Game time: 2 p.m. ET; Sept. 4, 2021
Venue: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, AR
Where to watch: ESPN+
Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks
DraftKings: Arkansas -19.5; O/U 51.5; ML: Arkansas -1250, Rice +750
BetMGM: Arkansas -19.5; O/U 51; ML: Arkansas -1429, Rice +800
FanDuel: Arkansas -19.5; O/U 51.5; ML: Arkansas -1500, Rice +790
2020 season record
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Rice - Arkansas preview and analysis
We know 2020 was unique for a lot of reasons, especially in the landscape of college football.
But when it comes to Arkansas, that year may top the cake.
You don’t often find many instances where a team, especially in the SEC, went 3-7 in the regular season, still made a bowl game, but only for said bowl to be canceled because of why the season was unique in the first place.
So you’d be hard-pressed to believe it was actually a successful season for the Razorbacks, but they actually played a lot of close games that could’ve turned the tide in their season.
If head coach Sam Pittman can get that group over the hump this season, Arkansas may be a dark horse in the SEC. The Razorbacks will begin their season Saturday against the Rice Owls at Razorback Stadium.
Not that it would’ve mattered given Arkansas’ ability to make a bowl game as a three-win team, but had fortunes been reversed on some of those games, it could’ve been a different outcome.
After losing 37-10 to No. 4 Georgia on opening weekend, the Razorbacks responded with a 21-14 victory against No. 16 Mississippi State, and then only lost by two points to No. 13 Auburn the next week. Throw out a 63-35 loss to No. 6 Florida and a 52-3 shellacking at the hands of No. 1 Alabama to end the regular season, and otherwise it was a very competitive season for the Razorbacks.
In hindsight, the fact Feleipe Franks fell into Arkansas’ lap may have been a blessing. The former Florida quarterback, who was a graduate transfer to Arkansas, passed for 2,107 yards, 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. When looking at why Arkansas was so competitive, it starts with the quarterback and the chemistry he built with receivers Treylon Burks and Michael Woods.
Burks, a junior, returns after leading the Razorbacks with 820 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. He is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, given to the best receiver in the country. Woods transferred to Oklahoma and will be an important target for Heisman Trophy candidate Spencer Rattler.
With Franks now in the NFL, the starting reigns in Fayetteville belong to sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson. The former four-star quarterback from Sardis, Mississippi threw for 295 yards and three touchdowns in limited action last season. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Jefferson is a big body who has a strong arm and decent running ability.
The Razorbacks have a home-heavy start to their schedule; their first four games are at home, including matchups against the No. 21 Texas Longhorns on Sept. 11, and No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies to begin conference play on Sept. 25. Arkansas will play seven of its first nine at home before back-to-back road games at No. 16 LSU (Nov. 13) and No. 1 Alabama (Nov. 20).
Safe to say three wins won’t get the Hogs to a bowl game this time around.
But sure enough, Rice would have liked to had that kind of weird season; the Owls barely had one. They played five games, won two of them, and had six of their games postponed or canceled due to COVID.
Those two wins did give the Owls something to cheer for. They beat Southern Miss 30-6 last Halloween, and then ended the regular season with a dominant 20-0 win over No. 21 Marshall. Honestly, the Owls could have been a much better team had they handled business in double overtime against Middle Tennessee and didn’t lose by five points to UAB, but horseshoes, hand grenades, etc.
But if you’re looking for optimism under coach Mike Bloomgren entering his fourth season, there is reason to believe if you’re a Rice supporter. That string of games from last season was certainly a build-off from winning the final three games of the season in 2019. Right now, there’s reason to believe in the Owls with this young team.
Luke McCaffrey -- yes, that name is what you think it means -- transferred from Nebraska and is expected to be the starting quarterback for the Owls. He’ll have a tough act following Michael Collins (10 TD, 1 INT), but he’ll have Khalan Griffin returning in the backfield, as well as sophomore receiver Jake Bailey.
This is a tough call, because that momentum Rice has garnered makes them an interesting pick with the points. Arkansas should win outright, but the spread garners some intrigue. For the first game, Jefferson should play well enough to win by three scores, but don’t be shocked if it doesn’t happen. Arkansas wins 49-28.
The over is 61-37 in Rice’s last 98 road games and 116-87 overall in the last 203 games.
Arkansas is 35-57 against the spread in the season’s first month dating back to 1992.
Players to watch
Rice: With Blaze Alldredge now with the Missouri Tigers, safety Kirk Lockhart becomes the leader on the Owls’ defense. Lockhart had 28 tackles in five games.
Arkansas: One player that will help Jefferson out immensely is running back Trelon Smith. Arkansas’ leading rusher from a year ago had 710 yards and five touchdowns on just over five yards per carry. If he gets an increased workload on offense, he may be someone in the running for the Doak Walker Award.
Statistical leaders from 2020
Passing: Michael Collins -- 802 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Khalan Griffin -- 249 yards
Receiving: Austin Trammell -- 335 yards, 6 TD
Defense: Blaze Alldredge -- 47 tackles
Passing: Feleipe Franks -- 2,107 yards, 17 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: Trelon Smith -- 710 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Treylon Burks -- 820 yards, 7 TD
Defense: Grant Morgan -- 111 tackles, 2 sacks
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