Kickoff to Hog season is ‘so close, and yet so far’

Arkansas’ K.J. Jefferson was named to the preseason watch list for the Manning Award. (UA Athletics)

Eleven days and counting until the No. 19 Arkansas Razorbacks open the season against the No. 23 Cincinnati Bearcats at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

It’s got to be the most anticipated Razorback football season in at least a decade after last year’s 9-4 season that propelled the Hogs back to relevancy in the realm of college football.

As Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons once crooned in his 1974 hit “My Eyes Adored You” — So close, so close and yet so far.

Please excuse the ancient reference. It’s a saccharine tune if there ever was one. There’s no chance Razorback head coach Sam Pittman has it on his juke box or his Spotify playlist, and if he did, he probably wouldn’t admit it.

Tom Petty’s “The Waiting” probably is more his speed, where the late rocker wails longingly in his nasally voice “The waiting is the hardest part.”

I don’t mind admitting I’m ready for some college football. I’m so starved for some gridiron action that I’m going to watch at least some of Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Hawaii game, which kicks off at 9:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.

This is the time of year when many are making predictions of what type of season the Razorbacks will have. I’m probably going to balk on that one, though.

I’ve never been good with those type of predictions. My “homer” heart usually gets in the way. All I need to see is an ounce of daylight, and I’ll pick the Hogs every time.

For what it’s worth, this year’s squad does stand to be the best Razorback football team since 2011.

That squad went 11-2 and finished No. 5 in the nation after beating Kansas State, 29-16, in the Cotton Bowl. That season preceded Bobby Petrino’s fateful motorcycle ride out toward the Pig Trail and his uncomfortable resignation as the Razorbacks head coach.

I don’t think Petrino will be taking any joy rides on his motorcycle for old times sake when he brings his Missouri State squad across the border for their date with the Razorbacks on Sept. 17. But I might be wrong.

As Pittman has said a number of times this preseason, he expects the Razorbacks are going to be a good football team. The question is how good?

2022-23 Arkansas Razorbacks Football Schedule

Sept. 3 — Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 10 — South Carolina, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 17 — Missouri State, 6 p.m. (ESPN+)
Sept. 24 — vs. Texas A&M
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. 25 — at Missouri

With the way the Razorbacks receiving corps and defensive line has reportedly rounded into shape after the work they put in the summer under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker and his staff and the advances they’ve mad in preseason drills, I’m confident in writing the Hogs will be a better team this year than last.

What I’m not confident in predicting is that they will have a better record than last season. I can imagine this Razorback team being 20 percent better on the field than last year’s squad, but still having a 9-4 record when all is said and done. Maybe not that good.

The Razorbacks’ schedule remains one of the toughest in all of college football with No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 21 Ole Miss, No. 23 Cincinnati, and No. 25 BYU occupying playing dates.

Opponents LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and South Carolina also received votes in the poll, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that those squads could be ranked when when the Razorbacks play them as well.

The unknowns like how injuries will affect the team cloud any type of forecast.

Had preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon been healthy all last season, it might have made a two-game difference in the outcome of last season. I’m thinking particularly of the Ole Miss and Auburn games.

I don’t want to think about what might happen if quarterback K.J. Jefferson misses significant time. We just don’t know how much injuries will or won’t play a role this season.

The Razorbacks were a surprise team last season. Few outside this state believed the Hogs would be as strong as they were.

We don’t know what other programs have cooking right now. South Carolina or Mississippi State might be a ton better than everyone is expecting. Same with Missouri. What kind of team will LSU have in Brian Kelly’s first season? We know talent is plentiful in the New Orleans/Baton Rouge footprint.

On paper, those games might appear to be four victories for the Hogs, but each and every one of those games will have to be won on their own merits. No doubt, fans in Columbia Mo. and S.C., Starkville, and Baton Rouge see the outcomes going in a very different way than we do here in The Natural State.

That trip to Provo, Utah on Oct. 15 is a tough one with the altitude and weather being legitimate concerns for traveling teams in mid October.

I get the sense that most Razorback fans have already chalked up a victory over Cincinnati in the season opener.

Yes, the Bearcats suffered significant losses to graduation from last year’s playoff squad, but Luke Fickell is an excellent coach, and his program’s not going to fall apart in a single season. This is an SEC-caliber opener for the Razorbacks that for better or worse is going to chart the early course for this season.

As giddy with anticipation as most Razorback fans are at this moment for the season, that optimism will sour for some if not most depending on the outcome of the season opener.

The South Carolina game a week later pits the two SEC programs which had the biggest upswings last season against each other. Add ultra-talented Oklahoma transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler to the mojo Shane Beamer already has brewing with the Gamecocks and that game becomes a huge tone-setter for both programs.

I’m not trying to be a wet blanket, but the Hogs’ schedule is for real. It’s great for the Razorbacks that both of those games are in Razorback Stadium, and that Hog fans can play a role in the contests.

It will be hard to duplicate the magic level Hog fans rose to last year for the Texas game against the Bearcats and Gamecocks, but if they can reach that level, it would make it that much tougher for either to escape with a victory.

Razorback fans are expecting their Hogs to perform at a peak level week to week this season. Hog fans need to be ready to do their part in making Razorback Stadium a three-hour nightmare zone for all opponents who dare to enter.