Hardwood, gridiron Hogs ring out 2020 with crucial contests

It’s an ending and a beginning for the Arkansas Razorbacks this week on the gridiron and the hardwood as we say goodbye and to some extent good riddance to 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic we’ve all suffered through to varying degrees makes 2020 a year none of us will ever forget, even if many of the memories will be sad or even tragic.

As rough as this year has been on some, the return of college sports this fall made the going a bit easier and provided us with a diversion that we were uncertain we were going to have back in the late days of July and early August.

This season hasn’t been easy for the young men and women who participated in college athletics as uncertainty and copious Covid-19 testing became a routine aspect of college athletes’ already regimented lives.

The burgeoning decimation of vaccines give us hope of a more normal spring and summer in all facets of our lives, but until then we continue to move forward toward what we hope will be a healthier and happier new year for out state, nation, and world.

As we get ready for a socially-distanced New Year’s Eve, Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks (8-0) prep for the opening of their 2020-21 SEC basketball season, which tip off at 6 p.m. Wednesday on the road at Auburn (6-2) in a game televised on ESPN2.

The big news is Musselman will be back on the sideline for the Auburn game after missing the Hogs’ 85-72 victory over Abilene Christian on Dec. 22 because of Covid 19 contact tracing, according to a report by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Thursday, Sam Pittman’s Hogs (3-7) will put the finishing touch on their football season at 7 p.m. against TCU (6-4) in the Texas Bowl at Houston on ESPN.

Both games are huge for the Razorbacks.

First Bowl Game in Three Seasons

Grant Morgan / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

First for the football Hogs, their Texas Bowl appearance is the program’s first bowl game in three seasons, and the Hogs should take it as a statement game for how they want to punctuate playing the strongest football schedule not only in Razorback football history but arguably in all of college football history.

A victory over a well-respected and surging Horned Frog squad that won five of their last six games would build a lot of momentum for the Razorbacks going into their winter workouts and hopefully spring practice, if Covid-19 allows.

Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs are a 5-point favorite going into the game, so the Hogs are underdogs like they have been every game this season.

Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Pittman said his Razorbacks would be as healthy and his roster would be the deepest since the Hogs’ season opener against Georgia back in September.

That should be good news to all Arkansas fans, who witnessed their Razorbacks wear down over the course of the season, particularly on the defensive side of the football.

Quality depth has always been a concern for the Razorbacks since joining the SEC for football in 1992, but the Arkansas roster has been hard hit by the natural fluctuation that comes with having three different head coaches during a four-year period.

It certainly feels like Pittman has stabilized Arkansas’ football program in just a little over a year on the job and that there are better days in the future.

The NCAA is allowing an extra year of eligibility for 2020 seniors because of the disruption of the coronavirus caused this season. Linebacker Grant Morgan, offensive linemen Myron Cunningham and Ty Clary, tight end Blake Kern, and receivers De’Vion Warren and T.J. Hammonds have said they will return next year. One or two others might join them. The returning players will not count against the 85-man squad limit.

“Obviously that makes you feel good,” Pittman said. “It makes you feel good because they want to come back. If you can bring, not your entire team, but if you can bring a lot of seniors back, I think that means something to the program. Obviously they’re talented and we’re excited about those guys, and we’re excited to announce the other three [Monday], and excited about the possibility of getting even more back.

“We’re just really happy that they think enough of the University of Arkansas and the program that they’re going to come back for their sixth year, or their double-senior year, however you want to say it.”

Pittman said Monday he is not anticipating graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks to return, although they are still talking about it. Franks learned recently that he was chosen to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. on Jan. 30.

Franks has had an outstanding season for the Razorbacks from a leadership standpoint as a captain and for his play on the field. He’s on the verge of setting a new school record for completion percentage at 68.5 percent, while throwing for 2,107 yards and 17 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions.

If he could guide the Hogs to a bowl victory, Franks’ single season with the Hogs would no doubt remain a memorable one to Razorback fans for years, and it would set a standard of success for his understudies K.J Jefferson and Malik Hornsby, who are expected to duel for the starting job this spring.

Upending TCU won’t be an easy task. Their defense is led by two Associated Press second-team, All-Americans in cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and safety Trevon Moehrig, who were both first-team All-Big 12 selections.

Offensively, they are led by dual-threat quarterback Max Duggan, who not only led TCU in passing but also in rushing. He threw for 179.5 yards per game completing 60.8 percent of his passes and rushed for 526 yards for a 52.6 ypg. average.

The game ought to be a good one. A victory over the Horned Frogs would be one that could catapult the Razorbacks forward, and keep the fanbase optimistic during the long off-season.

Auburn Provide Stiff Test for Hoop Hogs

Desi Sills / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

For the basketball Hogs, the question remains just how good are the undefeated and for the most part unchallenged Razorbacks?

I think we’ll have a much better idea following the Hogs’ date with Auburn Wednesday night.

Bruce Pearl always has a well-coached, talented ball club that generally plays at an up-tempo pace. Unlike the Hogs, his Tigers have been tested, falling 90-67 to No. 1 Gonzaga and 66-53 to Central Florida in November.

The Tigers’ most notable victories were 96-91 over Saint Joseph’s in overtime and 74-71 over Memphis on Dec. 12 in the Holiday Hoopsgiving Tournament in Atlanta.

So, Auburn has been tested in ways, the Razorbacks haven’t going into SEC play. Arkansas blew its way through a mid-major schedule as Musselman and staff attempted to build a Hog team full of freshman and transfers into a cohesive unit.

The Razorbacks feature height and length that the Hogs haven’t put on the floor in more than a decade along with good quickness, but the Razorbacks have yet to face a team with the size and physicality to match their own. That changes against Auburn.

The Razorbacks have also not played away from the friendly confines of Walton Arena, yet this season, after their game scheduled to be played at Tulsa on Dec. 8 was postponed because of Covid-19.

So, Musselman’s Hogs will face a lot of firsts against Pearl’s Tigers in what should be an outstanding conference-opening game for both squads.

While attendance for college basketball games remains limited because of Covid-19 protocols, it will be interesting to see how the Hogs react to their fist road contest.

I’ve been impressed by the Hogs’ play early this season, but every game has been at home against opponents with inferior talent. It’s going to be interesting to see what being pushed will bring out of this Razorback squad that is talented but still untested and new to playing with each other.

Win or lose, Wednesday’s game with Auburn will likely tell us more about this Razorback squad in one game than what we’ve learned in the previous eight.