Razorbacks, Rebels challenge nation’s top two

Razorback defensive end Tre Williams was named the Bednarik Award Player of the Week / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

It’s amazing how winning just ups the stakes week after week.

Remember how big the Arkansas Razorbacks’ game with Texas was a couple of weeks ago, and how enormous last week’s game against Texas A&M at Arlington felt?

Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown with the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs Between the Hedges of Sanford Stadium dwarfs both of them.

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

All eyes will be on the No. 8 Hogs and ‘Dogs Saturday before attention drifts to Tuscaloosa and the equally compelling showdown between Nick Saban’s No. 1 Alabama and Lane Kiffin’s No. 12 Ole Miss Rebels.

The parallels are interesting as Pittman, who was Georgia’s offensive line and assistant head coach from 2016-18 before taking the Arkansas job, faces his old boss Kirby Smart, while Kiffin, who coordinated Alabama’s offense from 2014-16, does the same with Nick Saban.

The pupils challenge the masters in games where both are prohibitive underdogs. However, Smart and Saban spoke glowingly of their former protégées earlier this week.

“He cares,” Smart said of Pittman’s authenticity Wednesday during the SEC coaches teleconference. “… People recognize when a person is real and themselves and not a salesman. He cares and it matters to him.”

Likewise Saban said of Kiffin, “I learned a lot of offensive football from him.”

Upsets aren’t uncommon in the college game. Could the Hogs and Rebels shock the world Saturday?
Maybe, but probably not.

The talent in Athens and Tuscaloosa is likely too steep and deep for the Razorbacks or Rebels to stage a coup.

However, this moment is huge for Sam Pittman’s burgeoning Razorback program. The No. 8 Razorbacks are 18-point underdogs, but their hard-nosed, chip-on-the-shoulder play has captured the attention of the college football world.

It would be a moral victory for the Hogs if they keep the game close. The expectation of many is for the Razorbacks to fold under the talent and pressure of the Bulldogs’ terrorizing nation-leading defense and hard-nosed running game.

Both squads dote on power football, and conventional wisdom is that in a slobber-knocker of a game, the most talented squad will eventually impose its will.

It could play out that way.

As strong as Arkansas’ running game has been this season, I’m not sure the Hogs will be able to run effectively against Georgia’s talented front seven even with quarterback K. J. Jefferson’s bullish running nature.

Jefferson proved last year he could execute well in a hostile environment like Missouri, but Covid-19 protocols had the stadium half empty. The early kickoff is an asset for the Hogs, but regardless, Sanford Stadium will be packed with 95,000 Bulldog backers.

How K.J. and his teammates handle the pressure will be key.

Defensively, the Razorbacks are better equipped to combat Georgia’s talent. The Razorbacks have a senior-laden group that are playing the best football of their careers for defensive coordinator Barry Odom who has done a masterful job this season with an aggressive front pressing ahead of his umbrella zone back end.

It will be interesting to see how Odom deploys his manpower up front this week. The Hogs have used three- and four-man fronts this season with a number of variations. Who knows what he has cooked up for the Bulldogs?

Grad transfer defensive end Tre Williams plays like a heat-seeking missile disguised as a football player on the edge. With the help of his partners up front, he dominated the Texas A&M game by drawing two holding penalties on the Aggies while compiling two sacks, and three hurries.

His pressure was relentless. His play reminded me of the kind of havoc two-time All-American defensive end Billy Ray Smith Jr. wreaked weekly for the Hogs in the early 1980s. Williams is quick and rangy like Smith, who had a solid pro career as a linebacker with the San Diego Chargers, but Williams is heavier.

If the Razorbacks can play a clean offensively and in the kicking game, I think the contest will be much closer than oddsmakers are predicting. Penalties and turnovers are what could turn the game into a Georgia rout.

If the Hogs can keep the game close into the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks do have some home-run hitters in receiver Treylon Burks and running back A.J. Green who can turn a game on its head in one play.

The Hogs have shocked the world on the road before. Longtime Hog fans remember Ken Hatfield’s landmark 81-yard punt return for a touchdown that upset of No. 1 Texas at Austin in 1964, which was the key to winning the national title.

A bad Razorback team humbled No. 4 Tennessee at Knoxville with a late-game 41-yard Todd Wright field goal in 1992, the Hogs’ first season in the SEC.

In 1995, Barry Lunney Jr. worked some magic to find a well-covered J.J Meadors in the end zone to upset No. 13 Alabama, which opened the door for Arkansas’ first Western Division crown. It was Arkansas’ first victory over the Crimson Tide.

Matt Jones quarterbacked the 2003 Hogs to upset road victory over No. 5 Texas at Austin before going to Tuscaloosa and whipping Alabama in overtime.

Darren McFadden, Marcus Monk, and Felix Jones had a coming out party on the plains of Auburn in 2006, whipping the No. 2 Tigers in a surprising blowout that set the stage for another Western Division title.

In 2007, McFadden, Jones and Co. took that “wood” to No. 1 LSU for a stunning, three-overtime post-Thanksgiving upset of the Tigers.

Thanks to the Hunter Henry Heave, the Hogs were in position to upset No. 18 Ole Miss at Oxford in a high-scoring overtime affair 2015.

So the Razorbacks have pulled off their share of big road upsets over the years. Can this Hog team get it done?

We’ll find out by the middle of the afternoon Saturday.

Win or lose, the Razorbacks will head to Oxford for showdown with Ole Miss on Oct. 9.

Not making any kind of prediction for Saturday, but wouldn’t it be ground shaking if the Hogs and Rebels went into that game undefeated?

Let the college football chaos commence.