Hogs face a challenging November menu

Whew, this football season has whisked by quickly.

It seems just like yesterday, the Arkansas Razorbacks were prepping for their season opener with Rice.

Now, the month of October is all but behind us as the Hogs take a bye week to rest up for the home stretch of the season.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

How well the Razorbacks play during November will determine just what type of season Sam Pittman’s second year as the Razorbacks’ head coach will be remembered.

The season couldn’t have started better as the Razorbacks rolled to 4-0 with cathartic upsets of old-time rivals Texas and Texas A&M along with victories over Rice and Georgia Southern. The Hogs rose to No. 8 in the Associate Press poll, their first top-10 ranking since 2012.

It was a sweet moment for the program before reality and injuries set in. It’s clear now that both Texas and Texas A&M were over-ranked early in the season as both struggled with inexperienced quarterbacks.

The Hogs also had the benefit of being a mature squad with a heavy group of super seniors playing their sixth year of college football. That allowed the Razorbacks to get off to a fast start to the season, but by October it seems other opponents had caught up experience-wise as the Hogs’ health began to degrade.

No. 1 Georgia not only blew the Hogs out 37-0, but also roughed them up in Athens. The Razorbacks played valiantly at Oxford the next week, but Matt Corral and the Ole Miss Rebels nipped the Hogs by the slimmest of margins in a 52-51 scoring fest.

That victory energized the No. 10 Rebels, who took apart a more talented LSU squad last week, 31-17, while it left the Hogs dragging when Auburn visited Fayetteville two weekends ago as an underdog.

The Tigers outplayed the Hogs in nearly every aspect of the game, and the result was a 38-23 Auburn victory that dropped the Hogs out of the Top 25 and propelled the Tigers back into it.

Auburn (5-2, 2-1) faces Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN for what is the game of the week in SEC.

Yes, I know Georgia (7-0, 5-0) plays Florida (4-3, 2-3) in the 2:30 p.m. game on CBS, but the network dropped the ball on their game choice this time. Georgia will overpower Florida in Gainesville, but I expect a high-scoring shootout between the Rebels and Tigers at Auburn. Expect to be up late for this one.

But, I digress.

The Razorbacks took care of business in Little Rock last week with a 45-3 victory over Pine Bluff. It was just enough of a contest for the Hogs to break a sweat before giving the starters a second-half rest.

The Hogs took Sunday and Monday off. Pittman said following the game that his starters would practice without pads this week to heal up for the stretch run, while the bulk of the physical work would be devoted to developing the reserves, who need all the work they can get. They essentially lost the second half to Pine Bluff, 3-0.

Every Razorback fan knew sophomore safety Jalen Catalon was a great player. He was a pre-season All-American candidate after all.

When at full speed, Catalon was the lynchpin to defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s scheme. Catalon cleaned up so many issues that weren’t fully apparent until injuries negated his full effectiveness and ultimately took him off the gridiron for the rest of the season. He had surgery to repair a shoulder injury last Monday.

Catalon, who redshirted as a freshman, is eligible to enter next year’s NFL Draft. I hope he’ll stick around Fayetteville another season to elevate his draft stock and to deliver more of this knock-out hits we’ve all come to love, but there is little doubt that we will be watching him play on Sundays sometime in the near future.

The Hogs have had trouble filling his spot. Catalon is missed against the run and pass. While his backup Myles Slusher has promise, he just doesn’t have the experience and instincts that Catalon brought to the field.

So, the Hogs had a great month in September and a miserable month in October. What will November bring?

The month looks like gristly tough steak sandwich on a crusty sourdough bun to me.

The Hogs’ Nov. 6 and Nov. 26 dates with Mississippi State (4-3, 2-2) and Missouri (3-4, 0-3) are the bun, while the games at LSU (4-4, 2-3) on Nov. 13 and at Alabama (7-1, 4-1) on Nov. 20 are the meat.

The home games against the Bulldogs and Mizzou appear winnable on their own, but sourdough can be chewier than it looks, and if you take it for granted, it’s easy to choke on.

Arkansas has to be at their best for both of these games if they expect to win. We saw what happened when the Hogs played less than their best against Auburn.

As for the meat, we all know a chunk of steak can look juicy and tender, but be tough as a boot once you get it in your mouth.

That’s LSU in a nutshell. The Tigers are oozing with talent, but with Ed Ogeron still coaching after being relieved of his duties — effective at the end of this season — it’s tough to say how LSU will play week to week.

Ole Miss hit them in the mouth early last week, and LSU wilted early before showing some life late against the Rebels.

Arkansas could win this game, but LSU is the more talented team, and Death Valley has never been an inviting place to play, no matter the situation.

An 11 a.m. kickoff might be just what the Hogs need to slip in and slip out of Baton Rouge with a victory, but with the Hogs’ luck the game will probably kick off at 7 p.m., giving the Tiger faithful plenty of time to get riled up.

As for Alabama, Arkansas hasn’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006, and I don’t see it happening this year either.

My hope is that the wear-and-tear of back-to-back road games doesn’t take its toll on the Hogs and leave them tenderized for Missouri to stage a post-Thanksgiving upset of Arkansas in Razorback Stadium.

The Razorbacks really need fans to put off hunting trips and Christmas shopping for a day and to turn out that Friday afternoon to create an environment that lifts the Hogs to a peak performance, much like what happened when Texas visited back on Sept. 11.

For that to happen, Arkansas would likely have to win at least two of the three games scheduled before it. Anything less and some fans’ attention will likely be spread elsewhere.

The month of November is truly going to decide what type of season the Hogs are going to have.

If Arkansas wins three of four, the Hogs will finish a very respectable 8-4 on the season. Most any Hog fan would’ve taken that result before the season had started.

If the Razorbacks split November, 7-5 is still a solid finish when you consider the Hogs have only totaled seven wins combined over the last three seasons, and that they once again played the toughest schedule in the nation.

At this juncture, it would be disappointing if the Hogs tumbled 6-6 or 5-7 after the season started with so much promise. But it could happen if injuries pile up or the Hogs take anything for granted.

A strong finish to the season in November would be a solid sign that Pittman’s progress as the Hogs’ head coach has the program moving in the right direction for the first time in half a decade.