When Colorado State (1-1) travels to Arkansas (1-1, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday for a non-conference showdown pitting the Mountain West against the SEC, more than a victory is up for grabs between the respective programs. Both head coaches are trying to find traction early in the season and need a confidence-boosting win over an FBS program to help set the course for the rest of the 2019 season.
Arkansas fans will have to accept the bravado coming out of Fort Collins; after all, Colorado State has been here before. The Rams started the 2018 season 0-2 with a blowout loss to in-state rival Colorado (45-13), only to pound the Hogs 34-27 in Canvas Stadium. This year, CSU opened with a 52-31 loss to the Buffaloes but got in the win column by trouncing FCS opponent Western Illinois 38-13. In the win over the Leathernecks, CSU’s offense was explosive, piling up 585 yards of total offense.
The hard-luck Hogs are still feeling their way under head coach Chad Morris. After an opening 20-13 win over Portland State, they stepped into conference play on the road, falling 31-17 to Ole Miss. In the loss, the Hogs looked lethargic, allowing 484 yards of offense to a Rebels team that was held to 173 total yards against Memphis the week prior. Arkansas’ offense sputtered in the first half but picked up momentum when backup Nick Starkel started the second half.
Colorado State at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Arkansas -10
When Colorado State Has the Ball
The Razorbacks secondary will be under constant duress come Saturday thanks to the strong arm of junior quarterback Collin Hill. Hill is fifth in the nation in total passing yards (741) after a 367-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Leathernecks. Hill spreads the ball around, with four players securing seven or more catches so far this year. Dante Wright leads the team in yards (183) and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns (two). The top target is Warren Jackson (15-142-1), and the dynamic playmaker is senior running back Marvin Kinsey Jr. (23 yards per reception).
With the pigskin flying around the yard, it is easy to overlook the Rams ground game, but that would be a mistake for the Hogs. CSU is averaging 160 yards on the ground after netting 131 against Colorado. Kinsey is the featured back but was stifled against Colorado (41 yards on 12 carries). Even after playing an FCS opponent, the Razorbacks are allowing 156 yards per game on the ground to rank 84th in the nation.
Arkansas is missing depth in the trenches, with Dorian Gerald out for the season (neck) and Jamario Bell (knee) out for an unknown amount of time. The Hogs’ leading tackler is linebacker Bumper Pool (15), but it's telling that the second-leading tackler is safety Kamren Curl (13). The play in the box needs to be shored up after a sloppy game against Ole Miss that included a lot of missed tackles.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
All eyes will be on the play at quarterback. Arkansas opened the Ole Miss game with Ben Hicks but turned to Nick Starkel in the second half, and the switch yielded much better results. Hicks threw for 98 yards, hitting 7-of-16 passes, while Starkel connected on 17-of-24 for 201 yards with a touchdown. Poor play in the pocket has been an Achilles heel for Arkansas since Morris took over last season. Is Starkel the quarterback needed to run Morris’ offense? A strong showing against CSU could lift the team’s confidence before entering the heart of conference action.
The Hogs offensive line has underachieved early in the season, especially in the run game. Arkansas is averaging 133 yards per game on the ground, thanks to a 204-yard showing against Portland State. The backfield for the Hogs is talented, led by Rakeem Boyd, who gained 67 yards against Ole Miss, mostly on his own. Getting the offensive line in a groove against CSU is a must.
Against Colorado, CSU allowed 475 yards of total offense, including 243 on the ground. The Buffaloes ran at will, averaging 6.1 yards per carry with four scores on the ground. Last season, Arkansas bested that effort against the Rams, rolling for 299 with Devwah Whaley leading all rushers with 165 yards and a score, followed by Boyd’s 67 yards. The blueprint is there for Arkansas to have success, but will they?
Last season, Rams QB K.J. Carta-Samuels picked Arkansas apart, hitting 32-of-47 attempts for 389 yards with two touchdowns. Expect Rams head coach Mike Bobo to allow Hill to do the same if possible. What killed CSU against Colorado were turnovers — two lost fumbles and two interceptions. The Hogs have been opportunistic so far, creating five turnovers; can they keep that going and create enough pressure to keep Hill out of rhythm? If Starkel is the future, Arkansas needs the future to be now.
Prediction: Arkansas 35, Colorado State 31
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.