While, there isn’t any history behind this game like last year’s with Texas, a similar atmosphere would no doubt help the Razorbacks’ cause, and this Bearcats squad is probably better, maybe a lot better than Texas was last year.

Hog fans need to reach that magic level again this Saturday for the Bearcats, and stay there for the rest of the year against what is a very demanding schedule.