Season openers a mixed bag for first-year Razorback coaches

Sam Pittman’s been on the job as the Arkansas Razorbacks’ head coach since last December, and the first-time major college head coach has already had one of the most challenging tenures of any University of Arkansas football coach because of COVID-19.

Nobody’s written a book on how to prepare a football team for a season in the middle of a pandemic. With the start of the season at 3 p.m. Saturday, the challenges facing Pittman, his staff, and the Razorbacks aren’t going to get any easier.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Georgia
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Oct. 3 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
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 an exaggeration to opine that Pittman’s Razorbacks not only face the toughest football schedule this season but possibly ever with the brutal 10-game slate the SEC handed down to the Hogs in August. It’s a true murderer’s row with six of the Hogs’ 10 opponents ranked in the Associated Press’ most recent top 25 poll.

The challenge is truly daunting for a first-time head coach guiding a collection of players that only managed to go 2-10 each of the last two season under the departed Chad Morris. The Razorbacks’ grid-iron ineptitude the past two seasons is what led to Pittman’s opportunity to move from being considered one of the best offensive line coaches in college football to being the Razorbacks’ head coach.

Pittman wasn’t Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek’s first choice, but the 58-year-old El Reno, Okla. native is bound and determined to make himself the right choice.

Ironically that begins Saturday against the program he left last December in the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs. Kirby Smart’s squad wasn’t originally on the Razorbacks’ schedule this season, but it was one of two games added — the other No. 5 Florida — when the SEC shifted to a 10-game conference only slate.

It’s not much consolation, but the Bulldogs are the only squad the Razorbacks have to focus on Saturday. Certainly, facing the squad that returns most of what was statistically one of the best defensive units in the nation last fall is daunting for Pittman and his Hogs, a baptism of fire if you will.

The weekly challenge can’t get more difficult after the first week, and it certainly won’t be as emotional for Pittman with him facing his former team that includes players he recruited and guided in the program, but it doesn’t get much easier either.

First games have been a mixed back for head coaches in the modern age of Razorback football, which for the purposes of this column bean in 1958 with Frank Broyles’ first year as the head Hog Caller.

Broyles, who coached the Razorbacks from 1958-76, lost the first Razorback game he coached 12-0 to Baylor along with the next five contests before finishing the season with four-consecutive victories.

Broyles left his successor Lou Holtz with a stacked deck of talent for the 1977 season, and the Hogs walked away with an easy 53-10 victory over New Mexico State in his first game as head coach on their way to an 11-1 season, capped by a stunning 31-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Unfortunately, Holtz didn’t leave the cupboard as well stocked as he found it for his successor Ken Hatfield. Hatfield’s first season as head coach was one of the more exciting season’s in school history, featuring a mighty quarterbacking effort by strong-armed Brad Taylor. However, Hatfield’s era started with an unfortunate 14-14 tie against Ole Miss in 1984.

Perhaps Arkansas’ most indecisive head coach Jack Crowe won his first game, 28-3, against Tulsa in 1990. Usually whipping the Golden Hurricane portended good things for a Razorback season; however, that just wasn’t the case in 1990. Crowe’s first squad finished with an unexpected and ugly 3-8 mark that was shocking for a team picked to win the SEC that season.

Jump ahead to 1992, the year Arkansas joined the SEC. Crowe started the season as the head Hog, but could not survive a shocking, season-opening 10-3 loss to The Citadel. Broyles fired Crowe the next day and promoted defensive coordinator Joe Kines to head coach. Kines only managed Arkansas to a 3-6-1 record, but his Razorbacks did blast South Carolina, 45-7, in his first game on the road and pulled off a stunning 25-24 upset at No. 4 Tennessee before he turned the program over to Danny Ford.

Ford’s Hogs nudged SMU, 10-6, in Dallas in his first game as the head Hog in 1993, but the squad finished 5-5-1 on the field, while the record book counts a 43-3 butt-kicking by No. 2 Alabama a victory because of a forfeit.

Houston Nutt’s 10-year tenure as the head Hog Caller began with a solid but nothing-special 38-17 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. That 1998 season turned into a “special” season that revived interest in Razorback football and proved that the Hogs could compete in the SEC in the best of times.

The Razorbacks squeaked by Western Illinois, 28-24, in Bobby Petrino’s first game as head coach in 2008. It was a sign the Hogs would have a rough 5-7 season, but better times were on the way before that fateful motorcycle crash in the spring of 2012.

As interim head coach 2012, John L. Smith won his first game 49-24 over Jacksonville State, but his season as head coach would devolve into a 4-8 dumpster fire before it was over.

Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks topped Louisiana-Lafayette, 34-14, in his opening game of 2013, but his Hogs went 0-8 in SEC play. Pittman, of course, was the Hogs’ offensive line coach that season and the next two before joining Smart’s staff at Georgia for the 2016 season.

Morris’ Hogs won their opener in 2018 over Eastern Illinois, 55-20, but the Hogs wouldn’t sniff a victory again that season until blanking Tulsa, 23-0, during an uncomfortable 2-10 season. Things got no better in Morris’ second season, and his firing with two games left in the season after a crushing 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky was the catalyst to bring Pittman to Arkansas.

So, what does that jog through Razorback history tell us?

First games of Razorback head coaches don’t really tell us much, especially when most Razorback coaches started their tenures with cupcake opponents.

The Bulldogs are no cupcake. They return the bulk of a defense from what was one of the best units iif not the best in the nation last season. Georgia is going to break in a new starting quarterback in D’Wan Mathis (6-6, 205), but he is a phenomenal athlete with great speed and a strong arm.

The Razorbacks are a 26.5-point underdog in the game that many feel will be out of hand in the first half.

Truly questions abound all over the field for the Razorbacks against what is expected to be another rock-solid squad for Smart.

The Razorbacks have talent at almost every skilled spot on offense with former Florida Gator Feleipe Franks at quarterback, Rakeem Boyd at running back, and Treylon Burks, Mike Woods, and Trey Knox at receivers, but the Hogs’ offensive line is young and inexperienced for offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ up-tempo offense.

Defense has been a question mark for the Razorbacks for most of the last decade, and it’s the same going into Saturday’s game. Five Razorback opponents scored more than 45 points against the Hogs last season, and four others tallied at least 31. Surely defensive coordinator Barry Odom, Missouri’s head coach 2016-19, will get more out of the Hogs this season?

I would like to be able to paint a promising picture for the Hogs for this game and this season, but every indication based on the Razorbacks’ performances last year points to another year of struggle. With an all-SEC schedule, there is no cushion whatsoever. This is a season where Razorback fans should judge their Hogs on improvement not just wins and losses.

That said, I really do like the attitude the Razorback players have brought with them to the Zoom interview sessions during preseason workouts. The players seems more confident and together than in years. Usually, the rah, rah stuff wears down and off with a couple of losses. We’ll just have to see if this new Razorback attitude is truly engrained in the players or just hot air as the season moves forward.

My gut says it’s legitimate, but it’s easy to be fooled by talk. The Hogs’ actual play on the field and progress this season will ultimately tell the story.

The affable but tough-nosed Pittman makes you want to root for him. He shows so much care for his players and the Razorback program that you want him to find success. His work is cut out for him, but it’s hard not to buy into his sincerity and the attitude adjustment seen among the players.

That said, Saturday’s game is bound to be a tough one in which Hog fans might have to look long and hard at to find a silver lining.