Hogs to celebrate seniors, battle Missouri to upgrade their bowl pecking order

The No. 25 Arkansas Razorbacks have just one game left on their regular-season schedule against SEC Eastern Division opponent the Missouri Tigers, but for an array of reasons, the game presents a huge opportunity and challenge for Sam Pittman’s Hogs.

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m Friday at Razorback Stadium. The game will be televised by CBS, and it is the lone SEC football game of the day, putting the Hogs and Tigers on center stage.

Though bowl assignments will not be officially made until after the Dec. 4 SEC Championship Game, which pits No. 1 Georgia against No. 3 Alabama, it seems the Razorbacks would position themselves for an appearance in one of three bowl games — Gator (Dec. 31) at Jacksonville, Fla., Outback (Jan. 1) at Tampa, Fla. or even the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) at Orlando, Fla. — played in the sunny state of Florida with a victory on Friday.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Missouri
When: 2:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville

Remaining schedule

Bowl game — TBD

That would be a great reward for the Hogs (7-4, 3-4 SEC), including a group of super seniors, some of whom were redshirts the last time Arkansas played in a bowl following the 2016 season. Arkansas did receive a bowl bid last year to the Texas Bowl in Houston, but TCU was unable to play the game because of an outbreak of Covid-19 among their players.

With seven wins already on the Hogs’ ledger, the Razorbacks will go bowling regardless of Friday’s outcome, but a loss would drop the Hogs down the bowl pecking order with likely destinations being the Music City Bowl in Nashville or perhaps the Texas Bowl. Good trips, but not the same as taking a bowl trip to Florida.

Other games could have a bearing on the Hogs’ bowl destination. Just looking at things, it would probably be better for the Razorbacks if No. 8 Ole Miss (9-2, 5-2 SEC) beat Mississippi State (7-4, 4-3 SEC) at Starkville on Thanksgiving.

That would keep the Rebels in play for the Sugar Bowl, which is out of the Hogs’ grasp and not cloud issues for the three Florida bowls. It would also leave Arkansas and Mississippi State with identical records should Arkansas also defeat Missouri, but the Hogs would hold a head-to-head advantage over the Bulldogs.

It also could help the Razorbacks’ bowl slotting if LSU (5-6, 2-5 SEC) upsets No. 14 Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3 SEC) Saturday in Baton Rouge. Again, an A&M loss coupled with a Razorback victory Friday, would leave both tied in the Western Division standings, but the Hogs would have the head-to-head advantage by virtue of their victory over the Aggies in September.

The Missouri contest will also be the last appearance of several key Razorbacks in Razorback Stadium as the Hogs celebrate one of its largest Senior Days ever because of the return of a number players granted an extra year of eligibility due to Covid-19.

The 29 Hogs being recognized are defensive backs Montaric Brown, Jon Conley, Joe Foucha, Nathan Parodi; offensive lineman Ty Clary, Shane Clenin, Myron Cunningham, Austin Nix, Drew Vest, and Ryan Winkel; linebackers Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, Bumper Pool, Deon Edwards, and Jake Yurachek; defensive linemen Dorian Gerald, Tre Williams, Markell Utsey, and John Ridgeway; running backs TJ Hammonds and Treylon Smith; wide receivers De’Vion Warren and Tyson Morris; tight ends Blake Kern and Koilan Jackson; quarterback John Stephen Jones; punter Sam Loy and Matthew Phillips; and long snapper Jordan Silver.

Several of those players like Foucha, Pool and Ridgeway could return next year if they choose to do so, but there will be a large exodus of experience from the program following whatever bowl trip Arkansas takes this year.

Those seniors, who truly lived a losing struggle before Pittman arrived on campus, owe it to each other to make their last memories in Razorback Stadium winning ones.

While it’s not good to celebrate a loss, these Hogs captured much good attention last week by pushing No. 3 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium and falling by just a touchdown when they were three-touchdown underdogs. All of that good would evaporate if the Hogs allow Missouri to head back north with a victory in what has been dubbed the Battle-line Rivalry.

So far this season, those seniors and their fellow Hogs are 2-0 in designated rivalry games and if you throw Texas into the mix, you can call it 3-0.

Victories over Texas A&M and LSU have crowded the Hogs’ trophy room. Why not burst that space at the seams with the Battle-line trophy, too? Arkansas has never possessed all three of those trophies at one time. This would be a great year to rectify that.

The Razorbacks are a 14.5-point favorite over the Tigers. That number is probably a bit inflated by the Hogs hanging in the game with Alabama last week. This is the fourth time all season Arkansas has been favored in an SEC game. They lost to Auburn and nipped Mississippi State and LSU in the other three.

Last year’s contest was, of course, a shootout with Missouri notching a 50-48 victory by driving the length of the field for a late-game touchdown to trump the drive that Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson and the Hogs had just engineered. The Razorbacks held a comfortable lead in the third quarter, but after an injury took linebacker Grant Morgan out of the game, the Tigers mounted their successful comeback.

The Hogs were worn down by the time they played at Missouri last year, and that may be the case again this week after back-to-back physical road trips to LSU and Alabama.

Pittman said Treylon Burks, who is just 25 yards shy of recording a 1,000-yard season for just the fourth time in school history, practiced Sunday night, according to Pittman, and I presume he’ll play in what could be his final game as a Razorback. Right now, he’s sitting on 59 catches for 975 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.

Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz complimented Burks in a media appearance earlier this week.

“Their wide receiver, Treylon Burks, I believe is one of the top two wide receivers in the league,” said Drinkwitz, who graduated from Arkansas Tech. “That would be a great contest for him and [Alabama’s Jameson] Williams. Treylon is very special. They do a tremendous job of moving him around. He lines up in a lot of different locations. Coach [Kendal] Briles is really doing a really nice job with their offense and getting the ball to their playmakers.”

With two former Missouri Tigers starting for the Hogs on the defensive line in super seniors Tre Williams and Markell Utsey, and two Fayetteville High grads receiver Barrett Banister, whose grandfather Harold Horton played and coached for the Razorbacks as well as headed the Razorback Foundation during his storied career, and defensive lineman Akial Byers on the field, emotions will run deep.

Not only that, Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom played at Missouri and was the head coach for the Tigers from 2016-2019. Arkansas’ linebacker coach Michael Scherer played for Odom at Missouri and was a graduate assistant for him there before following him to Arkansas.

The roots run deep in this game on both sides of the sidelines.

I do expect the Hogs to win Friday, but with the way this season has played out, I’m not expecting them to win by two touchdowns as the point spread supposes. I’ll be happy with another three-point win like the last two Arkansas SEC victories.