Photo : Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The countdown is just under 10 weeks until the Arkansas Razorbacks kick off the 2017 season. As a fan and close follower of the Hogs’ fortunes for longer than I’d like to admit, the next 10 weeks are some of the most difficult to get through.
Every June I start getting that itch for Razorback football. I’m sure a lot of you do, too.
When I start seeing the annual football preview magazines in grocery and convenience store newsstands, and when the Diamond Hogs bag up their bats for the year, I’m ready for football to start.
The seasons when the Hogs make it to Omaha for the College Baseball World Series are almost perfect because then there is only about a four- to six-week wait between the close of that event and when the Hogs report for preseason practice.
Those six weeks for me are like the weeks and days leading up to Christmas for a kid. It’s a form of torture, for sure, but the anticipation is part of the fun.
If you believe the experts, this isn’t going to be the best of seasons for the Razorbacks. I’ve read predictions of 5-7 on the low end. Some more generous souls predict the Hogs can do as well as 8-4 if everything goes well. That span seems about right.
I do think the Razorbacks will win more than five games. A five-win season would be disastrous. While the Razorbacks do have some serious questions concerning both sides of the football, I do believe coach Brett Bielema has established a firm enough foundation to produce at least six wins.
However, I do see why some have hard time imagining more than seven given the program’s history under Bielema.
If you throw out his first season as an outlier and look at the other three, you have a mixed bag. In 2014, the Hogs didn’t find their mojo until late in the season when they upset ranked Ole Miss and LSU teams to become bowl eligible.
In 2015 the Razorbacks stumbled out of the gates with unexpected home losses to Toledo and Texas Tech before winning six of their final seven games, including a Liberty Bowl win over Kansas State, for an 8-5 mark.
Last year, Arkansas appeared to be headed to an eight- or nine-win season despite having an awful defense and a poor short-yardage running game, but the Razorbacks blew back-to-back, double-digit, first-half leads to fall to 7-6 when 9-4 was possible.
The Razorbacks do play in the SEC West, the strongest division of the most competitive conference in college football. That does make it more difficult to accurately predict outcomes.
If you take Alabama out of the mix, truly anything can happen any week in the SEC. There are surprising upsets among the other 13 teams, but none are shocking. If a team plays poorly in the SEC, it might not just lose but also get blown out.
So prognostications are difficult, particularly in June before the first practice and before attrition of injuries start wearing on team’s depth.
How flimsy are preseason predictions?
Auburn is predicted to be a top-10 team this year. Many feel Gus Malzahn’s Tigers will challenge the Crimson Tide for supremacy in the SEC West this season.
All those projections are tied to Baylor quarterback transfer Jarrett Stidham having nearly as much impact on the program as Cam Newton. Well if not Cam, then at least as much as Nick Marshall.
Stidham may end up being great for the Tigers, but pinning a projection on him performing up to that level is relying on a lot of hope.
But, I digress. Our topic is the Razorbacks.
A key factor in the performance of any team is its schedule. No matter how good or bad a team is expected be, who, when, and where it plays is always a major consideration.
I’ll just say it. Arkansas’ football schedule is a little odd this season.
The Razorbacks open the season on a Thursday when they host Florida A&M at Little Rock in War Memorial Stadium and end it on a Friday when they host Missouri for the Battle Line Rivalry at Razorback Stadium on Nov. 24.
If that’s not differnt enough, Arkansas’ open date is Sept. 16. That’s the third playing date of the season. The Razorbacks then play 10 consecutive weeks in the toughest division of the most competitive conference in the nation. That’s a concern.
How Bielema manages the team and its conditioning is going to be key, but of course, it always is regardless of when the open date is place. But, if I were Arkansas’ athletic director, I would have done just about whatever I could have to move the Nov. 4 game against Coastal Carolina to Sept. 16.
That’s not a criticism of Jeff Long. He may or may not have tried, and sometimes things just can’t be adjusted with scheduling.
Another unfortunate aspect of the schedule is that the Razorbacks only play one game on campus the first month of the season. The Hogs are hosting Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the Southwest Classic instead of at Fayetteville.
I like the fact that the Hogs play in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium each year, but is giving up a conference home game every other season really worth it?
The idea was that Arkansas’ recruiting efforts in Texas would benefit from the exposure of playing the Aggies each year near Dallas, but that was before the Aggies joined the SEC.
It’s hard to tell if the Southwest Classic has had the effect that was hoped for when the plan was designed.
Arkansas’ schedule kicks into high gear in October with back-to-back trips to South Carolina and Alabama on Oct. 7 and Oct. 14. The Hogs then return home for a showdown with Auburn on Oct. 21.
As long as Malzahn is the Tigers’ head coach, the Auburn game is going to mean a little bit more to Hog fans. The Tigers plastered the Razorbacks last season, 56-3. That loss was embarrassing to Bielema and Razorback fans alike. Arkansas might not be good enough to get it, but the Razorbacks will be looking for some payback in that game.
The Hogs then head to Oxford, Miss., on Oct. 28 for a pre-Halloween showdown. It’s always an interesting game when the Hogs and Rebels tangle, but my biggest summertime question is whether Hugh Freeze will still be Ole Miss’ coach at that point in the season?
The NCAA hammer is expected to fall on the Rebels’ program. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Ole Miss has staunchly supported Freeze through the controversy, but Rebels fans aren’t known for patience.
That cupcake game with Coastal Carolina is on Nov. 4, and it will be a welcome respite before the Razorbacks head to Baton Rouge, La., for their annual Battle for the Boot with LSU. The Tigers are expected to be in the hunt for the SEC title with Alabama and Auburn.
Finally comes the sweet spot in the Razorbacks’ schedule with back-to-back home games at Razorback Stadium against Mississippi State on Nov. 18 and Missouri on Black Friday, Nov. 24.
Mississippi State and Missouri are usually games Arkansas fans feel good about, but the Bulldogs and Tigers have proven to be stubborn opponents. One or the other seems to upend the Razorbacks in recent seasons.
This year the Razorbacks might need to beat both of them if they hope to be bowl eligible.