Positive vibes help Hogs exceed expectations

Has it really been since 2003 that the Arkansas Razorbacks have been 4-0?

It has!

I guess over the years I had become numb to the early season loss. It happened so often, even to the Hogs’ best teams over that span. Part of the issue was scheduling.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Georgia
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 2
Where: Athens, GA

Remaining schedule

Oct. 9 — at Ole Miss
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 — UAPB, in Little Rock
Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

Often Alabama was the Razorbacks’ opening SEC game during that period, which explains a lot during the Nick Saban-era.

The Hogs also ran into USC early in their Pete Carroll-glory years of 2005 and 2006, and, for nearly the last decade there had been that ugly issue with Texas A&M — nine consecutive losses to the Aggies, whom the Hogs had beaten basically two out of every three games over the course of history before A&M joined the SEC.

Thankfully second-year Razorback head coach Sam Pittman, his cracker-jack staff, and a determined bunch of Hogs led by an extremely hungry pack of seniors, exorcised a lot of demons during their 4-0 start that has catapulted the program back in the Top 10 for the first time since 2012.

The Razorbacks are amazingly ranked No. 8 in the latest Associated Press Poll, which is higher than even the most optimistic of Arkansas fans dreamed for this season.

Now, few are giving the Hogs much of a chance to stay there. Oddsmakers have the Hogs as 18.5-point underdogs to Kirby Smart’s No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs for their 11 a.m. showdown in Sanford Stadium at Athens, Ga. on Saturday. ESPN is not only televising the game, but originating its College Gameday Show from the Georgia campus with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit calling the game.

However, the matchup is compelling. The Hogs are the national darlings of the moment with the ultra quick turnaround Pittman and crew have orchestrated on the Hill.

As for the Bulldogs, they’ve vaulted to near the top of the college football scene ever since Smart took over the program six seasons ago. In fact, it was Georgia’s accession to the upper stratosphere of the college game that put Pittman in position to even be in the hunt for the Razorback head coaching job two years ago.

While so many made fun of Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek’s decision to hire a lifetime offensive line coach to head the Razorback program, they aren’t laughing now. Many of them are eating crow and actually liking it as they’ve come to understand that Pittman not only knows how to run a program but also knows how to recognize, recruit, develop, and inspire talent both with staff and players.

Defensive coordinator Barry Odom not only organizes what is developing into an outstanding defense but the former Missouri head coach also acts as Pittman’s chief consigliere. Some inexperienced head coaches would be leery of having a man of Odom’s experience on his staff, but Pittman makes full use of Odom’s considerable talents.

It also says a lot about Odom’s character to do the job he is doing and for showing the loyalty he has to Pittman. He’s reportedly turned down several jobs to stay with the Pitt Crew, and the improvement in the Hogs’ defense is a testament to that loyalty.

Likewise offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has just the type of sharp mind to take what the Razorbacks have offensively and make it effective. The growth we have seen in K.J. Jefferson at quarterback is immense since his first start as a powerfully built but somewhat awkward freshman against LSU in 2019.

Jefferson played magnificently in his lone start at Missouri last season, a heartbreaking late-game loss, and he seems to be just hitting his stride now as we’ve come to the meat of the Razorbacks’ schedule. K.J. deserves plaudits for his improvement, but so does Briles, who is guiding the young man to impressive play so far this season. Jefferson is the only quarterback in the SEC that can boast the combination of 800 yards passing and 200 yards rushing on the season.

What I like about K.J. is that so far it seems the bigger the game the better and tougher he plays. That’s exactly what you want in a quarterback. His late-game Earl Campbell-like run where he bulldozed an Aggie defender for a game-sealing first down was a “thing of beauty’ as former Razorback head coach Ken Hatfield used to say.

Pittman has endeared himself to Razorback fans in a short time because of his giving nature and his pride in being the Razorbacks head coach.

He constantly credits his coordinators and assistants for their work and contribution to the success the program is enjoying, and you can tell by the way he smiles when he mentions players that he genuinely enjoys the relationships he’s developed with the team.

Just the fact that he personally invited Razorback baseball coach Dave Van Horn and Razorback basketball coach Eric Musselman on the sideline for the Texas A&M game shows a level of camaraderie among Arkansas head coaches that we’ve not seen very often if ever within the program.

There have been times in the past when some Razorback head coaches didn’t like being in the same room with each other. It’s great to see them all rooting for each other and pulling together now under Yurachek’s leadership.

As for Pittman’s pride in the program and the state, don’t you just love it when he says stuff like, “We’re Arkansas! We’re supposed to be good!” Or “Arkansas is a proud, damn state.”

There is little doubt that Pittman believes you have to say something before you can believe it, and that by believing it, you can become it.

The man is so positive that he’s contagious. You can see it with his coaches and his team, and hopefully it will soon begin to spill over into the Razorback fanbase.

Hog fans want to be proud of their football program, but over the last decade they’ve faced so much doubt and disappointment that at times it’s hard for them to believe. Pittman, his staff and players are restoring the fans’ faith in the program, and that’s great to see.

Will that get them over the hump Between the Hedges this weekend at Georgia?

Maybe not. Smart has a mature program that has been among the best in the nation in recent years. This might be the Bulldogs’ year to topple Alabama.

The Hogs are still maturing as a program. We’ll see how it plays out Saturday, but I think we’re in for a slobber-knocker that will be closer than the projected point spread.

As a guy who enjoys a little bit of chaos, wouldn’t it be fun if the Hogs upended the No. 2 Dogs and then No. 12 Ole Miss upset No. 1 Alabama’s apple cart a few hours later?

Talk about throwing the SEC and the college football world into a tizzy.

What kind of game would that set up in Oxford next weekend?

It’s doubtful, but on a Tuesday, it’s fun to consider what if. Stranger things have happened.

I mean who would’ve thought the Hogs would be 4-0 and ranked in the Top 10 going in to October?