Hogs have much to prove in final four games

Arkansas wide receiver Bryce Stephens catches a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Halloween is over, but head coach Sam Pittman’s Arkansas Razorbacks still have some scary territory to negotiate with the arrival of November.

The Razorbacks stand 5-3 overall but just 2-3 in the SEC as they move into the most critical month of the season. As legendary Razorback head football coach and athletics director Frank Broyles always said, “They Remember November.”

Just who are “they?”

I guess whomever the slogan fits — Razorback fans, the media, poll voters, bowl selection committee? It’s a great catch-all phrase, and there is an essential truth to it. Just like the old truism that it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

The Razorbacks need to finish strong to have the kind of season both they and we expected.

Certainly, how the Razorbacks negotiate their final four games will determine how this team will be remembered.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Liberty
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining Schedule

Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

Should the Hogs run the table, it would guarantee Arkansas back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time since 2010 and 2011 when Bobby Petrino’s Hogs posted 10 and 11 wins.

That was the first time Hogs had back-to-back double-digit seasons since Ken Hatfield’s Hogs accomplished the task with consecutive Southwest Conference championships in 1988 and 1989, during Quinn Grovey’s days as quarterback.

Running the table would put the Hogs in the hopper for another New Year’s Day bowl trip to a sunny destination like last year. It’s too early to tell exactly which one, but with four more wins, Arkansas could be as high as No. 4 in the SEC’s bowl pecking order.

Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama would have to go on a three-game skid this month for the Hogs to have a chance to be higher, and that’s not likely to happen. Winning out would also give the Razorbacks a chance for a 10-win season, the first since those aforementioned Petrino years. That would be something!

How likely are the Hogs to win out?

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s not likely either.

The Razorbacks host the No. 23 Liberty Flames at 3 p.m. Saturday, the No. 15 LSU Tigers at 11 a.m. on Nov. 12, and the No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels on Nov. 19 before closing out the regular season with a trip to Missouri at 2:30 p.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

That’s no cake walk for any team in the nation, much less one like the Razorbacks who have struggled with injuries all season as well as being too generous on the defensive side of the football.

Much of Arkansas’ defensive struggles have been injury-related from the opening game of the season, but nine weeks into the year, injuries can’t bare the whole weight. Most of it, but not all of it.

However, with the Hogs as healthy as they have been at any point since the first game, Arkansas’ defense has a chance to not just hold the rope, but perhaps improve during this last month. There is no guarantee of that happening, but it is a possibility and something defensive coordinator Barry Odom is no doubt pushing his troops to do.

Arkansas’ tackle chart from the Auburn game featured safeties Latavious Brini and cornerback Dwight McGlothern leading the Hogs in tackles with 7 apiece. Safety Khari Johnson was in on 6 tackles with linebackers Bumper Pool and Chris Paul having 6 and 5 stops apiece. Drew Sanders, who played some snaps on the line, had an uncharacteristic 2 tackles. We are used to seeing more tackles from the linebacker spots in Odom’s defense.

It’s hard to know if so many tackles by the secondary and the relatively few by the linebackers is all that meaningful from a single game. Against a running team like Auburn, safeties often play like extra linebackers, but it might be something to watch.

Now, we have to remember the state Auburn’s – and for that matter BYU’s – programs were in during the Hogs’ last two victories, but even with that caveat, the Razorbacks have been impressive offensively the last two games, once they got lathered up.

Arkansas started slow at BYU and at Auburn, but once the Hogs’ offensive line got rolling and quarterback K.J. Jefferson and his stable of backs led by Rocket Sanders got moving, the Razorbacks were fun to watch.

Jefferson sometimes starts a little off-target with his short and intermediate throws, but once he gets rolling, he’s impressive. Give him a run or two, and he seems to be far more accurate — short, medium, and long. Jefferson is the straw that stirs the Hogs’ drink, and when he is humming, the Razorbacks are hard to stop.

Sanders, though, has developed into a fantastic back for the Razorbacks. He’s reached the 1,000-yard mark more quickly than the legendary Darren McFadden did in his sophomore season with a month of regular-season games left to play.

At 6-2, 227, Sanders is a bigger load than McFadden was. Although he does not have that break-away burst that made McFadden the most dangerous back of his era, Sanders’ combination of raw power and speed helps him shed and shred defenders like a weed-eater.

Sanders is averaging 130.1 yards per game with 1,041 yards on 156 carries. He’s only lost 24 yards on the season, which shows how effective he is with the ball in his hand, and it speaks well of the Razorbacks’ offensive line, particularly guards Beaux Limmer (6-5, 302), Brady Latham (6-5, 307) and center Ricky Stromberg (6-4, 313).

Sanders has averaged 10 yards a carry in his last two games. That’s simply phenomenal. The Razorbacks’ media relations department probably is already considering revving up a Heisman campaign for next season. It’s a long shot for a running back to be in the Heisman conversation in today’s game, but the publicity from being mentioned in connection with the award would be great for recruiting.

Arkansas’ receivers have also played better of late. Matt Landers has his mojo back with two strong games in a row, and Jaedon Haselwood is becoming more and more effective. I love how he twists, turns, and fights for yardage after the catch. Ketron Jackson and Warren Thompson are making a difference, too.

Other than some relatively slow starts, Kendal Briles’ offense is humming. Being at home for the next three games ought to make the offense that much more comfortable and possibly lead to quicker starts.

What has been impressive about the Hogs’ turnaround after losing three in a row is that the two-game turnaround came in road games. Now, Auburn and BYU aren’t close to world-beaters, but both were solid wins for the Hogs that can work as a great launching pad for a strong stretch run.

Hugh Freeze’s Liberty Flames are a dangerous opponent for the Razorbacks this Saturday. They will come into this game confident and seeing it as an opportunity to elevate their program by defeating an SEC team. The Hogs can’t take them lightly because this game has the makings of a shootout.

LSU and Ole Miss the next two weeks will be extremely tough. Arkansas’ defense must show up big in both games because both will be the stoutest defenses the Razorbacks have seen since Alabama and Mississippi State, particularly LSU’s.

Speaking of Alabama, the Crimson Tide becomes the Hogs’ best friends the next two weeks. Alabama plays LSU this week in Baton Rouge, and Ole Miss the following week at Oxford. Both of those games are the weeks before the Tigers and the Rebels visit Fayetteville. Alabama is a physical squad. The physical and emotional toll of playing them might have a carry-over effect into the next week for the Tigers and the Rebels. We can at least hope.

The Razorbacks close out the year on the road the day after Thanksgiving against Missouri, which upset a surging South Carolina squad on the road last week. This game always seems anti-climatic to Hog fans, but truth to tell, Arkansas hasn’t won enough in this series to feel that way.

Whether the Razorbacks win all three of the games leading up to the Missouri contest or lose them, the game stands very important for Arkansas. No SEC squad should ever be overlooked.

The Razorbacks have a chance to have great, good or poor season depending on how they negotiate these final four games. I like the way the Hogs are trending, particularly the offense, and I’m excited to see how it all plays out.

This Week’s Games (Nov. 5)

11 a.m. — Kentucky at Missouri (SEC Network)
11 a.m.— Florida at Texas A&M (ESPN)
2:30 p.m. — No. 2 Tennessee at No. 2 Georgia (CBS)
3 p.m. — No. 23 Liberty at Arkansas (SEC Network)
6 p.m. — No. 6 Alabama at No. 15 LSU (ESPN)
6:30 p.m. — Auburn at Miss. St. (ESPN2)
6:30 p.m. — South Carolina at Vanderbilt (SEC Network)

SEC West Standings

Ole Miss8-14-1
Miss. St.5-32-3
Texas A&M3-51-4

SEC East Standings

S. Carolina5-32-3