State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Samford)

Here's the weekly pre-game Top 10 list of keys to victory for the Arkansas-Samford matchup. Can the Hogs play like the underdog again this week?

It's not a sellout. Stanford would be, but not Samford. The tough part for new coach Bret Bielema is to get his team to play like it's Stanford.

Getting effort wasn't a problem in the opener. The Hogs played like the underdog against Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns. Can they against Samford, the Baptist school from Birmingham that knocked off Georgia State last week?

Arkansas is favored from 32 to 34 points depending on the line you pick. Bielema and his coaches, so perfect in getting the Hogs to play with a chip on their shoulder last week, will be challenged in making their guys play that way again.

Everyone has spent a week talking about how well the Hogs played in the opener. They weren't perfect, but they didn't look like a team coming off 4-8 and breaking in a new staff, new quarterback and playing in 95-degree heat.

It's not the first time the Hogs have avoided cramps in a hot opener. But it was interesting after seeing team after team on ESPN fight cramps on TV games earlier in the week.

Bielema said that challenge doesn't change this week. It's a 6 p.m. game in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium so heat will be an issue again at least for the opening half. Bielema said it isn't about getting fluids on Saturday. He said the emphasis starts on Wednesday and Thursday when he asks players to slam two bottles of Gatorade supplements after practice, then continue into the evening.

"I'm a northern boy so I had to do some research on exactly what we were facing," Bielema said. "You have to force it down and make sure you do it over and over. That's the only way to be prepared by game time. You have to start early in the week. We were successful last week and we have to continue to do that."

It's that attention to detail that carried over to everything the Hogs did in week one. Traditionally, teams make their most improvement between the first and second week. But if the Hogs played well in week one, were they close to their ceiling early in the Bielema era?

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash doesn't think so, noting many alignment errors in the opener. Asked about the underneath coverage and some Cajuns running loose, Ash said, "I think it's all about alignment. We had issues in the front, at linebacker, at corner and at safety. It's about attention to detail."

Those issues will not play well against Samford, perhaps bringing a little more speed at two positions, tailback and slot receiver. Bielema noted the big-pay capabilities of the visitors in his Thursday briefing. Bad alignment produces bad angles and is magnified by speed.

But it's probably more about the Hogs than their opposition this week. Will they be as mentally sharp in the second game as in the opener. They played with an edge.

"I think you have to play with an edge every week," said Travis Swanson, senior center and captain. "I was taught when I went to college that you better play with a chip on your shoulder every week. You only get 12 guaranteed games a year. I think you should be ready each week."

With that we will launch in the top 10 keys for the Samford game:

1, Quarterback -- Brandon Allen was sharp in the opener. Can he match that in Little Rock and erase the bad memories of an 0-2 nightmare of 2012. Allen couldn't sustain success in the second half against Louisiana-Monroe last year. It will be interesting to see how much Allen has grown since then, a huge amount apparently. Allen's first game reminded of his scrimmages in the spring and the public viewing in early August, the only open day of camp. He sparkled. He was hit only twice, with one sack. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Allen had only one ill-advised throw in the opener, across his body moving to his right in the red zone. He'll have to go some to improve on his first game. But he's been consistent under Chaney, both in throws and checks.

2, Turnovers -- That's the key to avoiding upsets, win the turnover battle, a cornerstone of Bielema's program. The Hogs did that in the opener. The only lost turnover was a fumble by freshman tight end Hunter Henry. There were no loose balls by the running backs, a source of pride among the coaches and players. They'd like to make it back-to-back games. Arkansas lost 16 fumbles last year, probably a huge factor in the 4-8 season. The Hogs got only one interception, a batted ball by the defensive front. The secondary would like to get into the act this week.

3, Physical Dominance -- There is little doubt that the Hogs controlled the line of scrimmage against Louisiana. Can they do that again? One of the areas of emphasis in practice this week was the way they finish blocks in the offensive line and shed blockers on defense. Last week, the point of emphasis was on the perimeter where center Travis Swanson and fullback Kiero Small knocked down their men to make it easy for the running backs. If you want to have some fun, watch Swanson. An old line coach told me once if you focused on the center and the fullback, they are going to take you through the hole. The ball will show up behind them rather quickly. Never has that been more true than with the Bielema system and with this set of center/fullback. They are the central figures in the scheme. They did lead the way last week for Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

4, Numbers -- Arkansas rushed for 292 and passed for 230, great numbers for a Bielema offense in the first week of the season. Can the Hogs repeat that kind of balance? Bielema is a numbers guy. He likes long drives, ball control and time of possession. He wants to eat up six or seven minutes with an offensive drive, rest the defense and cause frustration with the other offense because they can't get into a rhythm. That is something to watch Saturday night. Do the Hogs get another fast-paced offensive team out of rhythm? Williams and Collins both went over 100 yards last week. Can they do that again? Or, does Nate Holmes, Kody Walker and Small get more carries?

5, Loaded Box -- It took UL about five plays to load the box in the opener. I suspect Samford will not have to wait that deep. How long does it take Brandon Allen to take advantage of one-on-one matchups? It could be from the start. It's clear that balance is one of the big objectives in this offense, and Bielema does that by establishing the running game. But he's got more tendencies towards the pass than most fans suspected at the outset. As Chaney said, it's not hard to count and figure out where the least number of bodies are located in the defense, and that can be right left or deep. That's where the Hogs want to attack.

6, Linebackers -- The Hogs didn't play many linebackers in the opener. UL barely got to 60 plays in the heart of the game. That made it hard for assistant coach Randy Shannon to get newcomers Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis many snaps. Spaight, the juco transfer from North Little Rock, should get more action this week. Who is the first opponent to "get Spaighted," the highlight term of fall camp? Ellis also should get snaps at middle linebacker. Both played on special teams, but Bielema said both have had a good week of practice and will get some action in scrimmage plays in War Memorial Stadium.

7, Special Teams -- The opener didn't feature many plays in the return game. The wind tends to swirl in War Memorial because it's a complete bowl. Sometimes that makes it hard to kickoff deep. There should be a few more kickoff returns. Javontee Herndon wasn't interested in returning punts last week. He was a fair catch signal waiting to happen when the Hogs forced punts last week.

8, Tight Ends -- Hunter Henry led the tight ends with seven catches. Can Mitchell Loewen be more than an extra tackle? He wasn't a factor in the passing game in the opener. The tight ends produced most of the obvious errors in the opener. Henry had a fumble and a drop. He also had two procedure penalties, both when he raised his hand and adjusted stance, a no-no when a tight end is covered by a wide receiver. Bielema took the blame for that, not taking care of a detail.

9, Freshman Tackles -- How much do Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper play? They were factors in the opener, getting one series in each half. Bielema said Grady Ollison, the starting right tackle, knows Kirkland is coming for his spot. Competition makes the world go around. If Ollison and left tackle David Hurd miss a beat, those big freshmen are going to get more time. Kirkland was a little nervous at the outset, according to line coach Sam Pittman.

10, The Crowd -- There's been more discussion this week about attendance for Little Rock games and the future schedule than Samford. Of course, if the Hogs weren't playing an FCS opponent, this debate might not be happening. Late in the week, there were still several thousand unsold tickets for Saturday night. That will be part of the discussion during and after the game, how many came to the game? There's always been a great atmosphere in War Memorial. It will be the first game there for Bielema and his staff. It will be interesting to hear his reaction to his first game in Little Rock.

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