GAME NOTES: The ULM Warhawks were one of the few teams to have their bye in week one, and now the team has the unenviable task of starting its season on the road against a powerhouse when it travels to Little Rock to take on the eighth-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Warhawks are no strangers to facing top-notch talent early in the season, having lost tough September road games last year to Florida State (34-0), TCU (38-17) and Iowa (45-17). ULM finished the season with a 4-8 record, and it still hasn't been bowl-eligible in its six years since joining the FBS.
Arkansas opened up its season last Saturday against FCS foe Jacksonville State, and although it was a tight game for the first quarter and a half, the Razorbacks pulled away to win by a 49-24 final. The game was played in front of 71,062 fans at Razorback Stadium, the third-largest crowd in program history for a season opener.
These two teams have met on nine different occasions over the years with Arkansas winning every one. The last meeting was also in Little Rock on Sept. 11, 2010, with the Razorbacks posting a 31-7 victory.
The Warhawks were one of the more effective offensive teams in the Sun Belt a season ago, ranking third in the conference in yards per game (390.6) and fifth in scoring (24.6).
The unit is fortunate enough to welcome back most of its offensive nucleus from a year ago, led by quarterback Kolton Browning. Although he was effective in completing 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions, it marked a noticeable downtick in production from his freshman season (.619 completion percentage, 18 TDs).
The return of one of the Sun Belt's most dynamic receiving duos can only help Browning's progress. Brent Leonard is one of the league's best, hauling in 69 passes for 751 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, while Tavarese Maye complemented Leonard nicely with 50 catches, 617 yards and three scores. Colby Harper (291 yards) and Je'Ron Hamm (257 yards) are also back in the mix.
Jyruss Edwards returns as the team's leading rusher (667 yards). He was especially effective in the red zone with 11 touchdowns.
Despite its sub par record, ULM had a solid defense, allowing just 326.2 yards per game, second only to Arkansas State in the Sun Belt and ranking 22nd in the nation.
The defensive line was a strength in 2011, but with Ken Dorsey (13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Troy Evans (12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) gone, tackle Kentarius Caldwell (six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) is the most experienced in the current rotation.
Even with the loss of 100-tackle man Jason Edwards, linebacker appears to be the strength of the unit with Cameron Blakes (50 tackles, seven tackles for loss) and R.J. Young (45 tackles, two forced fumbles) returning after productive seasons.
The secondary returns veteran performers who are key to the turnover battle in cornerback Vincent Eddie (63 tackles, two interceptions) and safety Isaiah Newsome (62 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries).
Head coach Todd Berry feels like there's enough pieces in place for an improvement this season.
"I really like the chemistry of the team we have this season," Berry said. "The best thing about this team is the culture we have. The players have grown up together and when you have a culture like the one we have, it allows you work through adversity similar to what we encountered last season. The team could have chosen to take a step back or a step forward and I feel that this team has taken a step forward."
Arkansas had no problem picking apart the Jacksonville State defense last week, compiling 564 yards of total offense.
Heisman-hopeful Tyler Wilson appeared to be in mid-season form, completing 19- of-27 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns, including a 63-yard scoring strike to Javontee Herndon late in the game.
John L. Smith, who notched his first win as UA's head coach, was pleased with his quarterback's play in the opener.
"I think he handled the offense well," Smith said. "I thought Tyler did a great job spreading the ball around on offense. It was good to see him in command like that."
Running back Knile Davis returned to action after missing the 2011 season with a knee injury, carrying the ball 18 times for 70 yards and a score.
Chris Gragg had a huge day receiving with seven receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Mitchell (122 yards) and Herndon (96 yards) were also top targets for Wilson.
The Razorback defense was anything but spectacular, allowing 24 points, although the 322 total yards of offense allowed is a respectable number.
Ross Rasner recorded 11 tackles and also forced a fumble. Alonzo Highsmith had seven tackles and a fumble recovery, and Chris Smith, Jared Green and Deatrick Wise, Jr. all picked up a sack.
With plenty of talent returning this year, ULM expects to be much more competitive in the Sun Belt than it has been in recent years, but it is simply overmatched against a team as strong as Arkansas. Expect the Razorbacks to put a big number on the scoreboard yet again.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arkansas 45, ULM 13