If we were talking about Arkansas opening "the season" against an Ohio Valley Conference team, and it were men's basketball, the thought of playing somebody like 31-game winner Murray State would be exciting.
Ah, but it's football, where the OVC plays in the second division known as FCS. I tried to get serious about previewing the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, but then I saw their mascot and their roster.
MMM-kay. Jacksonville State's claim to fame was starting Houston Nutt on the road to ruin in Oxford. Ole Miss lost to the Gamecocks at home to open the 2010 season. That Citadel-scale upset gave Jack Crowe a measure of redemption and probably deprived his team of the ability to sneak up on anyone for at least a decade.
Jacksonville State was 7-4, tied atop the OVC, in 2011. About half the starting offense returned, including QB Marquel Ivory, who broke a fibula in game one last season. Crowe apparently believes Ivory is better than Quinn Grovey, one of the more accomplished Arkansas quarterbacks.
Even more threatening is Washaun Ealey, former Georgia tailback who is preseason All-America on the FCS level. Ealey averaged 108 yards per game for JSU in 2011. He'll run behind an offensive line with four experienced starters. Blah, blah, blah.
Can't get serious about this. It's the defense. Jax State returns three defensive starters. One won't even start. The defense's starting lineup averages about four career starts. In its 3-4 setup, the Gamecocks D has nobody bigger than 275.
Looking at the number of starters made me wonder exactly what constitutes "a lot of experience."
Arkansas is a team with something between "a little" and "a lot." So I counted. Here's my method: Only include the two-deep depth chart. Count total career starts on that side of the football (offense or defense). No, Colton Miles-Nash gets no defensive credit for his starts at tight end.
Arkansas's offensive two-deep brings a total of 134 career starts, or an average of 5.8 per player. Those figures are concentrated heavily among three players: center Travis Swanson (26), guard Alvin Bailey (26), and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (18). Twelve players in the offensive two-deep have never started.
On defense, the Hogs return 118 career starts, or an average of 5.4 led by tackles D.D. Jones (22) and Byran Jones (18). Nine defenders in the two-deep have zero starts. Interestingly, though, Arkansas will start only one player who has never started before, junior outside linebacker Jarrett Lake. He's not exactly a greenhorn.
Jacksonville State returns 113 career starts on offense (5.1 average) and 67 on defense (3.0). Coming to Fayetteville, defense kinda matters. So never mind the Cocks.
How does Arkansas's experience level compare with more serious competition?
Alabama: The Tide is bringing back a tremendous amount of experience on offense, 141 career starts, or a 6.1 average. But 15 players in the Bama offensive two-deep have never started a game. Almost all of the Tide's starts were made by six players -- four Olinemen, a tight end, and QB A.J. McCarron. The tailbacks and receivers are virtually bereft of starting experience.
On defense, the Tide isn't exactly starting over despite losing many talents to the NFL -- 118 career starts, for a 5.4 average. Thirteen players in the defensive two-deep have never started. Moreover, Alabama plans to start five brand new starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Mallett nemesis Robert Lester is back, though.
LSU: On offense, the Bayou Bengals bring back an equally impressive 140 career starts in the two-deep, with even more piled up in the long line at tailback. That's a 6.4-start average. Ten players in the offensive two-deep have zero career starts.
But I was stunned to find how green the Tigers are on defense -- 81 career starts, 3.7 average, and 12 players who have never started at all. LSU's defense plans to start three completely new first-teamers and two more whose starting experience totals only two games.
By Thanksgiving week, LSU's level of experience on defense is unlikely to matter. In both matchups, it's Arkansas who has to worry about being good enough on D to stop two highly experienced ground-pounding machines.