This matchup will likely be brushed aside as a sleeper by national fans and media, but getting off to a good season start means everything for the Arkansas football program.
You never want to say a non-conference game early in the season is a “must-win”, but let’s be real — this 1:00 PM kickoff in Fayetteville is exactly that.
If Arkansas can’t beat Rice, it will put a significant damper on the most important non-conference game that the program has had in season the following week at Texas. So much of the anticipated hype around Arkansas vs Texas depends on having an Arkansas fan base still enthused to start the season — not one coming off a stunning upset.
Fans should hope Arkansas can return to the kind of ball it was playing in the first half of 2020.
Despite playing a shortened schedule, the Hogs managed their best mark since the 2017 season, boasting a 3-7 record which seems far more impressive with a quick film study. Between the highway robbery that took place in Auburn, taking on Alabama, and the third-ranked Strength of Schedule per ESPN, it’s fair to say that record alone can be a deceptive stat when grading the inaugural year of the Pittman regime.
So what’s the next step for the Head Hog?
Arkansas must build on the momentum gathered in Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s improbable first season. We’ve seen hot starts marred by regression time and time again, but we’ve similarly seen some of the best in the sport’s great history turn lackluster beginnings into dynasties. Pittman’s 3-7 initial run finds itself somewhere in between those goalposts with the unfortunate recent stretch of coaching malfeasance from the likes of Chad Morris and Bret Bielema.
Rice may not be the most enticing opponent at first glance (or second, or third), but they are important to the foundation the Razorbacks are looking to lay under Sam Pittman.
Knowing the Enemy: Rice Football
Rice comes into Fayetteville with a lot of momentum from 2020.
With a 7-23 record with the Owls, Mike Bloomgren enters his 4th year with the 9th worst winning percentage in the FBS.
Despite this, the Rice football program does seem to be on an upwards slant after a 2-3 2020 in which just one of their losses was by more than one score. The highlight of their run came in the form of a decisive 20-0 upset of 15th ranked Marshall.
Bloomgren’s Owls look to continue their push back to Bowl eligibility in 2021. Arkansas is arguably their toughest test out of conference, but the remaining gauntlet of Houston and Texas is no walk in the park.
Rice has a huge advantage compared to years past with 19 starters returning from the 2020 campaign. Among them lies the heart and soul of Bloomgren’s offense. The 3 headed monster of Khalan Griffin, Ari Broussard, and Juma Otoviano was unfortunately hampered by injuries and inexperience in 2020.
Otoviano hasn’t quite been able to return to the heights we saw from him as a freshman in large part due to a nagging injury history, but he’s managed an efficient 3.8 yards per carry in his 5 games since 2018. This group has the potential to break out as the best unit in the C-USA, assuming they’re able to remain on the field.
As well as their backfield, the Rice offense returns all five of its starting offensive line and welcomes back stud wideout Bradley Rozner from the COVID opt-out list.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Owls lose their two-time first-team All-Conference USA linebacker Blaze Alldredge. Alldredge has been a staple for this defense since his arrival in 2018 and doubled up the nearest Rice defender in tackles in 2020. However, the Razorbacks will still get a chance to line up against Alldredge and the awesomeness that is his first name in the ‘21 season after his decision to transfer to Missouri.
Coming into the offseason the quarterback position appeared to be a two-man race between Wiley Green and Jovoni Johnson before Jake Constantine threw his hat in the ring as a transfer by way of Weber State.
Then came the news of a McCaffrey brother’s move into Houston which threw a wrench in the situation; and how could it not when his brother Christian has performed at an All-Pro level since entering the NFL in 2017. Former Nebraska and Louisville QB Luke McCaffrey announced his intention to transfer to the Rice football program on June 14th, and immediately brought presumptions he’d be the week one starter in Fayetteville.
With the talent around him to make a splash, it looks as though McCaffrey will beat out the Wiley vet’s bid to reclaim his starting spot on his way to a bounce-back year.
How Arkansas Football Stacks Up
If Arkansas hopes to return to Bowl eligibility, let alone SEC contention, they must beat the teams they should beat. Rice is certainly one of those teams.
Arkansas and the Owls have followed an eerily similar past half-decade, with both teams marked by disappointment since the 2017 season. Sitting at 120th and 127th in win percentage over that span respectively, the two have been among the worst in college football.
The similarities don’t stop there, however. When both programs were in the old Southwest Conference, these teams had an annual matchup in the 1920s through early 1990s.
The Arkansas vs Rice series currently favors Arkansas 35-29-3, and the Hogs will look to add to their (relatively) recent dominance in 2021. From 1959 to their most recent matchup in 1991 the Razorbacks posted a decisive 27-5-1 record to overtake the Owls.
Since that final meeting, it’s been fairly cut and dry when determining the winner of the SWC’s dissolution following the 1995 football season. Moving to the SEC, Arkansas has a clear recruiting advantage over the C-USA Owls, but the gap heading into 2021 is more surprising than you’d think.
Despite an abysmal run by Chad Morris just two years ago, the Razorbacks sport the 25th best roster in the country per Rivals’ 2021 Team Rankings, 69 spots higher than their old SWC foe.
Arkansas vs Rice: Matchups to Watch
Arkansas WRs vs. Rice DBs
The biggest edge this gap gives the Hogs is in the receiving corps. Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview has the Hogs receivers pegged as the 3rd best unit in the SEC and arguments can be made to move them even higher.
Treylon Burks had his national coming-out party to the tune of 51 receptions for 820 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2020. The true-Junior looks to cement himself as a top wideout in what will likely be his final season in Fayetteville. As much of a problem as Burks is, the rest of the room will leave defensive play-callers in shambles as well.
Sam Pittman’s offense returns 8 of its top 9 producing receivers, allowing some veteran help to allow K.J. Jefferson to unleash his potential. The biggest loss for this unit comes with Mike Woods’ surprise transfer to Oklahoma.
His 619 yards and 5 touchdowns are going to be tough to replace, but a return to form from Trey Knox would go a long way in that task. Pair a rejuvenated Knox with super-senior De’Vion Warren and Hudson Henry expanding his role and you’ve got enough depth to contend with almost any defensive backfield in the country.
A deceptively tough first test for Arkansas’ receivers comes into Fayetteville hoping to rediscover the success found last season. Rice ended their season as the 26th ranked pass defense according to passing yards allowed per game, a stat I had to double, triple, and quadruple check because I thought I was being punked.
Now, there’s a very strong argument that those numbers benefited due to their level of competition within the CUSA. In fact, with 6 teams within the Top 26, it’s hard not to question the caliber of passing attack the Owls faced en route to their 200.8 YPG allowed.
By the Numbers – Quarterbacks
|K.J. Jefferson (Arkansas)||QB||Luke McCaffrey (Rice)|
|0-2||Record (As Starter)||1-1|
|189.5||Passing YPG (Started)||143|
|16||Rushing YPG (Started)||94.5|
Luke McCaffrey and K.J. Jefferson will both be stepping into run-first offenses this season, and that will be to their benefit. We’ve seen the two in a limited capacity since their emergence in 2019, but they will likely be starting new chapters in their collegiate careers head to head.
Both dual threats, these quarterbacks will have an opportunity to add a rare dimension to their respective offenses. Sam Pittman had high hopes when talking to media about Kendal Briles’ offensive plans.
“We can make moves with our designed runs,” Pittman said. “I feel that once we get into the season and start coming at the defense with designed runs when they load the box, it’s good for us on the offense. We can go over the top when they bring the safety into the box or when they’re in man get matched up with the outside receiver and make plays.”
If utilized correctly we could see an immediate boost to an offense that finished 61st according to Football Outsiders’ OFEI metric.
Sam Pittman vs Mike Bloomgren
Sam Pittman and Mike Bloomgren are relatively new to the head coaching game, with a combined 4 years of experience heading into 2021. Though they share a matching lack of experience, the two handle their programs in vastly different ways.
Coming from Stanford, Bloomgren brings five years of offensive coordinator knowledge to the playing field. Admittedly, that time as an OC under David Shaw brings in an interesting dynamic to the Owls’ playcalling.
“I think at the end of the day, I say, I try and help them, but is more of the fact that I can’t step away, and that is the reality,” Bloomgren said. “I want to do more with the offensive line, which is the group I grew up loving and working with probably the last 15 years of my career. I just love being around those guys.”
While Bloomgren acknowledged his love for the guys in the trenches, Sam Pittman loves his Hogs just as much.
With almost 20 years as an offensive line coach, Pittman lacks every bit of playcalling experience that his counterpart possesses. What he does bring to the table, however, are two of the hottest coordinators in college football in Kendal Briles and Barry Odom. Briles and Odom both could’ve found themselves heading programs following a solid 2020, but their return gives Pittman a major leg up in this coaching matchup.
Arkansas and Rice are both recognized offensively for their efficiency in running the ball, and there’s no question we’ll see both sides attempt to establish their ground attacks early and often.
In-game adjustments will be crucial in this one, and the staff who handles their business best will have a very good chance to take home the Week One victory.
Arkansas vs Rice: Last Call
Arkansas opens as a 19.5 favorite in this one, according to Vegas and online sports betting odds comparison tools like Sidelines.io.
After last season’s opener against Georgia, the Hogs are getting about as good of a draw as possible. Rice is a team that looks to be on the up-and-up following years of mediocrity but I can’t see their run of disappointments coming to a close against a rising Arkansas team.
The Razorbacks are more talented, better coached, and at home.
Teams with these three advantages win the vast majority of the time, and this isn’t the same Arkansas team we saw upset by San Jose State in 2019. Sam Pittman, Kendall Briles, and Barry Odom look to be building Arkansas back into the program we all know and love, and that all starts here.
I’m not the only one optimistic about this one either, there is a general consensus that big things are coming in Fayetteville. Many analysts expect a lay-up come Saturday. Saturday Down South’s Jesse Simonton, for instance, even went as far as lumping the Owls in with Arkansas’ FCS competition ahead of what is a tough remaining slate.
“Pittman does get the benefit of pocketing some easy non-conference wins over Rice, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff,” Simonton wrote. “After that, there isn’t a single layup on the schedule.”
Expect Arkansas to win this in dominating fashion, setting themselves up nicely for yet another SWC grudge match in Week Two.
Razorbacks 27, Owls 10
Sam Pittman talks about Arkansas vs Rice here: