The 15th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks enter the 2011 season with lofty expectations, and they hope to avoid an upset this weekend as the Missouri State Bears come to town.
Members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Bears are led by head coach Terry Allen, now in his sixth season as head coach of the program. Allen and company are coming off a 2010 campaign in which they finished a perfect 5-0 at home but lost all six of their road games. Missouri State welcomes back the fewest starters of any team in their nine-team conference, so expectations are certainly tempered.
"It's more important where you are at the end of the season than at the beginning," said Allen, whose Bears were picked to finish last in the MVFC in a preseason poll. "We have a lot of new faces, so I understand why they put us where they did."
As for Arkansas, it reeled off six straight victories to close out the 2010 regular season and carried a 10-2 record into the Sugar Bowl. While that game ended in a 31-26 defeat to Ohio State, the foundation was clearly set for a 2011 season loaded with lofty expectations. Sure, some key players have been lost to graduation, injury and the NFL, but there is a wealth of talent in place, giving coach Bobby Petrino a fighting chance in the loaded SEC.
Arkansas has won all six previous meetings with Missouri State, the most recent of which took place in 2009.
Five starters are back on the offensive side of the ball for Missouri State, which begins life without QB Cody Kirby. The signal caller was third in MVFC history with 9,019 yards of total offense, and he will clearly be missed. Redshirt freshman Mitchell Jenkins figures to take the snaps in this opener, as projected starter Trevor Wooden has been suspended for the Arkansas game.
The strength of the Bears' offense seems to be the wide receiver position, as Jermaine Saffold returns after posting 53 receptions for 869 yards and five scores a year ago. The running game features a pair of talented ball carriers in Chris Douglas (6.9 ypc, 1,051 rushing yds in 2010) and Stephen Johnston (752 yards). Unfortunately, there is only one returning starter along the offensive line.
It appears that the Missouri State defense will struggle against Arkansas, especially since seven of the 11 starters will be new. The front seven was decimated, as losses like Antoine Wilkinson will be tough to overcome. Keep an eye on Nick Canavan, though, as he has the ability to be one of the better linebackers in the FCS. This season, seven of the Bears' 11 games are on the road, including all four games in September. Considering the club couldn't win on enemy turf last season, the defense will be under pressure to put up a fight and break that trend.
Last season, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett garnered most of the team's headlines for his outstanding play. While sometimes overshadowed, tailback Knile Davis had a tremendous season as well, racking up 1,322 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on just 204 carries. Mallett is gone, and Davis was expected to be a workhorse in 2011. Unfortunately, the standout suffered a serious ankle injury in a scrimmage on August 11th and is expected to miss the entire campaign.
The tailback duties now fall to juniors Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson, both of whom have been impressive in their opportunities to date.
"I think they do a great job, no matter what the circumstances are," quarterback Tyler Wilson said of Davis' replacements. "They'll be all right."
Speaking of Wilson, he takes over for Mallett, and while the junior doesn't have the all-world arm of his predecessor, he has played well when given the chance. It certainly helps that he has perhaps the nation's best group of receivers to work with. Joe Adams, a speedy slot man, posted 813 yards and six scores on 50 catches a year ago. Jarius Wright is a burner who can score every time he touches the ball, but as good as both he and Adams are, the most talented receiver on the roster is Greg Childs. Returning from knee surgery, it remains to be seen if Childs is 100 percent, but he is a star-caliber player when his body cooperates.
"Defensively, our speed on the edges at defensive end and linebacker and in the secondary is where it needs to be," says coach Petrino.
Two years ago, Arkansas ranked 89th nationally in total defense, but the team was able to climb all the way up to the 36th spot a season ago. With seven starters back for another go, there is obviously reason to believe that the solid performance can at least be maintained, if not improved upon.
Up front, the man to watch is end Jake Bequette, who posted seven sacks a year ago. At linebacker, Jerry Franklin is as consistent as they come, as he has led the club in tackles in each of his first three seasons on campus. Moving to the secondary, Tramain Thomas recorded four interceptions a year ago and is back to roam the field from his free safety position.