Jim Harris: Hard to have a good handle on Hogs this early

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Gambling is illegal at Bushwood (“Caddyshack” reference, for those of you maybe saying “huh?” now) and it’s against the law mostly throughout Arkansas, except for whatever “games of skill” you can find in Hot Springs or West Memphis. But if you catch the direct flight from Little Rock National to Las Vegas and hit one of the sport books, 31½ points seem like more than Arkansas should be giving up to Texas State on Saturday night.

There was a similar feeling last Saturday, in the other direction, when the betting line for Arkansas-TCU took sudden flight before kickoff from around 6 ½ to 10 points, favoring the Horned Frogs. We also pass along our condolences to that fat-cat Texan or whoever it was who dropped that late chunk of serious change in Vegas and lost it.

Arkansas is a tough call for the odds makers these days. The line-setters aren’t picking who will win; they’re just gauging what point spread will produce, theoretically, an even amount of money being bet on the two teams. Vegas is usually at its most susceptible in the first three weeks of a college season. And, sure enough, Vegas saw a 26-point spread as enough to get people betting evenly on either side of Arkansas’s opening game with Louisiana Tech, missing badly. The smart money players who took those points and Tech were ecstatic. To us, the line was outrageous anyway, being that the Hogs were starting a new quarterback and three new offensive linemen and weren’t likely to blow out anybody, much less a well-coached mid-major like the Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs. 

Refer to the column last week and we think we broke down Arkansas-TCU accurately for you, as well, noting that TCU wasn’t exactly dominant in either o-line or d-line and the matchup would suit Arkansas better than the so-called experts were seeing it, if the Hogs’ special teams didn’t botch it. But, boy, did the Arkansas coverage teams and the placekicker still try to spoil the upset.

Meanwhile, even with an impressive comeback road win in Mid-American Conference land against MAC East Division favorite Ohio, Texas State is being viewed as easy pickings for an SEC team, and a line of 31 or so points seems like a good halfway spot for the gamblers, Vegas says.

What you have to know is, Texas State imploded on head coach Dennis Franchione last year before he was let go – Franchione had already given defensive coordinator and Arkansas native John Thompson his walking papers before the disaster was fully realized in San Marcos. So, any expectation that these Bobcats under first-year coach Everett Withers (a two-year success at FCS James Madison, and the interim coach when Butch Davis was let go at North Carolina in 2011) will be as woeful as they were last year needs to be squelched.

After winning in triple OT at Ohio, Texas State got last weekend off to watch Arkansas on TV and plan for the Hogs, who escaped Fort Worth in double overtime 41-38.

Arkansas’s win at TCU can be the type that, when we look back at it years from now, may be seen as THE game that Bret Bielema’s program took the next step to year-in, year-out respectability. Definitely it’s the best outcome in four Septembers for his program. Demons, however real or unfounded, that Arkansas under Bielema starts unusually slow and is a team usually forgotten by November when it starts kicking butt, seem to be vanquished now, though, with the Razorbacks at 2-0. Sure, a couple of bounces the other way, and the Hogs could be staring at 0-2. But they aren’t. Arkansas probably hasn’t felt this good about itself in September in 10 years.

What TCU and Louisiana Tech have both offered Arkansas is a similar look from the quarterback position that the Hogs will again see in Texas State’s Tyson Jones, a four-year starter. Jones has had two previous seasons of 500+ yards in rushing, though he only gained 11 yards against Ohio while winging it for more than 400. With Arkansas’s pass defense surrendering 210 to LTU’s backup redshirt freshman and then 377 to TCU’s Kenny Hill, Jones is probably expecting to piling up record passing yards on Saturday night. That will happen if Arkansas’s defensive line takes the night off and doesn’t dominate the Bobcats’ o-line in the way it should.

Arkansas had no turnovers at TCU and just the two first-half interceptions by Austin Allen against LaTech, plus relatively few penalties in either game, in starting this season cleaner than in years past. Starting faster out of the gate was a point of emphasis for the program all through the offseason, Bielema has said. Mission accomplished so far, even if the results left fans exhausted.

Arkansas doesn’t need to let Texas State hang around with a sudden rash of mistakes on offense. The Hogs need the defensive line to control play so that their average-at-best back line isn’t put in a position to fail. The line and linebackers still need to be aware that Jones can and will run, even with a new coordinator calling his plays.

And, if nothing else, Arkansas needs to use this week to shore up its kick coverages. A large number of players who were recruiting afterthoughts or walk-ons have populated the coverages along with a couple of starters and a handful of highly recruited reserves of which must was expected. So far, kickoff coverages have been dismal at best. Punt coverage against TCU’s dangerous KeVontae Turpin was solid until a late breakdown and a failure to tackle the highly competitive athlete proved costly, setting up a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. Turpin seemed determined to win the game singlehandedly and nearly succeeded.

Why Arkansas even chose to directionally kick off to the tiny, fast Turpin after tying the game at 28 in the final two minutes is another mystery; the well-coached TCU return team knew immediately what to do and set up a terrific wall to spring Turpin for a 68-yard runback, and nearly a TD. Only 6-foot-10 Dan Skipper’s heroics with the block of a short field goal with 10 seconds left saved the day and forced OT.

At least Bielema and the staff recognize all this, based on his and others’ responses earlier this week. And, thank goodness for Bielema’s transparency in his media duties that we aren’t left wondering if his staff can even see the problems. But talking about it and getting it fixed still seem incongruent on the Hill. Observing without being allowed the daily insight of seeing special teams practice, it appears personnel is the biggest issue, and that’s not as easily corrected as everyone thinks or hopes. Nor is Zack Hocker walking back in to take over kickoffs. While Bielema’s program has better depth than when he arrived, it still not filled with top-level athletes through the 80-85 roster spots like Alabama or LSU enjoys. With the number of plays required to defend an up-tempo offense, Arkansas can’t afford to waste all its starters (re: best tacklers) on special teams either.

Arkansas seems due for a letdown from the emotional high of last week’s game in Fort Worth. Bielema and his staff have already made it clear they’d like the starters not to be extended, what with another enormous battle upcoming next week in Arlington, Texas, vs. new nemesis Texas A&M. This would be the prime week to give freshmen running backs Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds double-digit carries, and it sets up as a possible breakout game especially for the highly touted Texan Whaley three games into his career. Arkansas needs the speed threat of Whaley and Hammonds in their running game beginning now.

But, sometimes it’s hard for a team that’s told to get the game over quickly to start fast and take care of business against an opponent that has circled you on the schedule, even a mid-level Sun Belt team.

Arkansas should win, even with an effort not quite up to last week’s, but 31 or more points seems like a stretch for a point-spread line. So, get to Vegas and bet the house. Just not my house.

Jim Harris, TVH’s top sports contributor, has covered Razorback football for 40 years and appears weekly on Wednesday at 6:50 p.m. as well as on “The Hogzone” following each Arkansas football game.


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