Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Asterisks for 2016 Arkansas Football Slate

It's time to make some notes on the Arkansas football schedule for 2016. Three trips will be key for the Razorbacks.

Some may think it is still a bit early to be detailing the must win games for the coming football season, but it's time to take an Arkansas schedule off the wall in front of my desk.

It's been taped there for months. I can't tell you if UA coach Bret Bielema has circled any games, but mine was void of notations through April. There was nothing in bold type, no lines in pen, zero notations.

But as May begins, it's time to begin to do put some asterisks by a few dates. I'll underline some games, maybe add an asterisk or two.

Some may go straight to those SEC home games with Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU. It may be the best ever set of league games in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Except those are not the games I'm marking on my sheet now laying beside my laptop on the desk. No, I'm looking at those two trips to Texas. I'll start with the first.

It's not hard for me to come up with the key date for this Arkansas football season. It's much as it was for four decades in the old Southwest Conference. What jumps off the page is that trip to Fort Worth on Sept. 10.

Amazingly, since Frank Broyles took over as coach in 1958, Arkansas has won 30 of its last 34 games with TCU. It's easier to talk about the four losses than all of those victories. No Arkansas coach ever lost more than once to TCU and for three of them, it was only in their first season. Here is the list of the four losses:

1958 – In Frank Broyles' first season, TCU won, 12-7, in Fort Worth.

1981 – TCU beat Lou Holtz' fifth UA team, 28-24, in Fort Worth.

1984 – Ken Hatfield's first team lost to TCU, 32-31, in Fayetteville.

1990 – Jack Crowe's first team lost to TCU, 54-26, in Fayetteville.

But this is not your grandfather's TCU. Gary Patterson has coached the Horned Frogs to six conference titles over the last 16 seasons. He's twice been national coach of the year, including in 2010 when TCU beat Bielema's Wisconsin team, 21-19, in a highly competitive Rose Bowl to complete a 13-0 season.

It should be a doozy of a game this time, too. Both teams should be solid on defense and are breaking in new quarterbacks. The Frogs will likely go with Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill, the Hogs with Austin Allen.

Defensively, the Frogs had to battle through injuries last year when they gave up 398 yards per game, unusually high for a Patterson-coached team.

They return almost all of the key players on that side of the ball, led by linebackers Travin Howard (105 tackles) and Ty Summers (86 tackles). There are also good players returning in front of them. End Josh Carraway (47 tackles, nine sacks) and safety Nick Orr (50 tackles) are standouts.

You get the picture. This might not be a vintage Patterson defense, but TCU will be very good on that side of the ball.

So there are two asterisks by the Sept. 10 trip. I've added two for the trip back to Texas two weeks later to play Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

If the Hogs want to make a splash in the SEC West, it's time for them to complete the deal against the Aggies. They must play the fourth quarter like they've played the first three as they've lost to the Aggies the last two years. Bielema hasn't beaten the Aggies in three tries.

Yes, it's these two Texas trips that loom most important in my eyes as Bielema tries to put a good start to a good finish. He's gotten the finishes right the last two seasons, although the Hogs will have to play on the road at Starkville and Columbia to end 2016, places Bielema has yet to conquer.

In fact, it's that trip to Starkville that is the the third game on my schedule with two asterisks. Some point to Alabama as the team the Hogs are trying to catch in the SEC West. First, they must catch Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have been the most consistent team in the West behind Alabama over the last five seasons.

Bielema has been close against the Bulldogs three straight seasons. The Hogs lost in overtime in Little Rock, took a lead to the fourth quarter against the No. 1 Bulldogs in Starkville two years ago and had a field goal blocked in the closing seconds in a 51-50 loss last year.

State will be trying to replace Dak Prescott at quarterback, a daunting task. But if there is one thing I know, Dan Mullen is a coach who knows how to develop quarterbacks. There are some interesting prospects to replace Prescott, too.

Most suspected Damian Williams to emerge, but Mullen said it would be a four-way battle and there may not have been much separation in the spring. Williams played when Prescott was injured three years ago. There is a fascinating option in 6-6, 248-pound Elijah Staley, a sophomore-to-be.

It's interesting that in all of the games I've marked with two asterisks, all are going with new quarterbacks. I like the way the Arkansas offense looks with Allen, already named the starter by Bielema. Yes, there is work to do in the offensive line, but I always have confidence in Bielema's ability to develop his blockers.

The Hogs showed they can win on the road last year, earning praise for their work at Knoxville, Oxford and Baton Rouge. Can they come up with similar results at Fort Worth, Arlington and Starkville? I think those are the key games for the coming season.

That was the narrative last year, could they win on the road? It my surprise that I've listed TCU, Texas A&M and Mississippi State as my key games for 2016. Many are probably drooling over that great Fayetteville slate of games, all tough.

But if the Hogs do well in those three games I've marked with double asterisks, it's likely going to be an outstanding season. And, it's like it's been for much of my life, get those Horned Frogs and things will begin to take shape for a nice run for the Razorbacks.

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