GAME NOTES: Under new leadership, the 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks begin their 2012 season, as they welcome the Jacksonville State Gamecocks to Fayetteville for a showdown at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
A scandal during the offseason surrounding Bobby Petrino forced the school to make a change at the top, bringing in John L. Smith to run the show in 2012, after he served as an assistant for three seasons. Arkansas is coming off a monster season and if not for the fact that the team resides in the SEC, a conference crown may have been the result. The Razorbacks finished the season at 11-2, just the third 11-win season in school history.
The team's only losses came against LSU and Alabama, the two squads that ended up playing for the national title. Arkansas missed out on a BCS bowl bid, but instead, knocked off Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl (29-16).
Jack Crowe makes his return to Fayetteville after serving as head coach at Arkansas from 1990-92. He begins his 13th season with Jacksonville State and has an FCS powerhouse. The Gamecocks are one of the favorites to win the Ohio Valley Conference crown and begin the season ranked 22nd in the nation. Crowe has led the Gamecocks to conference crowns in 2003, 2004 and again last season, when the team finished 7-4.
Crowe knows his team is facing an uphill battle in Fayetteville.
"We are playing the highest-ranked team that Jacksonville State has ever played in the Arkansas Razorbacks. They are a very gifted football team and this season we are one of seven FCS schools that will play FBS schools and we have chosen both of them out of the SEC...which I don't think anyone has ever done."
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Jacksonville State's offense was predicated on the run last season, as the Gamecocks churned out an impressive 219.9 yards per game on the ground, on almost five yards per carry. While some of the production is no longer in the fold, senior tailback Washaun Ealey does return after pacing the team with 1,082 yards (6.1 ypc) and eight TDs in 2011. Also back is junior quarterback Coty Blanchard, who added 427 yards and six TDs rushing the football.
The team has a pair of quarterbacks that will see action in Blanchard and senior Marques Ivory. Ivory only played in one game last season before redshirting, but will play a much bigger role in 2012.
Ivory recognizes the opportunity he has.
"It means a lot to come back and be able to play this year. It has been a long journey with the injury and I was able to live a semi-normal person's lifestyle, but at the same time I really missed being around the guys. I love that I can go through what they are going through and do the things they did last year. I am ready to finish a complete season."
The passing game isn't up to par with the running game at just 163.2 yards per game in 2011, and not much will change in 2012. Ivory will have top receiver Alan Bonner back, after the 5-foot-11 168-pounder caught 33 balls last year, for 582 yards and 3 TDs, all team-highs.
The Jacksonville State defense had its ups and downs last season, allowing just under 400 yards per game (391.5) and 26.8 ppg. There are some playmakers on the roster that can help improve those numbers, headlined by junior LB Rashad Smith is back, after leading the team in tackles a year ago (77)
The SEC's top offensive squad last year, Arkansas ranked first in the conference in scoring (36.8 ppg), passing (300.7 ypg) and total offense (438.1 ypg). Those numbers actually have a chance of improving in 2012 thanks to the return of eight starters on offense and the health of one Heisman-hopeful running back.
Wilson burst on the scene in 2011 as one of the nation's most productive passers and will return for an encore performance, after throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 TDs last season. Wilson will no longer have wideout Jarius Wright (66 receptions, 1,117 yards, 12 TDs) to throw to, but there are a stable of reliable targets nonetheless, including WR Cobi Hamilton and TE Chris Gragg.
The hope is that All-American candidate Knile Davis returns to form after missing 2011 with a knee injury. Davis was a First-Team All-SEC selection in 2010 after rumbling for 1,322 yards and looks to get back to form this season.
Three starters return along the offensive line for Arkansas, led by All- American candidate Alvin Bailey (6-5, 312) at guard.
Six starters return on the defensive side of the football for Arkansas, which needs to shore things up against the run, after allowing a generous 167.6 yards per game last year.
The star of the defense is linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, who is coming off a junior season in which he tallied 80 tackles, a team-high 12.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and one INT.
The defensive line has some depth, with as many as five players having started at least one game for the Razorbacks. Tackles Byran Jones (47 tackles) and DeQuinta Jones (19 tackles) and ends Chris Smith (31 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and Trey Flowers (28 tackles, 5.5 TFLs) headline the group. Junior Eric Bennett (74 tackles, 3 INTs) highlights the play in the secondary.
The Razorbacks will be charged with putting the circus atmosphere surrounding the program the last few months behind them. Smith believes the team has done just that.
"Our players have done a great job of saying, 'A little adversity will only make us stronger.' That's what they've done. My coming in, walking in the door, it was unbelievable. I had to wipe the tears away because of the kids and the reception that I got. That being said, I told them, this is one thing we're going to continue to reiterate: this is a program; this is not about someone leaving or coming. This is a program."
Whether or not the Razorbacks have closed the gap in the SEC remains to be seen, but they should have little trouble dispatching the Gamecocks in the opener.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arkansas 56, Jacksonville State 10