Nearly a year ago, a Top 10 Arkansas Razorbacks squad entered as heavy favorites over the Sun Belt's Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. What transpired led to one of the most epic collapses in the program's history, as the Hogs watched Warhawks QB Kolton Browning walk into the end zone to win in OT and send Arkansas in a downward spiral to finish 4-8.
Saturday, Arkansas welcomes another Sun Belt foe in the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns. In Bret Bielema's head coaching debut for the Hogs, it is anything but a gimme.
Louisiana coach Mark Hudspeth led the program to its first bowl appearance in 41 years in 2011, and last season, the Ragin' Cajuns capped off a great year with a bowl win over East Carolina to finish 9-4.
Arkansas has had all sorts of problems recently stopping dual-threat quarterbacks. In their deflating loss to the Warhawks last year, the Hogs allowed Browning to pass for a monstrous 412 yards and three scores, as well as rush for another 69 yards and a TD. Louisiana possesses a dual-threat quarterback of their own in junior Terrance Broadway.
Broadway was a key to the Ragin' Cajuns' historic 2012 campaign, passing for 2,842 yards and 17 TDs. What makes him so dynamic are his legs. The junior was second on the team with 769 yards on the ground and nine trips to the paydirt.
To slow him down, Arkansas will rely heavily on the defensive line. The Hogs return three starters, including senior Robert Thomas, who played a significant role in 2012. They were the most consistent unit on an otherwise inconsistent team, ranking 19th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (124.1). Had it not been for them, the Hogs could have easily had an even more depressing 2012.
If the defensive line can't keep Broadway and tailback Alonzo Harris (881 yards, 10 TDs) from getting to the second level, the Razorbacks will be in a world of hurt.
That's because Arkansas starts over at linebacker, with not one starter back on the unit. You can also expect Louisiana to test the Hogs secondary early and often. Louisiana-Monroe made a meal of their defensive backs, along with just about every other team they faced.
How bad was Arkansas' pass coverage? They ranked dead last in the SEC, allowing 285.8 yards per game (113th NCAA). To put that into an even clearer perspective, they were even worse than Tennessee, which had its worst defensive season in the history of the program.
The potential problems not just for this game, but for all of 2013, are large in numbers as Lindy's pointed out in their annual college football preview magazine:
They abound. There is an unproven quarterback, no established go-to receivers and a young line on offense. There are willing but small safeties on defense, and linebacker positions that remain wide open. Special teams have no proven game-breakers.
It will serve the Hogs well to get their running back duo of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams touches early. Arkansas lost starting quarterback Tyler Wilson to the NFL. Taking his place is Brandon Allen, a young and inexperienced sophomore.
Collins, a 4-star freshman according to Rivals.com, was reeled in late by Bielema. He joins Williams, who showed flashes of big things to come as a freshman, in the backfield. Against an average Louisiana rush defense, Arkansas will attack the Ragin' Cajuns early on the ground to try and help open up the passing game for the inexperienced Allen.
How well Allen performs is the key for the Hogs if they want to avoid another disastrous start similar to 2012. Allen was shaky at best filling in for Wilson against Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama after he was injured against the Warhawks in the first half. In both games, he combined to go just 16-38 (42.1 percent) for one score and three picks. Allen must improve his accuracy, and that is the bottom line.
Establishing the run early with Collins and Williams will help open up receivers for Allen. Look for the Hogs to call short pass plays and checkdowns to get him in a rhythm. They don't need him to be incredible to win, they just need Allen to manage the game and show he can lead the offense efficiently.
Under Hudspeth, the Ragin' Cajuns have gone from a doormat to a Sun Belt title contender. Hudspeth has amassed an 84-29 record as a head coach (18-8 at Louisiana) and has turned around the program in a short amount of time, which has resulted in big-time programs taking a look at him.
The Razorbacks have the upper hand in talent and overall depth, but counting out Louisiana on the road at Arkansas would not be wise. Just ask the Warhawks.