LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema hasn’t spent the offseason all that concerned about any lasting effects from the disappointment of last season.
The Razorbacks, however, have used little else to motivate their desire to emerge from recent Southeastern Conference mediocrity — beginning when they open the season against Football Championship Subdivision member Florida A&M (1-0) on Thursday night in Little Rock.
Arkansas blew large halftime leads in each of its last two games last season, settling for a 7-6 record and failing to improve its win total for the first time in four seasons under Bielema.
This year, the Razorbacks return a host of talented playmakers on offense — starting with senior quarterback Austin Allen — and are eager to put to rest any second-half ghosts from last season.
“We’ve been waiting on this since last season ended,” Allen said. “We have a chip on our shoulder and something to prove to everyone else and ourselves.”
Arkansas will travel to Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium for the opener, and they’ll face a Rattlers team that opened its season with a 29-7 win over Texas Southern a week ago. Florida A&M’s defense was dominating at times in its opening victory, and dual-threat starting quarterback Ryan Stanley accounted for 238 total yards.
The Razorbacks are ready to finally put to rest any more talk of last season’s second-half failures.
“I think, at this point, everybody kind of focuses in — whether we were coming off a Big Ten championship or last year coming off a 7-6 (record),” Bielema said. “Whatever it is, you’re just eager to get out there.”
Some things to watch as Arkansas becomes the first SEC team to open the season:
The Razorbacks begin the season trying to fill the rushing void left after Rawleigh Williams was forced to walk away from football after a second neck injury. Williams rushed for 1,360 yards last season, and sophomore Devwah Whaley is expected to get the first chance as the No. 1 running back. Freshman Chase Hayden has also impressed throughout the preseason for Arkansas and figures to see plenty of action on Thursday night.
Florida A&M left for Arkansas early Wednesday, making the nearly 700-mile trip to Little Rock on a bus to save money for the school’s athletic department. Regardless of how the Rattlers traveled to the game, coach Alex Wood is well aware of the difficulty of facing the Razorbacks.
“Playing on the road, that’s always a disadvantage,” Wood said. “That’s why we refer to teams that can win on the road as road warriors. Whether you’re flying or driving, that doesn’t really matter.”
Arkansas fielded one of the worst defenses in the country a year ago, allowing an average of 6.75 yards per play — 123rd out of 128 Division I teams. Led by first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads and emerging star McTelvin Agim , the Razorbacks switched to a 3-4 defense in the offseason and will unveil their new look for the first time on Thursday night.
Jared Cornelius, Arkansas’ leading wide receiver a year ago, has missed most of the preseason with a back injury. The senior returned to practice in limited fashion last week and could see time against the Rattlers — though Bielema said it’s also possible he could miss the game and return instead in next week’s non-conference clash against TCU in Fayetteville.
Arkansas has played as many as three games per season in Little Rock’s 55,000-seat War Memorial Stadium since 1948, but its contract with the facility comes to an end after next season. The school is scheduled to play one more SEC game in central Arkansas next season, which is also when it plans to open a fully renovated Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville — one that will feature more than 75,000 seats.