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Louisiana Tech Bulldogs vs. Arkansas Razorbacks Preview and Prediction

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema

A new college football season brings new hope for fan bases, coaches, and players. When Arkansas tees it up against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, both teams will look to re-establish the base identity of their respective games that have made both programs successful over the past two years. Both teams are going about it in different ways on defense but in a similar fashion on offense.

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Skip Holtz has turned the fortunes of the Bulldogs program around, winning 18 games over the past two seasons after a dismal 4-8 beginning. The 2015 team could have easily won 11 games, instead dropping a two-point contest to Western Kentucky (41-38) and a triple-overtime defeat to Kansas State (39-33). Now Holtz has to replace two great ones on offense, quarterback Jeff Driskel and NCAA record setting running back Kenneth Dixon.

Louisiana Tech has six starters back on offense but gets two starters from previous years back in the mix: quarterback Ryan Higgins and right guard Kirby Wixson. The strength of this Bulldogs team is the passing attack with an All-American candidate in wide receiver Trent Taylor along with Carlos Henderson and Alfred Smith.

The Razorbacks are on a similar path, albeit against stiffer in-conference competition. The last two seasons have helped fans forget the John L. Smith experiment along with head coach Bret Bielema’s 3-9 year in 2013. The Hogs took a big step forward in 2015 knocking off Tennessee 24-20 on the road, Auburn 54-46 at home, Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime in Oxford, and handed LSU a second consecutive defeat winning 31-14 in Death Valley.

The Hogs' offense is a shell of its former self after losing starting quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins, and All-Americans Hunter Henry at tight end and Sebastian Tretola at guard. The Hogs' strength is the wide receiver corps but can new starting quarterback Austin Allen get the ball to his talented group? A saving grace for Arkansas is that nine starters are back on defense as opposed to Tech’s three.

One thing both head coaches and players have going for them is continuity at the coordinator positions. All four coordinators return, allowing each team to push the envelope trying to create mismatches while breaking down the opposition’s weaknesses.

Louisiana Tech at Arkansas

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 4 p.m. ET

TV Channel: SEC Network

Spread: Arkansas -25.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterback and Running Back Play

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Both teams are breaking in new starters in the batteries of their respective offenses. On paper, Higgins seemingly has the edge over Allen after starting during his freshman season in 2013, but both quarterbacks have a lot to prove. In fact, Higgins won't even start, as J'Mar Smith will get the call, but the senior is expected to get into the game at some point. Regardless of who is under center for either team, line play and a couple of quick easy pass completions will go a long way to settle the hopeful gunslingers down. The key will be which quarterback can connect on third and long to help keep drives alive.

Both teams will use a running back-by-committee approach looking for a hot hand. Touches might be charted for the first quarter with a go-to back emerging in the second half.

2. Bulldogs Receivers vs. Razorbacks Secondary

Tech was one of the top scoring offenses in the nation a year ago, putting up an average of 37 points on the board per game. The passing offense ranked No. 13 in the nation by season’s end hurting defenses for 232 yards per game. Tech has the talent on the outside to do it again but only if the line provides time and Higgins can be on target.

Arkansas was one of the worst pass defense teams in the nation in 2015 allowing 275 yards per contest. Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads is the Hogs' new defensive backs coach, but can he work small miracles? The Razorbacks return two starters in the back four but all of the guys on the two-deep got a lot of playing time. Have they improved and will the push up front help the defensive backs out?

3. Depleted Louisiana Tech Defense vs. Depleted Arkansas Offense

The Bulldogs had a solid all-around defense in 2015 allowing 375 yard per game, 48th best in the nation. The trouble is that just three starters return. Some new blood has transferred to Ruston but will it be enough to stop the Hogs?

Arkansas has to replace three starters on the offensive line. One of the new starters, guard Jake Raulerson, has starting experience with the Texas Longhorns. The “Big Uglies” will need to establish the ability to move the line on running downs so passing lanes open up. If the new unit cannot get any push, Arkansas is in for not only a long day but also a really long season. The Hogs have a stable of talented running backs to help negate some early blocking woes and another All-SEC candidate at tight end in Jeremy Sprinkle to help in the run and passing game.

Final Analysis

Arkansas should be able to overwhelm Louisiana Tech just on sheer talent alone, but that did not work for the Hogs last year against Toledo. Bielema led teams at Arkansas are known for very slow starts to a season. The pass defense the past two seasons has been torn up by dual-threat QBs and accurate pocket passers. Louisiana Tech could be trouble for Arkansas if either signal-caller can throw some quick darts, unless the secondary has improved.

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The Bulldogs have very little coming back on defense with exception of defensive end Aaron Brown and safety Xavier Woods. The starting lineup is filled with sophomores and juniors. Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos will look to exploit the young Bulldog linebackers with Sprinkle, quick passes to the slot, and more than likely some passes to the running backs out of the backfield. Anything to get these guys thinking instead of reacting, allowing the offensive line to blow open holes on run plays.

Fair or not, as good as Louisiana Tech was last year, they still could not keep up with Mississippi State, another SEC team, losing 45-20 in Starkville. Expect the same type of outcome on Saturday.

Prediction: Arkansas 38, Louisiana Tech 17  

— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.