No consolation for fans as Hogs enter toughest part of schedule

Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden scored three touchdowns in his first start at quarterback on Saturday against Arkansas / Photo:

It’s a tough time to be a Razorback football fan, and unfortunately there’s not a lot anyone can do to make the situation immediately better.

The Razorbacks are 2-4 this season, and with six games left to play in Chad Morris’ second season as head coach, it’s hard to see any daylight. Two defensive players — backup linebacker D’Vone McClure and backup cornerback Devin Bush — quit the team in the days following last Saturday’s 24-20 loss at Kentucky, and one of the Hogs’ top commitments for the upcoming signing period has backed out the door and is looking at other opportunities.

Morris’ Razorbacks have lost 11 straight SEC games, and the program hasn’t had an SEC win dating back to Oct. 28, 2017 with a 38-37 win over Ole Miss for 14 consecutive SEC losses.

As for Hog fans, opinions are varied about what is happening on the Hill. Some see hints of improvement despite the losses. Many just shake their heads as they see wasted opportunities slip away week after week. Others are just disgusted and are lashing out from frustration and disappointment. They are ready for radical change at the end of the season if not before.

I can sympathize with all of them because I’d be lying if I said all of that hasn’t crossed my mind.

For those that are still noticing improvement, as slight and incremental as it has been, God bless them. The world and the Razorback Nation is better for having eternal optimists.

As for the rest, I don’t have much consolation, but I suffer along with you.

The best thing that can be said about the Razorbacks’ performances since they tanked in a 31-24 loss to San Jose State is that they played hard and for the most part didn’t quit.

I do wonder how long that will continue as the Razorbacks enter the meat grinder that is the back half of their schedule.

I would like to be looking forward to the two-game stretch ahead of the Razorbacks where they face No. 11 Auburn at 11 a.m. Saturday on the SEC Network and No. 1 Alabama at Tuscaloosa on 6 p.m. on ESPN.

One of the great aspects of being a part of the SEC is the guaranteed opportunities to play great football teams, but as a Razorback fan, I’ve been dreading this two-week period since I first saw the schedule.

I have no expectation that the Razorbacks are going to win either game, and am frankly worried what their health and psyche will be after these two games and how that might affect the Razorbacks’ ability to compete in a two-game home stretch against Mississippi State and Western Kentucky.

Auburn has one of the best defenses in the SEC and an absolutely dominating defensive line led by 6-5, 318-pound defensive tackle Derrick Brown. Ends Marlon Davidson (6-3, 278) and Big Kat Bryant (6-5, 247) and tackle Tyrone Truesdell (6-2, 310) specialize in stuffing the middle and allowing the Tigers linebacker flow to the ball.

Auburn’s just giving up 101 yards rushing per game, and have limited opponents to just 18.3 points per game. The Tigers are somewhat susceptible to the pass, allowing 231 yards per game through the air, but in today’s game that’s not much.

The Hogs will face that defense with uncertainty at quarterback and a banged-up starting running back in Rakeem Boyd.

In his weekly press conference on Monday, Morris wouldn’t name a starter at quarterback saying Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks would split first-team reps this week in practice.

Starkel was as off as a quarterback could be against Kentucky going 7 of 19 for 41 yards through the bulk of three quarters, and Arkansas’ offensive brain trust didn’t help him by calling pass after pass despite having some success in the running game early.

Hicks (5 of 8 for 81 yards) outplayed Starkel just as he did in a 31-24 loss to Texas A&M when he replaced him after an arm injury, but he did not get the Razorbacks in the win column either game.

I’m expecting Hicks to start because he clearly outplayed Starkel in the past two games, but I’m not sure it will matter against Auburn’s defense.

Some fans would like to see Sardis, Miss. freshman K.J. Jefferson play, but it’s doubtful the coaching staff will throw him to the wolves against Auburn or Alabama. However, Jefferson can play in four games and retain his redshirt status. If he’s not given an opportunity to play in each of Hogs’ final four games, it would seem to be a waste.

As for Auburn’s offense, the Tigers rolled over Kent State and Mississippi State, scoring over 50 points in each game. Auburn scored in the 20s in their other three victories over Oregon, Tulane, and Texas A&M.

Florida beat the Tigers, 24-13, in a defensive battle that saw both offenses forced into mistake after mistake. The Gators placed tons of pressure on Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix, and for the first time this season he played like a freshman.

Ideally, Arkansas would seek to pressure Nix in a similar fashion, but Arkansas’ secondary isn’t up to playing man-to-man against Auburn’s talent or Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s playing calling. If there is one thing Malzahn knows how to do, it is to isolate a weakness and exploit it.

Oddsmakers have made Auburn a 16.5-point favorite, which is probably that low in an attempt to entice betters to take the underdog.

Malzahn and Morris are old friends from their days as likeminded high school coaches, but don’t expect Malzahn to take it easy on the Hogs or his old buddy.

Though the No. 11 Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) look solid at this moment, no team in the nation has as difficult of a schedule remaining.

Auburn faces No. 2 LSU on Oct. 26, No. 10 Georgia on Nov. 16, and No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30. Malzahn needs to muster as much good will from finicky Auburn fans before facing that gauntlet. Like in the past, if Malzahn has a chance to pour it on the Hogs, don’t expect him to let up.