Pine Bluff contest key for Hogs’ bowl eligibility, player development

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ 11 a.m. game with the Pine Bluff Golden Lions at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock will be a maturity check for Sam Pittman’s Hogs.

Arkansas is favored by half-a-hundred points, and the Razorbacks are awaiting a much needed week off when the game is over.

After enduring the most grueling gauntlet of games the past four weeks that any team in the nation will face this season, the Hogs are worse for the wear.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. UAPB
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 23
Where: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon is out for the season after shoulder surgery Monday. A number of other Hogs — offensive tackle Dalton Wagoner, defensive tackle Markell Utsey, and possibly tight end Trey Knox — are known to be out or questionable for the game. Many of the Hogs starters who will play are less than their best physically.

We saw that last week when the Auburn Tigers physically beat the Hogs along both lines of scrimmage for a 15-point victory in a game in which the Razorbacks were favored by 5 at home.

While Pittman has too much class to say it publicly, the ideal is for the Razorbacks to play this game against the Lions with the same intensity it would an SEC opponent, put them away early, and then develop some younger Razorbacks while most starters get a head start on the bye week.

That would be a perfect game for the Hogs. However, the question remains are the Razorbacks mature enough to accomplish that?

Certainly, this Razorback team is loaded with seniors, and their leadership is going to be key this week. It’s human nature to let down against what is perceived to be a lesser opponent.

That’s why coaches and players at programs like Alabama talk more about playing against the standard they set for themselves rather than against a particular opponent.

That’s a mature and experienced attitude about football. It’s one Pittman is attempting to foster in his program, but the jury is out on whether the Hogs have gotten there yet.

They had not when this season opened. It took the Razorbacks three quarters to wake up in time to beat what we’ve learned is a fairly weak Rice team in the season opener.

Taking nothing away from Auburn, but it is debatable whether the Hogs played their best football last week. Again, a lot of that has to do with the wear and tear this season has taken on the Hogs, but it just doesn’t seem like the squad played with the same fire and urgency against Auburn as it did earlier in the season against Texas or Texas A&M.

Pittman hopes to reignite that fire that burned so hot in September over the next few weeks. Doing that would make November a month to remember for his Hogs and the Razorback faithful.

But with the Razorbacks sitting at 4-3 right now, this season could go either way.

I am taking it for granted that Arkansas will win Saturday against Pine Bluff, which is struggling at 1-5 this season.

When November hits, the Razorbacks should be one game away from bowl eligibility. Each win thereafter will only make that bowl trip a bit nicer.

The Hogs likely played their way out of a Florida bowl trip last week against Auburn, but for a program that has struggled like Arkansas’ has the last four years and really the better part of the last decade, any bowl trip is a good bowl trip.

Earning a bowl bid will help in recruiting as well as in player development. The month of extra practice a team gets for bowl practices is vital in developing the younger talent on the team. Honestly, unless your team makes the playoff, those practices are more important for the developing players than for a team’s starters.

This Razorback team is loaded with seniors who will be moving on at the end of the season. While the Razorback coaching staff has to do everything it can to win now, it also has to have an eye on developing the younger players for the future.

While it would be foolish to jeopardized winning a game to garner experience for his younger players at this juncture, it would be wise to work in some of the backups whenever possible, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker, and in the secondary.

That experience will be valuable next year with so many seniors moving on with their lives. Pittman spoke to that this week, saying when younger players begin to catch up to the veterans, it behooves the program to give them more playing time. That’s not giving up on this season, but rather building a program for future success.

That’s why a game like Saturday’s can be valuable to the overall health of the Razorback program if the Hogs go out and take care of business like they should.

The rest will do the veteran Hogs good, and the reps will be meaningful for their younger or less experienced teammates.

Arkansas has some promising young defensive backs and some younger linebackers and linemen on both sides of the ball that can use all the playing time they can get before they will be counted on next season.