Tough schedule only makes Hogs’ season more exciting

Once again the Arkansas Razorbacks have been blessed and cursed with what is deemed the toughest football schedule in college football. That’s just a fact of life for the Razorbacks since joining the SEC that all Hog fans should be used to at this point.

While that schedule has made it tough for the Hogs to get up off the mat at times over the last decade or since Bobby Petrino had his fateful motorcycle accident on a Sunday afternoon near Elkins, I personally wouldn’t want it any other way.

Like all Hog fans, I’d love to see the Razorbacks win more often on the football field, but with that said, I wouldn’t want the Hogs to play a less competitive schedule than they currently do in the SEC West. I want to see the Hogs rise to the opportunity that’s in front of them rather than settle in with a weaker schedule.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Razorbacks’ schedule was deemed comparably light to many. Of course, it was always dominated by Texas. Even when the Longhorns were just mediocre, they had a mystique unlike any other Razorback opponent. Frank Broyles recruited in an attempt to beat Texas. He knew if his Hogs could compete with the Longhorns, the rest wouldn’t be a problem.

Sure Houston, Texas A&M, and SMU had some strong teams in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Baylor would be competitive once every four or five years. The Bears had a defense featuring Mike Singletary that dominated the league in 1980. Regardless of the rest of the league, Texas was the team Hog fans longed to beat until Arkansas abandoned the Southwest Conference after the 1991 season.

Personally, I don’t miss the rivalry with Texas all that much, although I still cherish memories of the Hogs whipping the Longhorns at War Memorial Stadium in 1979, blowing them out in Razorback Stadium in 1981, and winning for the first time in two decades at Austin in 1986.

I also remember the oh-so-close losses to the Longhorns in 1977, 1978, and 1984 very well, maybe too well.

I attempt to push the times the Longhorns blew out the Hogs to the outer recesses of my brain, as well as the utterly haunting loss in 1987 at War Memorial Stadium.

It was one of the few times since the 1960s when the Hogs had the truly better team, but injuries to quarterbacks Greg Thomas and Quinn Grovey stymied the Hogs’ efforts and allowed the Longhorns to escape War Memorial Stadium 16-14 winners on a late TD pass from Brett Stafford to little Tony Jones.

Sorry for traveling down the rattlesnake hole of Arkansas-Texas football history, but it makes a somewhat salient point that the Texas rivalry meant too much to Razorback fans for their own good. That single game made or broke a season in the minds of many Razorback fans. Those games remained etched into my memory 35 to 40 years later.

Though the Razorbacks have been a member of the SEC for almost 30 years, there’s no rivalry like that yet with an SEC opponent. Yes, games with Ole Miss and LSU are deemed bigger by some Hog fans, but not everyone.

Certainly, Arkansas and Missouri’s administrations have attempted to make that matchup take on more purpose, and maybe it’s getting there, but I wouldn’t call it a rivalry, yet, not even in the loosest of terms.

From Arkansas’ standpoint, the league is almost too good for the Hogs to have just one rival. Week in and week out, every team in the SEC is so talented and well-coached that there is no true breather for a squad like Arkansas. The Hogs have even had their problems with Vanderbilt.

In a sense, the Hogs face a rival each week in SEC play. Every game is big, nearly every game is against a top-25 opponent.

That has made for some tough football seasons over the last decade. The two seasons Chad Morris was head coach in 2018 and 2019 sank the program to a level it hadn’t experienced since the 1940s.

Sam Pittman and his coaching staff are in the midst of digging the Razorbacks out of that deep hole.

The fact that we saw noticeable improvement against an all-SEC schedule last season was more promising than what the Razorbacks’ final 3-7 record would indicate.

The Razorbacks were very close to a six-win season, which would have been very respectable based on their schedule and situation. Officials robbed the Hogs last year against Auburn, and Covid-19 did a number on their depth in the last half of the season, which figured greatly into close losses to LSU and Missouri.

While we aren’t out of the woods yet with Covid-19 as we saw last week in the College World Series when North Carolina State was forced to forfeit, conditions are so much better. Last year at this time, we didn’t even know if we would have a season.

This year the SEC is returning to its eight-game conference schedule, which affords the Hogs’ four non-conference opportunities for victories even though one of the games is against Texas.

Three of those four non-conference games takes some pressure and wear-and-tear off the Razorbacks after last season’s all-SEC schedule. Those games should give the Hogs some opportunity to build depth as well as give key players some rest at various point in the season.

Most prognosticators see four or five wins for the Hogs this season. I’m a bit more optimistic. I think the Razorbacks could win five to seven in Pittman’s second season, based on the improvement I saw in one season with him at the helm.

Much, of course, depends on the development of quarterback K.J. Jefferson as well as his backup Malik Hornsby. The retooled defensive line under the direction of Jermial Ashley, who is in his first year with the Razorbacks after working wonders with Tulsa’s defensive line, will also be key in any success the Hogs have.

The countdown to the season is getting short at 64 days as we head into the Fourth of July weekend. Practices will begin before we know it in early August, and then the opener against Rice in Fayetteville is set for Sept. 4.

I can’t wait. How about you?