Outback Bowl victory, 9-4 season sets things right at Arkansas

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

A preseason of hope turned into a season of fulfillment for the resilient Arkansas Razorbacks, head coach Sam Pittman, his staff, and Hog fans everywhere.

Through the lens of the entirety of college football a 9-4 record and a 24-10 Outback Bowl win over Penn State may be viewed as solid, but not necessarily spectacular.

However, for a program that sank to the depths that the Razorback program did in 2018 and 2019, the Hogs’ rebound during the 2021 season was like moving from the pig sty back into the penthouse.

2022 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 3 – Cincinnati
Sept. 10 – South Carolina
Sept. 17 – Missouri State
Sept. 24 – Texas A&M in Arlington
Oct. 1 – Alabama
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 26 – at Missouri

After boosters’ failed attempt to lure Gus Malzahn away from Auburn in late 2017, the Razorback program made a quick and foolish hire of Chad Morris.

Thankfully the same weekend Arkansas also hired Hunter Yurachek as athletic director. While it took Yurachek the better part of two seasons to finally get the Razorbacks football house in order, his instinct to not get into a bidding war for Lane Kiffin or Eliah Drinkwitz paid off in bringing Pittman to Arkansas.

Not that Kiffin and Drinkwitz aren’t good coaches. They are, but even though Kiffin’s dad was one of the better defensive coordinators to work at Arkansas and Drinkwitz spent his formative years in the Natural State, neither fit the Razorback program like Pittman.

There are few men alive that have the pride and love for the Razorback program that Pittman has shown since he became the Head Hog in December of 2019, and frankly that’s why the Razorbacks have bounced back so quickly.

Pittman had not been a major college head coach, but he had a wealth of experience working for some great coaches, and when he got the opportunity to be a head coach, he had distinct ideas on how he would run his program and how he would deal with players, assistants and others with whom he comes in contact.

Even with that, Pittman was wise enough to hire an experienced former head coach in Barry Odom to not only be his defensive coordinator but also his consigliere. His choice of offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles also showed that he wasn’t married to a system.

Pittman didn’t come to Arkansas just to do another job, take a fat raise, or to take the next step in his career. He has a true passion for the Razorbacks and that has shown every day since he accepted the job. The man has said on a number of occasions that this will be his last job.

From the day Pittman stepped on campus and greeted his Razorback players at the door of their meeting room to introduce himself by looking the players in their eyes, shaking their hands, and patting them on the back, the Hogs knew he had a respect for them — to borrow a Bret Bielema phrase — that was uncommon.

There was nothing fake, phony, or false about Pittman, and his players sensed that and experienced that in the way he organized the team and respected and coached the players through the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the toughest schedules any college football programs have faced in the best, and in the most cut-throat football conference this side of the NFL.

The Hogs have busted their tails for Pittman and the rest of his staff for two seasons, and that shouldn’t change as his program progresses forward.

Personally, I love the respect Pittman showed to Penn State coach James Franklin and his Nittany Lions throughout this bowl season. Arkansas could have easily tacked on another touchdown against Penn State to run the score up and perhaps garner a few more votes in the various Top 25 polls.

Yet, Pittman had class and showed respect for Franklin, Penn State and their players that is again uncommon in this day and age of college football.

Pittman appreciated that Franklin and Penn State did not opt out of the bowl game and leave the Hogs stranded without an opponent like TCU did in the 2020 Texas Bowl because of a half dozen or so Penn State players decided not to play in the bowl game.

Pittman showed class and respect in a situation where other coaches wouldn’t have. I like that the head football coach of my alma mater is that kind of man. Frankly, we could use more of that not just in athletics but in all realms of our society today.

Just think of the message that sent to every Razorback player. More than a few of those young men will go on to be coaches in their careers, and even the ones who don’t, will take the lessons they learned under Pittman and his staff and apply them to whatever career they do choose.

Certainly the point of major college athletics is to win, but Pittman, his staff, and his Hogs are also doing it in the right way. That’s something that every Hog fan can take pride in.

This season was memorable from whipping Texas all the way to defeating a program like Penn State in a bowl during the first contest between the two historic programs.

How great was it for the Hogs to bring home trophies for the victories over Texas A&M, LSU, Missouri, and Penn State?

But my favorite of them all was “Larry, the bowling ball” when the Hogs reached bowl eligibility. Hopefully Larry will be a part of every Razorback season that Pittman coaches the Hogs.

There were a lot of Hog Heroes this year. We’ll never forget Treylon Burks, his big hands, and even bigger catches. He had a highlight or two in nearly every game this season.

What about the play of K.J. Jefferson?

I remember a conversation with a friend at Wal-Mart the day before practice started, and he was wondering if Jefferson was really up to the task. Seems like a silly question now doesn’t it.

The young man played great and improved as the season went along. Great work from him and Briles for developing him.

What about Montaric Brown at cornerback? He was the co-leader in the SEC for interceptions. He didn’t make cheap ones either. They were all earned and key.

Hog fans will never forget the linebacking triumvirate of Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, and Bumper Pool. They each played like their hair was on fire every game. So much fun to watch.

Pool’s hit on Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was one for the ages. It certainly would have drawn a “boom!” from John Madden if the legendary broadcaster had been working the game. Hopefully Pool will return for another season with the Hogs.

The Razorbacks’ running game was so potent with Jefferson leading the way with 110 yards, followed by Dominique Johnson with 85, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders with 79, and Malik Hornsby with 67 in the victory over Penn State.

Four Hogs finished with 500 or more yards rushing this season in Jefferson, Trelon Smith, Sanders, and Johnson for the first time at Arkansas since the 1975-76 Cotton Bowl champs did it with Ike Forte, Jerry Eckwood, Roland Fuchs, and Scott Bull.

Smith looks like he will play his final season elsewhere after entering the transfer portal, but Jefferson, Johnson, Sanders, Hornsby and A.J Green return for the Hogs.

Could Sanders’ move back to receiver be to possibly play a Burks-like role next year? Who knows, but the Hogs’ running game should be in good shape, either way.

Now, whenever a team has a potent running game, you have to give credit to the offensive line. The Razorbacks only lose senior starting tackle Myron Cunningham and key backup Ty Clary from this year’s group with top performers like center Ricky Stromberg and tackle Dalton Wagner returning. Look for Ty’Kieast Crawford and Jalen St. John to push for starting roles in the spring.

If players like Pool, nose guard John Ridgeway, and safety Joe Foucha do return for super-senior years, it will bolster the Hogs’ defense in a season where the Razorback again face one of the toughest if not the toughest schedule in the nation.

Along with their always rugged SEC West schedule, the Hogs face a rising South Carolina squad in the East, and the toughest non-conference schedule a Razorback program has ever faced.

The Hogs open the season on Sept. 3 against Cincinnati, which finished this season 13-1 and ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Former Razorback coach Bobby Petrino brings his Missouri State squad to Fayetteville on Sept. 17.

On Oct. 15, the Hogs hit the road to play at BYU, which finished the season 10-3 and ranked No. 12 this year.

The Razorbacks then host Liberty on Nov. 5. The Flames, coached by former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, finished the season 8-5.

It won’t be an easy season for the Razorbacks, but every game should be interesting, and thanks to an outstanding performance in the Outback Bowl, there should be a tremendous amount of anticipation for the 2022 season.

Thanks to Pittman, his staff, and the Hogs, things are as they should be with football On the Hill.