Pittman, Razorbacks face an unforgiving schedule

Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Remember the old American Express slogan “membership has its privileges?”

Membership in the SEC has given the Arkansas Razorbacks the privilege this year of playing one of the most challenging college football schedules, maybe, ever.

By virtue of being a member of the SEC West, the Hogs’ schedule is always loaded with the likes of Alabama, LSU, and Auburn along with Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, but we learned last week that the SEC had opted to feed on its weakest links by serving up its struggling programs to its perennial powerhouses when creating its 10-game, all-SEC schedules for this year’s coronavirus infected and affected season.

Last week we learned the Razorbacks, who haven’t won an SEC game in more than two seasons, had perennial SEC powers Georgia and Florida added to their SEC schedule.

Monday night the league released the actual schedules, and trying to look at it objectively, there is very little daylight on the Razorbacks’ slate. Not only is it bookended with No. 4 Georgia to open the season but with No. 3 Alabama to close it.

2020 Arkansas Razorback Football Schedule

Sept. 26 – Georgia
Oct. 3 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
Oct. 24 – Open
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama

It’s not gooey in the middle either. There’s not one game that I think oddsmakers would favor the Hogs in going into the season.

That’s not the SEC’s fault, though.

Sure, the league decided it was in the SEC’s best interest to feed its expected weakest members to its strongest in making out its expanded conference schedule for this season’s SEC-only slate, but the onus for the situation Arkansas’ program is in at the moment falls on the shoulders of the program’s power brokers who went for broke to try and entice Gus Malzahn to come home to Arkansas when his job was on the line at Auburn in the middle of the 2017 season.

Malzahn was on the ropes when his Tigers visited Razorback Stadium on Oct. 21 and whipped Bret Bielema’s struggling Hogs’ 52-20. Auburn fans were disgruntled with Malzahn at the moment because a youngish team had dropped a 14-6 loss to Clemson in the second game of the season and then fell 27-20 to LSU the week before coming to Fayetteville on Oct. 21, 2017.

Malzahn was looking for a comfortable exit strategy from Auburn if he needed one, and the Razorbacks evidently were his big backup plan.

With word that Malzahn was interested in landing in Fayetteville if he needed to bail on Auburn or if Auburn bailed on him, Arkansas power brokers cleared the way for Malzahn’s return to Northwest Arkansas by firing athletic director Jeff Long in early November, which set into motion the ouster of Bielema, who seemed to have plateaued as the Hogs’ head coach in his fifth year.

Thus the way was cleared to bring Malzahn home to coach the Razorbacks. The only problem, though, was that Auburn caught fire with that victory over the Hogs, going on to whip Texas A&M, No. 2 Georgia, Louisiana-Monroe, and No. 1 Alabama to secure a spot in the SEC Championship Game, where they would get another shot at Georgia.

Auburn went into the the SEC title game limping and came out a 28-7 loser to the Bulldogs, but Malzahn had proven his worth to the doubting Auburn faithful, and they weren’t about to allow the Razorbacks to hire him away after whipping Alabama and winning the Western Division title.

So, Malzahn spurned the Razorbacks’ overture, which he had courted through friends just weeks earlier, and the Hogs were left holding an empty bag without an athletics director or a football coach in early December.

With Malzahn out of play, Memphis super-agent Jimmy Sexton offered up Chad Morris, who had done fairly well at SMU after serving as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Acting athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples, with the support of the UA Board of Trustees, snatched up Morris as the Hogs’ head coach.

The highlight of Morris’ career as the Hogs’ head coach was his introductory press conference. It was pretty much down hill from there as the Razorbacks managed to win just four games under Morris’ guidance in two seasons. Morris was 0-14 against SEC teams.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek elected to remove Morris from the head coaching job last November and put him out of his misery with two games left to play. Former Razorback quarterback Barry Lunney Jr. served as interim head coach in the Hogs’ final two games last season, before Yurachek opted to hire Sam Pittman as the Hogs’ head coach.

The quick hire of Morris without a permanent athletic director in place proved to be one of the worst mistakes in modern Arkansas football history.

Even Broyles’ quick hire of Jack Crowe, which was a desperation move when Ken Hatfield left Arkansas for Clemson in late January of 1990 after feuding with Broyles over his coaching staff for a couple of years, wasn’t as bad. Crowe did have one winning season and a victory over Texas before Broyles pulled the plug on him after an embarrassing opening-season loss to The Citadel in 1992.

The SEC’s scheduling decision to feed the weak to the strong this season isn’t pleasant to the likes of Arkansas and Missouri, but it’s always been “pragmatic” to sacrifice the weak for the good of the strong in a crisis, and that seems to be the reasoning behind the SEC’s scheduling decision for this year.

At least that’s the way I see it.

Or, it could be further punishment by the football gods for Arkansas putting Long and Bielema’s heads on the chopping block to chase after Malzahn, who didn’t really want to be caught?

No matter how you see Arkansas’ schedule this season, it is challenging. The Razorbacks have never faced a stiff a schedule.

Based on ESPN’s preseason poll — which still includes Big 10 and Pac-12 teams who aren’t going to play this fall — Arkansas plays No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Florida, No. 11 Auburn, and No. 13 Texas A&M. Tennessee and Mississippi State also received votes in the poll.

It stands to be a long and challenging first year for Sam Pittman as the Razorbacks’ head coach. The Hogs’ schedule is not only arguably the most difficult schedule any team faces this season, but it may be the toughest that any Razorback team has ever faced. Hog fans need to keep that in mind throughout the season.

That said, I don’t think the Razorbacks’ talent is as bad as they performed the last two seasons. Pittman has put together a very solid coaching staff, and though the media has only had very limited contact with players since he took over the program because of the coronavirus, it seems players have already bought into his no-nonsense brand of coaching.

Hog fans should expect another difficult season this year just based on their unforgiving slate of games, but Pittman has hired what seems to be a very strong coaching staff, which leads me to believe we will see a much better product on the field than we have the past two seasons.