Tough schedule still an obstacle for improving Razorbacks

Junior running back Trelon Smith was recently named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award / Photo:

While we are currently sweltering in the most severe heat of what has been a relatively mild summer, we are standing on the doorstep of football season, a real football season with tailgating and fans in the stands.

Sure, Hog calls might be a bit muffled by the mask mandate, but it will be outstanding to see Razorback Stadium alive with fans once again on Sept. 4 when Arkansas hosts old Southwest Conference foe Rice for what is bound to be a steamy if not absolutely sizzling season opener — at least temperature-wise — with a 1 p.m. kickoff.

The hay is not in the barn just yet, but all attention will be turned toward preparations for the Owls on Thursday, and a dress-rehearsal mock game staged Saturday that will be closed to the public and media.

2021 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 4 – Rice
Sept. 11 – Texas
Sept. 18 – Georgia Southern
Sept. 25 – Texas A&M at Dallas
Oct. 2 – at Georgia
Oct. 9 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 – UAPB at Little Rock
Nov. 6 – Mississippi State
Nov. 13 – at LSU
Nov. 20 – at Alabama
Nov. 26 – Missouri

This allows the coaching staff to take their places on the sidelines and in the press box to allow them and the team to get used to where they will work from on game day. Kinks will be worked out, and adjustments will be made so there will be as few surprises as possible for the season opener.

This is a Razorback team that should have Hog fans excited. Despite what national and regional prognosticators have projected, this should be the best football team the Hogs have fielded since Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle in the ditch after an 11-2 season in 2011.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not predicting these Razorbacks will finish this season with such a lofty record. On the high end, I could imagine this team winning eight games at the most with six or seven being more likely, but this is an experienced squad that should field Arkansas’ best defense since 2015, and an offense that could be quite explosive, if both units remain relatively healthy this year.

Certainly, there are question marks.This will be the first year quarterback K.J. Jefferson has been counted on to start, but based on comments from his teammates, he is a team leader who is respected by both sides of the football.

Likewise linebacker Grant Morgan rings the bell for leadership like few other Hogs have in recent memory. Even to a greater extent than Jefferson’s, Morgan’s voice is respected across both sides of the locker room for they say he sets the tone.

Add to that underclassmen like safety Jalen Catalon and receiver Treylon Burks, who are legitimate All-American candidates, a veteran offensive line, a defensive line infused with mercenary talents like Tre Williams, Markell Utsey, and John Ridgeway to go with improving returners like Dorian Gerald and Eric Gregory and head coach Sam Pittman has a team that’s poised to surprise those inside and outside the fanbase.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that nasty schedule, which once again is one of the most if not the most challenging in the nation. It’s not just challenging in who the Hogs play but also in how some of the games fall.

One of the first things Pittman pointed out himself at SEC Media Days is that the Razorbacks’ open date doesn’t come until the ninth weekend of the season on Oct. 30. That’s later than ideal, particularly playing in a league as physical as the SEC.

At least it’s not a 10-game SEC schedule like last year. There is some respite. After hosting No. 21 Texas on Sept. 11, Georgia Southern is a step down in competition before the Razorbacks head to Dallas to face No. 6 Texas A&M for their annual showdown at Jerry World.

As a longtime fan and observer of Razorback football, I’m delighted by the Southwest Conference flavor of the Hogs’ September schedule, but playing ranked Longhorn and Aggie teams in a three-week period is demanding for any program.

While the A&M contest is technically considered a “home game” this year, it is the first contest in a three-game road stretch for the Hogs within SEC play. The Hogs play No. 5 Georgia “Between the Hedges” of Athens on Oct. 2, and then visit The Grove on Oct. 9 to play media-darling Ole Miss. The Rebels would be ranked No. 27 if the the Associated Press’ preseason poll were extended past 25 spots. That’s a super-challenging but tantalizing three-game road stretch.

After three weeks on the road, the Hogs return to the friendly confines of Razorback Stadium on Oct. 16 to face the Auburn Tigers for Homecoming. Maybe the Tigers’ new head coach Bryan Harsin — yeah the same guy that coached Arkansas State in 2013 — will have been vaccinated by then?

While I just can’t get excited about Arkansas playing UA-Pine Bluff on Oct. 23 in Little Rock or elsewhere under any circumstances, the Hogs will need a break after playing those first seven games. The Razorbacks then have that open date on Oct. 30. Happy Halloween eve, ya’ll.

The Hogs are back in business hosting Mississippi State on Nov. 9 in Razorback Stadium before embarking on back-to-back road trips that could only be compared to a two-week cruise on the River Styx. The Hogs visit Baton Rouge to face No. 16 LSU on Nov. 13 and follow it up with a trip to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 20 to face No. 1 Alabama.

Don’t get me wrong, Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa are fantastic football towns. Attending games at Death Valley and Bryant-Denny Stadium are trips every college-football fan should make at some point, but that is a meat-grinder for any football program. It’s like licking a double-dip cone of vinegar and ear-wax flavored ice cream and being made to like it.

Then the Hogs close out the year at Razorback Stadium against Missouri on the day after Thanksgiving for a game Hog fans need to not only take seriously but embrace. Yeah, when the Tigers joined the league, it wasn’t exactly a sign of respect when the SEC “assigned” Missouri as our so-called “rivalry game.”

But, you know what? The Tigers have basically owned the Hogs in this series, and it’s getting embarrassing. The Razorbacks are 1-6 in the series since the two began playing yearly in SEC play. This is a game fans need to fired-up for because so far Missouri has had the Hogs’ number. This year a victory might be necessary for the Razorbacks to become bowl eligible.

A pie-in-the-sky prediction for this season would be eight wins. Seven wins might be a tad optimistic, but to me five would be underachieving.

Six is probably the sweet spot. It would earn the Hogs a bowl berth and the chance to finish over .500, which would be a step forward for the program in Pittman’s second year.