Razorbacks’ schedule cuts like a double-edged sword

Looking at the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2020 football schedule brings to mind the Charles Dickens’ classic “A Tale of Two Cities.”

No, I’m not talking about Fayetteville and Little Rock. Even during a pandemic when we’ve had very little sports for months and according to some pundits we’ll have go without this fall too, I don’t want to stoke those flames.

For fans, Arkansas’ football schedule in 2020 is a blessing and a curse. It could be the best of times or the worst. It’s all how you want to look at it.

On one hand, it could be argued that the schedule is one of the very best the Hogs have ever played, but on the other, it’s also one of the toughest in terms of opponents and the way the games are stacked that I’ve witnessed in 45 years of paying close attention to Razorback sports.

2020 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 5 – Nevada
Sept. 12 – at Notre Dame
Sept. 19 – at Mississippi State
Sept. 27 – Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Oct. 3 – Charleston Southern
Oct. 10 – Alabama
Oct. 17 – LSU
Oct. 31 – Tennessee
Nov. 7 – at Auburn
Nov. 14 – Ole Miss
Nov. 21 – Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 28 – Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City

By virtue of playing in the SEC Western Division, the Hogs’ schedule is always going to be back-road tough, each and every year. Razorback fans know they’re going to see Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss each fall as well as Arkansas’ every-year SEC East opponent Missouri.

For the most part, Arkansas hasn’t been known for playing the toughest nonconference schedules, and since Bobby Petrino took that fateful motorcycle ride on Highway 16 almost a decade ago, the Razorbacks have had a hard time handling non-Power 5 opponents and teams they were supposed to beat.

If Bret Bielema had fared better in the nonconference portion of the schedules his Razorback teams faced, he might still be the Hogs coach. The same could almost be said for Chad Morris. It could have meant one to two more wins most seasons for both coaches.

One thing Houston Nutt and Petrino both did was make sure they won their nonconference games against non-Power 5 opponents. That gave them the foundation to have winning seasons, even during their three combined losing seasons when they fell short in 2004, 2005, and 2008.

This fall the Razorbacks will face a challenge no other Arkansas football team has ever faced. They travel to South Bend, Ind. to play one of college football’s most storied programs, Notre Dame, on Sept 12. The Fighting Irish are expected to be a top-10 team this season by most. Athlon ranks them ninth in its preseason poll, while Pro Football Focus ranks them eighth.

Preseason polls are never perfect, but they are somewhat reliable as a guide. The polls are generally based on the players returning from the previous season, perception, tradition, and spring practice results.

This being a year when few teams actually completed spring practice because of the cornavirus, one might guess the polls will be less accurate than usual, but honestly I don’t think it will have much of a bearing. No one gets to see every Power 5 team practice in the spring.

Even if a reporter or analyst were able to drop in for a single practice for each SEC team, I doubt their opinion would change much coming out of those workouts than going in. Remember polls are just a collection of opinions, and opinions are difficult to change.

All of that said, facing Notre Dame cranks up an already tough slate of games for the Razorbacks to 11, if you get the “Spinal Tap” reference. It’s off-the-charts difficult.

Athlon ranks Alabama at No. 2, LSU at No. 8, Notre Dame at No. 9, Texas A&M at No. 11 and Auburn at No. 13.

Pro Football Focus ranks Alabama at No. 3, LSU at No. 4, Notre Dame at No. 8, Auburn at No. 10, Texas A&M at No. 14., Tennessee No. 19, and Mississippi State at No. 25.

So, again, that is some kind of schedule for the Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans. According to PPF, which focuses on the pro potential of a college team’s roster, the Hogs will play seven of the top 25 teams in the nation this year.

That’s the kind of schedule radio call-in show fans once longed for when the Hogs played in the Southwest Conference in the 1980s, but the same fans might lament such desires come October and November.

Even a coach with a well-established program would find that schedule challenging if not daunting, but Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman is in his first season as a head coach. He and his staff missed working with the players on the field because the coronavirus shut down college athletics just days before spring workouts were schedule to begin.

Pittman has a world of experience as an assistant coach, and he’s hired what appears to be an excellent staff, but with that schedule and the lack of spring practice, they have been thrown into the middle of no-man’s land and given a hand grenade with the pin already pulled.

Duck and cover everyone! This schedule is dynamite!

The Razorbacks open Sept. 5 against Nevada, a team that went 7-6 last year whose coach has already admitted he’s eying an upset of the Razorbacks on Labor Day weekend.

From there the Razorbacks hardly have a chance to catch their breath until the end of November. Following the opener, the Hogs play at Notre Dame, at Starkville, and then face Texas A&M in their annual game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

On Oct. 3, the Razorbacks can come up for a quick gulp of air for a game against Charleston Southern in Razorback Stadium before facing Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee in Fayetteville and then traveling to Auburn on Nov. 7. The Razorbacks do have an open date in the middle of that four-game surge on Oct. 24, and they are going to need it.

Ole Miss visits Razorback Stadium on Nov. 14, and then a dangerous Louisiana-Monroe comes to town on Nov. 21.

The Hogs close out the season with Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Currently the game is scheduled for Saturday Nov. 28, but it could be moved to Friday Nov. 27 by CBS. We’ll probably know for sure by the time SEC Media Days are over, if the SEC ever gets around to announcing when the virtual event will occur this summer.

As you can see on one hand the Razorbacks’ schedule is a fan’s dream with nearly every week offering a game against a Top-25 opponent, but on the other hand, it is a brutal slate of games for a program headed by a first-year coach and staff that’s trying to get the program up off the canvas after back-to-back 2-10 seasons.

Arkansas’ schedule is truly a double-edged sword.

However, what’s more troubling than Arkansas’ schedule at this moment is all the uncertainty amidst the pandemic we’re facing. While playing and watching sports is a minor worry compared to the enormity of the issues the coronavirus has inflicted on the world, this is a space where we concentrate on Razorback sports, and as of now, we just don’t know when we’ll be able to watch the Hogs play.

A month ago, many were cautiously optimistic about playing the season in full, but with the spike of coronavirus infections in the South and the West over the last three weeks, some of those who were optimistic are vacillating.

College football is big business for the conferences, programs, and universities involved. If there is a way to play this season, it will happen. There is too much at stake for it not to go on if at all possible. But safety for the players, coaches, and support staffs has to be a paramount concern.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey targeted late July or early August as the point when a decision will be made whether to attempt to play this season and how that will look.

As fans we can only sit back and wait. A lot can happen in six weeks — good or bad. Unfortunately, we all know that from experience this year.