New Season, New Challenge

FAYETTEVILLE -- Senior tailback De'Arrius Howard, strong safety Vickiel Vaughn and linebacker Pierre Brown are used to opening Arkansas' Southeastern Conference season with an important game against division-rival Alabama in late September.

It's the only routine they've known.

They've eased into the year with one or two games against non-threatening, non-conference opponents since 2002. That was followed with a good test against a strong team like Texas. Then the Hogs geared up for the ones that really counted.

But Arkansas takes a detour from its typical routine tonight, kicking off SEC play earlier than usual against Vanderbilt in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It's the first time Arkansas has opened the conference season against someone other than Alabama since 2001 (Tennessee). That also was the last time Arkansas stepped into SEC play during the second game of the season.

"It comes with the breaks," Brown said about the schedule. "There's nothing you can do about it. You come to college to play big-time games that mean something. This is a game that means something. It doesn't matter when it is.

"You have to go out there and tackle the challenge head on and be prepared."

An SEC opener against the conference's perennial cellar dweller sounds like a welcome change for the Hogs. But Brown said Arkansas isn't taking Vanderbilt lightly after the Commodores kicked off the season with a 24-20 win at Wake Forest.

It was Vanderbilt's first season-opening victory since 1997, when it knocked off North Texas 29-12. The win also snapped Vanderbilt's 18-game road losing streak, which dated back to 2001.

So the Razorbacks know they're going to see a confident, dangerous opponent.

"They're always a good team," said Arkansas cornerback Michael Coe. "They're the kind of team that are always on the hump. Just like we are. I know they're looking to come down here and upset us so we've got to be focused and determined.

"They always play hard. We've got to be prepared."

Coe, a Memphis native, recognizes a few Vanderbilt players because he competed in the same state in high school. So is Brown, who watched a few former teammates in Alabama earn scholarships to the prestigious academic university.

But the teams aren't very familiar with each other.

In fact, tonight's game also will be the first between Arkansas and Vanderbilt since 1995, when the Razorbacks won 35-7 en route to the SEC Western Division championship. The 10-year gap was a result of a change in the SEC's scheduling format in 2002, which altered Arkansas' rotation for Eastern Division opponents.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has faced every other SEC school at least twice in his first seven years with the Hogs. Nutt said preparing for Vanderbilt has been unusual because "it's never been on our lips. It's never been on a scouting report before."

Brown said Vanderbilt has hardly been on his mind.

"In 1995, I was 12 years old," Brown said. "So, who knows?"

Arkansas expects to see a well-coached, prepared offense led by senior quarterback Jay Cutler, who threw for 276 yards and rushed for a team-high 89 in the win at Wake Forest. Defensively, the Razorbacks believe Vanderbilt will stack eight or nine players in the box in hopes of slowing their running game after Arkansas rolled to 483 rushing yards against Missouri State.

"They're smart," Brown said about the school known more for its academic prestige than its athletic achievements. "We all know that. They'll probably all be doctors. They're well-coached. They have talent. They have a super quarterback.

"You've got to prepare just like you prepare for anyone. You've got to study the film, take the coaching and go out there and work hard and get yourself prepared."

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson knows he'll see similar challenges from the Razorbacks, who are looking to protect their home field tonight. His primary concern is Arkansas' ground attack. The Commodores surrendered 274 rushing yards to Wake Forest last week and said Hogs are probably "licking their chops."

"I think the statistics speak," Johnson said. "(The Razorbacks) are going to run the football. If you don't stop it, they are going to keep running it. If you have success stopping it, you've got to deal with some play-action pass, for sure.

"They've got the same mentality on defense. You've to stand toe-to-toe with them."

Johnson said the Commodores enjoyed last week's victory, but the program hasn't won an SEC opener since beating LSU 24-21 in 1990. That's why Vanderbilt tried to set the win aside Friday and turned its attention on Arkansas the past week.

Arkansas is trying to open conference play 1-0 for the third consecutive season, something it hasn't accomplished since joining the SEC in 1992. The Hogs knocked off Alabama in the 2003 SEC opener (34-31 2OT) and 2004 (27-10).

The Razorbacks' 2005 SEC opener isn't against the Crimson Tide.

It's also two weeks earlier than Arkansas is used to.

But the Hogs don't mind as long as they wrap up the night with a similar result.

"(The Commodores are) an SEC-caliber team," linebacker Clarke Moore said. "You're fortunate enough to play them the second game of the season. We're going to see where we stand pretty quick and I think it's going to help us out in the long run.

"Vandy, they're a solid club. I think it will help us out on down the road."

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