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By Steve Brandon/Portland Tribune/Portland State football visits Arkansas on Saturday

Davis AlexanderThe road to the upper echelon of the Big Sky typically does not go through SEC country.

The Portland State Vikings are hopeful that this year will be different, in that way and others.

The Vikings, who have been inching their way back to Big Sky contender status since their big 9-3 FCS playoff year of 2015, will fly to Arkansas on Thursday and open the 2019 season against the Razorbacks in Fayetteville at 1 p.m. PT Saturday.

PSU has never played a Southeastern Conference team in football.

"We're going to show our guys the true pageantry of college football," said the Vikings' fifth-year head coach, Bruce Barnum.

And the Viks are all on board for the challenge — as well as the huge test that awaits them in the second of their two necessary ($1 million total) "money" nonconference games this year — a Sept. 14 encounter with the Boise State Broncos.

"They're both going to be great atmospheres," said Portland State junior quarterback Davis Alexander, back as the starter. "It's really exciting."

Arkansas is not Alabama. The Razorbacks went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC last year under a first-year head coach, Chad Morris. But, it's still the SEC and a different world, especially from the circles the Vikings run in during the conference season that takes them to the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and California.

And, Razorback Stadium seats 76,212, with "people who are about football and really care about their team," Barnum said.

Alexander said the bright lights and noise won't be too much for the Vikings.

"I don't think anyone here is afraid of the moment," he said.

In previous year's "money games," the Vikings have tried their best to keep the score close by playing conservatively on offense. One exception came in the 2015 opener, when Portland State stunned Washington State 24-17 at Pullman, Washington.

And against Arkansas, as well as this season, the Vikings might turn more to the pass, as they have a deep corps of receivers and slot backs.

"With so many guys back on offense, we've been able to expand our playbook a little and get into pretty much anything we want," Alexander said.

The targets include highly regarded senior Charlie Taumoepeau, who scored two touchdowns on catches against both Nevada and Oregon last season. But balls thrown by Alexander or backup junior Jalani Eason or other QBs in the wings could just as easily go to wideouts Mataio Talalemotu, Emmanuel Daigbe, Beau Kelly, George McCorley, Davis Koetter and others.

The Vikings will go into the season without a featured running back but with several candidates there, including returning senior Carlos Martin. Junior transfers Malik Walker (Riverside Community College) and Evan Holtz have had "great camps," Barnum said. And 6-0, 215-pound senior Sirgeo Hoffman, a former Gresham High standout, is back for a second tour of duty with the Viks and even drawing some interest from pro scouts.

A big emphasis in the offseason was defense, and taking another step forward in the second year under coordinator/associate head coach, Payam Saadat brought an attacking mentality and wants the front line and seven, in particular, to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and more turnovers.

Barnum and the Vikings said there has been a difference in the defense in camp this year.

"Those guys are really running to the football," Barnum said. "We've gotten faster on that side of the ball."

Overall, Barnum said the Vikings have a lot of the pieces in place to be more successful in the Big Sky.

Believers beyond the Park Blocks apparently still may have to be made. The Big Sky coaches have picked Eastern Washington, UC Davis, Weber State, Montana and Montana State to go 1-5, in that order. PSU was 10th out of 13 teams in that poll ahead of Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Northern Colorado.

Big Sky media picked EWU, UC Davis, Weber State, Montana State and Montana for a 1-5 finish, with PSU also 10th and ahead of Southern Utah, Sac State and Northern Colorado.

Whatever, the Vikings might say across the board.

"We're out here to obviously prove people wrong," Alexander said.

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