Razorbacks make strides despite ugly record

Arkansas sophomore WR Treylon Burks / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

As an Arkansas Razorback fan it’s hard for me to sit here and say a three-win season — no matter the circumstances — is a good season.

Yeah, I know I’m putting the cart before the horse.

There’s still one game left to be played against No. 1 Alabama at 11 a.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. A miracle could happen?

Next up for the Razorbacks

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

There also remains talk of the Hogs playing in a bowl game with qualifications for bowl eligibility being relaxed this year because of the pandemic.

I saw one prediction earlier in the week by ESPN that had the Razorbacks paired with the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 29.

That would be a fun matchup for fans to commiserate about through what is likely going to be a less festive holiday season as the Covid-19 continues to surge.

Even if a large watch party isn’t in the offing because of the need for social distancing and home quarantining after Christmas, I think Hog fans could get riled up for a shootout with their former arch-rival.

Maybe some Zoom watch parties could be organized by the various Razorback clubs around the state or even by the Razorback Foundation?

Fans could interact with each other on Zoom, while watching the game on the tube.

But I digress.

Even though the Razorbacks will likely finish this regular season with just three wins — barring that miracle happening Saturday against Bama — I have to label this Razorback season a step forward after the three previous dismal seasons.

Certainly, the Razorbacks could have won more games. I mean the Auburn, LSU, and Missouri games were right there for the taking, if the Hogs would have made just a few more plays here or there on offense, defense or in the kicking game. Ugh, the kicking game.

Even with just three wins, as Head Hog Sam Pittman recently pointed out in a Zoom press conference that if this were a normal season with the Razorbacks playing a normal SEC schedule, three SEC wins extrapolates out to a six or possibly seven-win season.

I doubt this Razorback team would have pulled off an upset over Notre Dame at South Bend this season had that game been played, but I could definitely have seen them winning against their other three originally scheduled non-conference opponents.

That would have left the Razorbacks 6-5 going into Saturday’s Alabama game, and then coming out the other end 6-6 and bowl eligible.

I know that’s doing some mental gymnastics, but I think Pittman’s evaluation was on point.

In the old days, there’s always a lot of backdoor bargaining when bowl pairings were set. Arkansas usually came out smelling pretty sweet with Frank Broyles wielding his influence. When he was Arkansas’ A.D., it wasn’t uncommon for the Razorbacks to garner a better bowl destination than perhaps some expected. Trips to the 1987 Orange Bowl and the 2000 Cotton Bowl stand out in my mind.

Now, ESPN and SEC confab on which SEC teams will play where. I’d say the SEC owes the Razorbacks a solid for sticking the Hogs with the toughest schedule in college football history by adding Georgia and Florida as their two additional opponents when the league went to a 10-game, all-SEC schedule for this season.

The Razorbacks should get all the consideration the SEC can muster after receiving such a hard hit from the league’s scheduling office early in the year. Arkansas getting a bowl bid might soothe some of the sting that fans felt over the scheduling.

However, all existing Razorback fans will have to pass on before the slipshod officiating particularly in the Auburn game but also against LSU will ever be forgotten.

But, again I digress.

No matter what happens Saturday at Razorback Stadium against what is stacking up to be one of Nick Saban’s most dominating Crimson Tide squads — particularly in terms of margin of victory — Pittman’s Hogs have returned a measure of respectability to the program that had been lost over the three previous seasons when all the Razorbacks could manage was one lone SEC victory in 2017.

By no means are Hogs a finished product.

Pittman said Thursday that the Hogs must improve in the trenches if the program is going to continue to advance.

Pittman and his staff are looking to finish off this year’s recruiting class by adding some big, athletic bodies whether they come from the transfer portal, the junior college ranks, or the high school level as the staff continues to develop the players they have on hand.

To be successful week in and week out in the SEC, it not only takes player development from the coaches, but it also takes the raw talent. The Hogs have fine direction from offensive line coach Brad Davis and defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc.

But just like in the culinary arts, it’s not only the skill of the chef but also the quality of the produce that makes for an exquisite meal.

Davis and LeBlanc need better and bigger raw material to work with if the Hogs are going to level up in the SEC.

Unfortunately size has always been an issue for the Razorbacks. Even some of the Razorbacks best teams under Broyles, Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Houston Nutt, and Bobby Petrino were a undersized when compared to elite programs of their day.

One hopes that Pittman can make Fayetteville a haven for large, athletic football players in the next few recruiting classes.

And yet, I digress again.

As you can probably tell I’m avoiding writing about Saturday’s game with Alabama as much as possible.

Over the course of the season, Alabama has proven to be the best team in the SEC. Only Florida can claim otherwise, and after the SEC title game, I don’t think the Gators will be able to argue either.

The Hogs are outclassed Saturday, but as ugly as the game might get for Hog fans, the Razorbacks will get a chance to compete against one of the best if not THE best team in the nation. It will give the Razorbacks an idea of where they stand, and how much they need to improve to reach the level they want to play at in subsequent seasons.

Beyond that it’s a shot at the No. 1 team in the nation. That’s something all competitors should long for no matter the outcome.