This fall, the Arkansas Razorbacks aren’t the only college football team in the state that will play the hardest schedule in program history.
The Central Arkansas Bears will do the same.
Except while the SEC handed the Hogs a raw deal, UCA has cobbled together its own schedule on the fly after its conference canceled football this fall. It kicks off this Saturday, against Austin Peay on ESPN in the first college football game of the season. A week later, it will play at Alabama-Birmingham in the first FBS game of the season.
On September 26, while the Hogs are playing their season opener against Georgia, UCA will welcome former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino to Conway for Petrino’s first game in Arkansas since his 2012 motorcycle crash (technially, Petrino’s last game in the state was on Nov. 11, 2011). Petrino leads his new team Missouri State, which is coming off a 1-win season and hasn’t notched a winning season since 2009.
Despite Missouri State’s historic sorriness, UCA coach Nathan Brown believes the program is a sleeping giant. “We know that a Coach Petrino coached team is going to be probably tough offensively,” he told Justin Acri on his weekly coach’s show. “He’s as good a mastermind on the offensive side of the ball, and I would assume he’s brought top talent onto his coaching staff as well, as far as the defensive side goes. So there will be a lot of intrigue in that game.”
The following week, UCA will travel to Fargo, N.D. for a tussle with the pound-for-pound most dominant college football program in the nation. That would be North Dakota State, which has won 36 games in a row and eight of the last nine FCS national championships.
North Dakota regularly knocked out Group of 5 and Power 5 schools, too. In 2016, it beat then No. 11 Iowa and afterward got within a few votes of the Associated Press Top 25.
NDSU’s so adept at punching above its weight that a couple of years ago SB Nation categorized FBS schools by the likelihood they would lose to the Bison.
The Razorbacks were rated in the most likely category:
That Iowa game was the last time a Power 5 school dared to play NDSU and risk the embarrassment of losing. For that matter, hardly any team wants a piece of the Bison as a non-conference opponent any more.
That’s why, when NDSU’s conference cancelled football this fall, they ran into red light after red light when trying to find an opponent. Their seniors had decided they wanted to play three games to go out on a high note, but they couldn’t get any other FBS or FCS programs to commit to playing.
“They just couldn’t find enough teams to field a three game schedule,” Brown said. “Well, that’s pretty crazy. You think about the respect you have to have for teams not to want to schedule you for their fall schedule.”
So it will be UCA as their lone opponent this fall.
The game pits two nationally-ranked FCS teams (UCA is No. 11 while NDSU is No. 1) in front of a national audience and plenty of NFL scouts who will be taking notes of players on both sides of the ball.
The player who will be drafted the highest is NDSU quarterback Trey Lance, a likely first round NFL Draft pick in 2021 whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranks as No. 3 among quarterback prospects behind Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State. And ESPN’s Todd McShay projects he will be the No. 14 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 6’3″, 221 -pound Lance threw for 28 touchdowns and 0 picks last year as a redshirt freshman.
“He is an NFL-ready kid,” Brown said. “He’s big, runs like a running back, and then has a quick release, just very efficient. They usually play a pro-style offense, they’re going to run the football and that’s what they want to do.”
“But then again, they’re going to play action. They’re going to give that kid a chance to make plays. And it was over and over and over again last year I was just super impressed sitting back and watching as we were preparing for Illinois State’s defense last year we saw him play North Dakota State a time or too. So just a phenomenal player, and someone that I’ll look forward to watching and competing against.”
Although this game is good news for UCA, the fact that NDSU is playing only a single game as essentially a showcase for scouts is drawing some fire. ESPN College Football’s Ryan Clark calls it “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of”:
The UCA Bears will counter with plenty of offensive firepower of their own, led by a stellar receiving corps and quarterback Breylin Smith, who threw for 3,704 yards, 32 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last year.
Their top NFL prospect, however, is 6’2″, 190 pound cornerback Robert Rochell. In 2021, it looks like Rochelle will become the 11th UCA Bear ever to be drafted. Strong games against Austin Peay and NDSU could boost his current projections in the seventh-round area.
As NFL Draft analyst Joe DiTullio writes for The Game Haus: “He’ll need to add weight, but teams who are looking for a zone corner will be scouting Rochell hard. Rochell is athletic on tape, but he is rumored to be one of the more athletic players in the draft class, especially taking into account his height. So if he plays well this season and has a good NFL Combine, Rochell could really shoot up draft boards. All eyes will be on him this weekend with no other games on the schedule.”