Hogs and Rebels tangle in pivotal game for Razorbacks

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)

Every Razorback football game is big. The bulk of the state dotes on each victory and crumbles just a little bit after each loss.

The mood, the atmosphere, the stride of the state and particularly Fayetteville is emboldened when the Hogs are winning. It’s a fact. You can almost feel it when the Razorback are riding high.

When the Hogs struggle, our collective attitude can be touchy or even chippy. Razorback fans care intensely, but some are hardened by the up-and-down nature of the football program’s recent history.

Just over a decade ago, Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks touched the hem of greatness with back-to-back 10- and 11-win seasons before he literally drove the program into a ditch with his off-the-field indiscretions.

Bret Bielema revived the program to a level of stability with three consecutive bowl trips in four years before things swiftly unraveled within and without. Could Arkansas have rebounded under Bielema?

It’s hard to say. Something important was definitely lost when Sam Pittman exited the Hogs’ program as assistant head coach and offensive line boss to head to Georgia. The Hogs never truly regained their swagger after Pittman’s departure late in 2015 under Bielema. It is worth noting Bielema is doing a fine job in his second year at Illinois.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Ole Miss
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining Schedule

Nov. 25 – at Missouri

Bielema didn’t get the chance to rebound with the Hogs when boosters hastily took the bait Gus Malzahn was dangling when it looked like his tenure at Auburn was done midseason in 2017.

The UA Board of Trustees and boosters cleared the decks like the mythical Hercules did the Augean Stables, sending athletics director Jeff Long packing and Bielema, too, as he left the field after a close home loss to Missouri in the Hogs’ final game of 2017. Bielema was going to be fired that day, win or lose.

Arkansas pushed all in for Malzahn, but Auburn, intoxicated by a victory over Alabama, had a royal flush up its sleeve with an offer he simply could not refuse. When Malzahn, now the head coach at Central Florida, was paid to leave Auburn after the 2020 season, he left with generational wealth thanks to a golden parachute negotiated by his agent Jimmy Sexton.

Arkansas’ brain trust was stunned when Malzahn said no. Sexton orchestrated what amounted to a bait-and-switch for the ages offering up Malzahn protégée and SMU coach Chad Morris as a replacement.

Hindsight is 20/20, but the Board of Trustees should have stopped looking for a coach when Malzahn refused, and concentrated on hiring its next athletics director. The Trustees did find a great A.D. in Hunter Yurachek, but a lousy football coach in Morris.

Morris, whose deal was in place prior to the Yurachek hire, was an even worse choice than Jack Crowe, whom Frank Broyles hastily elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach when Ken Hatfield left his alma mater for Clemson in 1990 a week before national signing day.

All of that is reviewed to remind Hog fans of the craziness and instability of the football program’s history over the last decade plus.

In less than three years, Pittman has stabilized Arkansas’ football program.

Admittedly this has not been the season Razorback fans envisioned when the dream of a 10-win season went from a hope to an expectation sometime during the summer.

Such a dream might have been achievable had the Hogs stayed completely healthy all season and gotten a ton of breaks.

But that’s not what happened. The Razorbacks had a generational concentration of injuries in the secondary. Arkansas’ defensive backfield looked like a triage unit until recently with more injuries than healthy bodies. A defense can’t improve much less gel when dealing with that many injuries.

Compounding that, Razorback starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson hasn’t been healthy since early October. He has dealt with a likely concussion that benched him for the Mississippi State game and then a shoulder injury that’s kept him at less than his best since then.

We all play Monday Morning Quarterback with the gift of hindsight bolstering our football wisdom. Those who are paid to coach don’t have that luxury.

They have 40 seconds to make a decision — three or four minutes during a timeout, and absolutely no hindsight.

While one might compare calling plays to moving pieces on a game board, the truth is when a coach calls a play, their work is done. It’s how the 11 on the field execute their assignments that makes the difference.

The rook or bishop in chess is going to execute an assignment 100% of the time. Players on the gridiron aren’t that dependable, and they have opponents physically acting to impede their designed movement.

And sometimes one of those players is just dominant like LSU freshman linebacker Harold “Wrecking Ball” Perkins Jr., was last week. He was just better than everyone else on the field in the Hogs’ 13-10 loss to LSU.

No matter the outcome of Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game with No. 14 Ole Miss, the Razorbacks’ football program is in a more stable position than it has been in for at least seven years and possibly a decade or more.

One can’t argue with the success Petrino had at Arkansas, but his program was unraveling from the bottom even during his two great seasons. There was some stability with Bielema until his best coaches kept getting hired away and he lost focus.

However, the foundation Pittman has built and is adding to is solid and sustainable. Even with the Hogs’ struggles this season, the Razorbacks continue to recruit well and are building toward a better future.

Lane Kiffin’s Rebels are a 2.5-point favorite as I write this. Jefferson — the Hogs’ difference-maker and leader — is going to play, according to Pittman, in what is expected to be the coldest game in Razorback Stadium dating back to their final year in the Southwest Conference in 1991.

This is the game of the year for the Razorbacks. A victory would stem a two-game losing streak. It would make Arkansas bowl eligible. It would be a victory over a top-15 team in the College Football Playoff Rankings, and it would leave the door open for the possibility of back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time in more than a decade if the Razorbacks win out.

The Razorbacks should be as healthy as they have been since the season opener when defensive backs started dropping like flies.

It should be a peak performance for the Razorbacks, and it will take one for the Hogs to upset the Rebels.

The game should be a slobber-knocker the way both teams seek to run the football. It could be a high-scoring affair like last year’s game at Oxford that went down to the the wire in a 52-51 Ole Miss victory. Or the frigid temperatures might make it a defensive struggle.

Either way the game is monumental for the Hogs. It could be the difference between a good, average or possibly losing season.

The way this season has played out, it is the biggest game of the year for the Hogs, one not to be missed if at all possible.

This Week’s Games (Nov. 19)

11 a.m. — Austin Peay at No. 9 Alabama (ESPN+ )
11 a.m. — ETSU at Miss. State (ESPN+)
11 a.m. — UMass at Texas A&M (ESPN+)
11 a.m. — Florida at Vanderbilt (SEC Network)
2:30 p.m. — No. 1 Georgia at Kentucky (CBS)
3 p.m. — Western Kentucky at Auburn (SEC Network)
6 p.m. — No. 5 Tennessee at South Carolina (ESPN)
6:30 p.m. — No. 11 Ole Miss at Arkansas (SEC Network)
6:30 p.m. — New Mexico Stat at Missouri (ESPNU)
8 p.m. — UAB at No. 7 LSU (ESPN2)

SEC West Standings

Ole Miss8-24-2
Miss. St.6-43-4
Texas A&M3-71-6

SEC East Standings

S. Carolina6-43-4