Redshirt freshman Hudson Clark last week was named the Jim Thorpe Award Player of the Week / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
After a week of his Hogs being proverbial media darlings following their surprising 2-2 start, first-year Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman has the important task of grounding his players in the reality as they prepare to play No. 8 Texas A&M at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in College Station.
There is no denying that Pittman and his excellent staff have inspired their Razorbacks to play with an intensity and commitment that had been absent from the program for at least three seasons. It was a needed turnaround for a program that sank to disastrous depths in each of the last two seasons.
The Hogs played so poorly under the previous coaching staff that some doubted the Razorbacks would be able to win a game based on their 10-game, all-SEC schedule. The Hogs were 0-16 in SEC play in two abysmal years under head coach Chad Morris, and only won a single SEC game in 2017, Bret Bielema’s final year as coach.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: College Station, Texas
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
The popular thought was that the program was so down that it could not attract a sitting head coach to take the job, and that the Razorbacks had to settle on hiring Pittman, a life-long assistant coach, while programs with less prestigious football histories than Arkansas’ like Missouri, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State seemed to hit the jackpot with their hires.
Optimistic prognosticators picked the Razorbacks to win two games, while others felt an 0-10 season wasn’t out of the question.
Pittman, however, flipped the script on those predictions with a stunningly improved defense, coordinated by former Missouri head coach Barry Odom and an opportunistic offense, working under Kendal Briles’ direction.
By all rights, the Razorbacks should be sitting pretty with a 3-1 record; however, the Hogs fell victim to what has become a frustrating and disturbing trend of wrong calls by SEC officiating crews. As irritating as it may be, the Razorbacks are still a surprising 2-2 with a strong tailwind behind them as they enter the back end of their schedule.
As promising as the Razorbacks’ improved play has been through four games, the Hogs’ final six games are brutal.
While only the aforementioned Aggies (3-1), No. 10 Florida (2-1), and No. 2 Alabama (5-0) remain ranked, Missouri (2-2) and LSU (2-2) each racked up impressive victories last weekend. Tennessee (2-3) can be excused for their loss, playing sacrificial lambs to Alabama.
No matter how you size it up, the Razorbacks final six games are formidable, particularly for a program like Arkansas’ that had won on one SEC game in the three previous seasons.
Arkansas fans are excited, and they should be; however, those who are assuming the Razorbacks will roll the next five weeks until the Crimson Tide visits Razorback Stadium on Dec. 5, are taking too much for granted.
The Razorbacks are no doubt improved, but are far from a dominant team and certainly not a squad that can count any of their remaining games as a victory before the final whistle. Thankfully, Pittman and his staff realize that better than most.
The Aggies opened as a 15-point favorite for a reason, and while the point spread is likely to narrow some by Saturday, make no mistake that Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies are the favorites, and perhaps the best rounded offensive squad the Hogs have seen this season.
Georgia’s defense is better than A&M’s, but the Aggies aren’t slouches with a ripe and hard-nosed defensive front seven that will be an issue against Briles’ slowly developing offensive unit.
The Razorbacks have scored just enough offensively to take advantage of the Hogs’ outstanding, and opportunistic defensive play this season.
Arkansas’ defense leads the nation in interceptions with 10 and are tied for first with three defensive touchdowns scored.
The Hogs lead the SEC in third-down conversion defense (32.4 percent), red-zone defense (61 percent), passing efficiency defense (109.16), and turnover margin (1.50), but Arkansas’ next six opponents have proven to be better teams this season overall than the Hogs’ first four opponents.
The big issue, though, is that the Aggies’ offense, quarterbacked by senior Kellan Mond (80 of 130, 984 yards, 9 TDs, 2 Ints) and featuring running back Isaiah Spiller (430 yards, 64 carries, 4 TDs). It’s balanced. Odom and his Hogs will have difficulty trying to make the Aggies play left-handed.
A&M has a strong offensive front that provides balance that is tough for defenses to handle. The Aggies are without a doubt the best rushing team the Hogs have played this season.
Pittman said Monday that after the Razorbacks had cleaned up some of the kicking game snafus that plagued them through their first four games that he’d like to see his Hogs come up with a big play or two of their own on special teams to give the Hogs a lift.
No doubt, Pittman would like to see the Hogs rush the football more effectively than they have managed early in the season. The Razorbacks are averaging just 102.3 rushing yards per game for a measly 2.6 yards per carry. Much of the low production can be attributed to the injury Rakeem Boyd suffered in the first half of the Mississippi State game. After sitting out against Auburn, Boyd played against Ole Miss, but never truly found his bearings.
Maybe, the open date and possibly the fact the Razorbacks are playing the Aggies, the team he signed with out of high school, will spur the senior to a break-out performance this week? However, based on the Hogs’ running game thus far, the Hogs can’t count on it.
Pittman said Monday execution has hindered Arkansas running game more so than injury. He said the key is getting 10 players all executing together play after play is the key to revving up the Razorbacks’ running game.
Until that happens pressure for graduate-senior quarterback Feleipe Franks to play nearly spotless football will be high. He has played well, completing 82 of 128 passes for 974 yards and eight touchdowns against three interceptions.
However, if the Razorback running game can get untracked, Franks’ work at quarterback should become that much easier. Look for receiver Treylon Burks to continue to be a big part of the Hogs’ game plan. While he’s only played in two games, Burks has 19 receptions for 249 yards and two touchdowns to lead Arkansas in receiving. The Hogs will need several big plays from Burks if they are too upset the Aggies.
This is a game the Razorbacks shouldn’t win on paper, but that could be said of each of their victories this season. Saturday’s game will be a difficult test for the Razorbacks, who haven’t beaten the Aggies since 2011 in Bobby Petrino’s last season as head coach, but Pittman and his Hogs have been surprising opponents and fans all season. Maybe the trend will continue.