The Arkansas Razorbacks open up the 2015 college football season at home against the UTEP Miners. Both squads are coming off 7-6 seasons in 2014 but for the first time in three years Arkansas has hopes of contending for a SEC West title.
When UTEP and Arkansas kick off on Saturday, a war of offensive line play will go into effect. The Miners and Razorbacks both have four offensive starters returning up front and each have a premiere back to feature. The unit that can impose their style of play will determine the flow of the game.
The Miners return junior running back Aaron Jones and his 1,300 yards on the ground from a year ago. Arkansas will highlight a junior as well, Alex Collins. Collins split time with Jonathan Williams in 2014 but will be the marquee guy in the backfield early in the season after a 1,100-yard season as a sophomore.
Both defenses are young but Arkansas heads into the game healthy. UTEP lost starting safeties Devin Cockrell and Ishmael Harrison to injuries leaving a void of 37 combined starts in the secondary. Arkansas is without its top four defenders from last year’s No. 10 ranked unit but returns six starters with a heavy mix of talented but young players ready to work their way into playing time in conference action.
UTEP at Arkansas
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Line: Arkansas -33
Three Things to Watch
1. Stopping UTEP Running Back Aaron Jones
The Razorbacks have key upcoming games against Air-Raid offenses in Texas Tech and Texas A&M but will get pushed in the ground game by the Miners. Stopping Aaron Jones will be a nice opening game test.
Starting UTEP quarterback Mack Leftwich redshirted last season but picked up four starts in 2013. If Leftwich is unable to move the chains with his arm expect to see up to eight Razorback defenders in the box devoted to stopping Jones.
2. Arkansas Establishing a Passing Attack
The Hogs return four starters along the offensive line and have Alex Collins in the backfield; this unit is set for a win with that group alone. Getting reps for junior running back Kody Walker and true freshman Rawleigh Williams cannot be understated, but getting senior quarterback Brandon Allen into a groove with his young but talented receiving corps is a must.
Arkansas’ passing attack was anemic, to say the least, last season averaging 188 yards a game. If SEC title hopes are to be achieved Allen and company will need to see their per game passing numbers in the 230 to 250 yard range.
3. Arkansas’ Defense — Can they be a Top 25 unit again in 2015?
Opening games are about setting tones for the season and establishing a team identity. What will Arkansas’ identity be in 2015? Can the Razorbacks’ six returning starters keep that momentum going this season?
The Hogs were successful limiting teams to 115 rushing yards per game and 209 passing yards. Can the revamped linebacker unit with junior Brooks Ellis at the weak-side, sophomore Khalia Hackett in the middle, and junior Josh Williams on the strong-side stop the run and cover in space on passing downs? Depth at linebacker, especially in the middle is a concern. Will the Hogs get a big enough lead early to get second and third-team guys on the field for needed reps?
Another undertone to the game for Arkansas is establishing a consistent pass rush. The Hogs are stacked with potential at defensive end but for now that is all they are, a great looking group with a lot of potential. The Miners could be an early confidence builder for JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Deatrich Wise, and Tevin Beanum.
Arkansas should steamroll the Miners if turnovers and penalties are not a factor in the game. Seeing the defense gel and second-unit players step up into rolls as contributors going forward is key for Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.
Although UTEP is in their second year under Sean Kugler, and much improved from 2013 when the Miners won just two games, they are still a couple of years behind potentially upsetting a ranked team. In 2014 the Miners were not competitive in losses to Kansas State (58-28) and Louisiana Tech (55-3) but did give a one-dimensional Texas Tech team a scare before falling 30-26.
Prediction: Arkansas 48, UTEP 14
— 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, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.