’Bama presents monumental challenge, but better days in store for Hogs under Pittman

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com / Courtesy photo

The Arkansas Razorbacks — players, coaches, and staff — have turned the page on last Saturday’s 50-48 loss to Missouri.

They have to. Their task this week is monumental, preparing for the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide.

This may or may not be Nick Saban’s best team in his 14 years as the Crimson Tide’s head coach, but in terms of scores, they have dominated this season like nothing else this side of the the coronavirus pandemic.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Alabama
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 12
Where: Fayetteville, Ark
Current Record: 3-6

The Crimson Tide have simply crushed all comers in the SEC, which is supposed to be the best conference in the nation.

Alabama started slow against Missouri, defeating the Tigers 38-19 in both school’s season opener. Since then the Tide has rolled to no less than 41 points in each ballgame, scoring over 50 twice and topping 60 two other times.

That does not bode well for a worn-down Razorback defense that could not get off the field in the fourth quarter against Missouri.

However, as fans we have the luxury that the coaching staff and team doesn’t. What we think, talk, and commiserate about concerning the Missouri game doesn’t amount to much, and it certainly has no bearing on Saturday’s game.

As a fan, I don’t really want to think about Saturday because while the Hogs and Crimson Tide are in the same conference, the programs just aren’t in the same league at the moment, and they haven’t been for quite some time.

In the last decade or so, the Hogs have had only two teams to really challenge Alabama. Bobby Petrino’s No. 10 Razorbacks wore down in the fourth quarter to fall, 24-20, to the No. 1 Tide in 2010.

Similarly, Bret Bielema’s Hogs played No. 7 Alabama off their feet in 2014, but just couldn’t get over the hump falling, 14-13, in a true slobber-knocker of a game.

As you can tell by those scores, the game has changed greatly in recent years with an explosion of offense that has broken the game wide open. Even Saban who groused against hurry-up, no-huddle type offenses made the transition, and now his team plays that style about as well as it can be done.

Saturday’s game might or might not be a low-scoring affair for the Razorbacks, but it most certainly won’t be for the Crimson Tide.

As tough as the last-second loss to Missouri was to stomach last week, Saturday’s game with Alabama is probably going to be worse for Razorback fans.

It’s going to give us a true view of how far the Razorbacks are from being an elite program that we all wish them to be.

That’s unfortunate for a Razorbacks squad that has played with heart and soul we haven’t witnessed on the Hill in a number of years.

In Sam Pittman’s first season, the Razorbacks have played their tails off, but they are not yet where they need to be in terms of talent — particularly on the offensive and defensive lines.

The way Pittman and his staff recruit and develop players, I believe they have already begun to make up some of that deficit and will do so even more over the next few years, but there’s no quick fix in improving line play. It only comes from time and experience in practice and conditioning and weight training.

It’s a process, and the Razorbacks were behind when Pittman took over the program just over a year ago and they are still working to make up what is a huge gap.

While the Razorbacks have solid starters at more than a few spots on defense, Arkansas’ depth issue was never more apparent than last Saturday when senior linebacker Grant Morgan, who led the SEC in tackles going into the game, went down with a knee injury.

A starter going out of a game is going to make a difference, but the loss of Morgan only spotlighted the depth issues Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom inherited.

Some thought it was crazy when the Razorbacks went for the 2-point conversion after their final touchdown instead of just tying the game. However, Pittman felt his sagging defense wouldn’t be able to hold up during an overtime period. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough in their tank to hold on for the final 48 seconds, either.

The criticism of Odom has been intense since the loss. Much of it from the same folks who praised him earlier in the year. While no coach is perfect, scheme wasn’t the issue Saturday. It was depth and talent.

Neither of those can be rectified in one year on the job.

The deterioration we’ve seen in some aspects of the Hogs’ defensive play in recent weeks is testament to why under normal conditions the SEC regularly plays an eight-game conference schedule rather than nine, 10 or 12.

Playing more than eight SEC games would be brutal on programs that are not at their height of depth and talent.

Most college players are dealing with some sort of nagging pain at this point in the season if not an injury of some sort. Mature programs are better able to handle those issues than those that have faced turnover and turmoil in recent years like the Razorbacks.

I think we would all agree this has been a tumultuous decade for the Hogs. It started with the highs of the short-lived Petrino era and then plummeted for an interim season under John L. Smith. Bielema seemed to be getting things on track before the bottom fell out his final year.

I’ve wondered if Bielema could have gotten the program to rebound, if he hadn’t been ousted in a coup-like move executed by boosters to bring Gus Malzahn to the program he didn’t really want to coach at that juncture in the first place.

Whether Bielema could have rebounded or not, I have to believe 2018 and 2019 would have been better seasons under his direction rather than Chad Morris’.

Although if Morris’ tenure had to happen to plow the way for Pittman, the program may eventually be better off for it.

This hasn’t been a charmed season by any means, but Pittman’s no-nonsense approach to leadership has already restored a sense of pride to the program that had been lost.

Saturday is going to be a tough game for Hog fans, but I’m confident there are better days ahead for the Razorbacks under Pittman.