FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was 7-0 in season openers during his tenure at Wisconsin.
The Razorbacks have won 14 of their past 15 openers, too, with the only blemish coming in a first-game loss to sixth-ranked Southern California in 2006.
So, in borrowing the coach’s mantra, it’s no surprise Bielema and Arkansas are used to starting a season 1-0. The Razorbacks also realize getting off to a good start probably won’t come easy against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.
“This is probably not your typical opener seeing as it is against a bowl win team that won nine games (in 2012), won 10 games before that,” Bielema said.
Good feelings have permeated Arkansas’ camp now that game week has arrived after a long preseason. Louisiana-Lafayette is capable of deflating those smiles quickly, though, when it plays Arkansas in Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off their second straight 9-4 season, which was capped with another win in the New Orleans Bowl. They bring a pesky spread offense to town with talented dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway at the helm. ULL also is armed with confidence against Southeastern Conference opponents after taking Florida to the wire in a 27-20 loss last November.
So Arkansas insists it is on high alert as it continues to prepare this week.
“We’ve all been a part of games where a team comes in that maybe the public doesn’t see is a team that should play with you,” Arkansas defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. “But this is a very, very good football team.”
Paying hearty compliments to early-season nonconference opponents is common for coaches, who want to make sure their teams are paying attention against lesser-known foes. Most aren’t worthy of the praise in the end. But there is reason for Arkansas’ healthy fear, considering many believe ULL is a better team.
Partridge pointed out the clear example: The Ragin’ Cajuns are 49th in USA Today’s rankings of Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Arkansas is No. 83.
ULL coach Mark Hudspeth said his team knows beating Arkansas isn’t impossible, either, after its experiences last season. ULL led 20-13 in the fourth quarter at Florida last November, but couldn’t finish. They lost in heart-breaking fashion, getting a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown with two seconds left.
“The way we at least played at Florida last year — we didn’t win the game, but we competed — I think gave our guys even more confidence that you know, we can compete on a bigger stage,” Hudspeth said. “Our guys are confident. They’re not by any means arrogant or cocky coming into this game, but they’re confident.
“They’re looking forward to the challenge of competing against these guys.”
ULL opens the year among the favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference title, while Arkansas is predicted to finish last in the SEC West. The two conferences aren’t exactly comparable, but the Razorbacks know the danger in Sun Belt teams.
Louisiana-Monroe showed them in Arkansas’ 34-31 overtime loss in Little Rock last September. The loss sent the Razorbacks’ spiraling and eventually led to Bielema’s arrival in December. ULL beat ULM 40-24 last November.
“We don’t take no game lightly,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “We learned that last year with Monroe. That’s one thing about it. We’re going to come out and play hard Saturday because they’re a very good team.”
Said Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers: “We’re going to rise to the challenge regardless of if we blew ULM out last year or lost like we did.”
Arkansas will find out if it has the mettle to do so.
The Razorbacks had to survive a test five years ago, when the Bobby Petrino era kicked off with a narrow 28-24 win against Western Illinois. Arkansas struggled most of the game and trailed late, needing a fourth-down catch by then-freshman wide receiver Chris Gragg to avoid a disastrous start to the season.
It needed another comeback to squeeze out a 28-27 win against ULM in Little Rock the next week. The Razorbacks trailed by 18 points late in the third quarter.
Bielema is glad his Arkansas tenure begins at home, too, believing the outcome of early-season games can “swing on emotion.” Bielema said there’s “fuel for fire everywhere we look” for his underdog team, but Arkansas must prove it is capable of passing the first test against ULL before it can go any further.
“The thing about openers is that it really does get down to how you handle adversity,” Bielema said. “Some thing is going to pop up and you can’t have that ‘Wow is me.’ You can’t have anybody flinching. You have to have people focusing on getting the moment right. … As coaches we have to weather the storm. We have got to give them great examples on how to handle those situations.”
He said ULL will provide a “tremendous challenge” for his team.
But he said it’s one the Razorbacks relish as they try to start 1-0.
“I don’t think anybody’s expecting a free pass,” Bielema said.