After a day and half to digest the lineup of SEC opponents assigned to the Arkansas Razorbacks from the SEC office, it’s safe to say the Hogs weren’t done dirty like they were three years ago when the schedule was adjusted to play 10 league games because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That’s a relief, but the Hogs’ cadre of SEC opponents isn’t a cake walk, either. In case you haven’t heard, the Razorbacks will play host to LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas in 2024, and the Hogs will play Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas, and travel to Auburn, Mississippi State, and Missouri.
Dates for the games are forthcoming. They could be announced as soon as SEC Media Days in July, but I’m guessing it will be further out.
CBS columnist Barrett Sallee opined Thursday that the Razorbacks received the most manageable of the 16 schedules based on opponents and where the games will be played.
It’s just his opinion.
I’d opine based on how the season played out last year, any schedule that includes Vanderbilt is automatically less difficult than any one that does not.
That might be flawed thinking, too. In the context of today’s game, how a program handles the transfer portal and its NIL structure is a key component to its success on the field. The two combined can change a team’s trajectory rapidly.
For years I would have argued that a team’s schedule dictates its fortune almost as much as any other factor, but I’m not so sure that negotiating the delicate nature of the transfer portal as well as how a program doles out NIL deals isn’t more important today.
As a member of the SEC, it’s a given that your program is going to play a tough schedule, and no doubt, that schedule will be even tougher when Oklahoma and Texas join the league, but the talent a program places on the field is THE key ingredient in college athletics.
The old adage that it’s not the Xs and the Os, but the Jimmys and Joes remains as true as ever, and the transfer portal and NIL are intricately linked to whom a program deploys on the on the field and who it doesn’t.
A case in point from college baseball is phenomenal pitcher Paul Skenes. It’s rumored that LSU outbid the Razorbacks for Skenes services when the All-American transferred from Air Force.
The Tigers are playing in the College World Series this weekend, and the Hogs aren’t. There is no guarantee had Skenes come to Arkansas that the Razorbacks would have advanced to the College World Series, but the chances would have been much greater. Arkansas’ pitching running out of juice was a key in TCU roughing up the Razorbacks two weeks ago in the Fayetteville Regional.
Players make the difference, and great players make a great difference.
The transfer portal and NIL has brought a fluidity to college sports that hasn’t always been there. Georgia blew TCU’s doors off in the Bowl Championship Series title game last year, but the transfer portal and NIL made it possible for TCU to leap from being a good program to playing for a national title in just two years.
Remember in 2020, Arkansas was scheduled to play the Horned Frogs in the Texas Bowl before TCU bowed out, citing Covid-19 issues. That’s a tremendous leap in two seasons.
With the portal and NIL, TCU isn’t the only team that can make that type of leap, although the path to the Bowl Championship Series is easier through the Big 12 than the SEC.
From our view in the summer of 2023, we don’t know how competitive each program will or won’t be one or two years down the road.
Even the Razorbacks, themselves, will be a much different team going into the 2024 season. I assume stars K.J. Jefferson and Rocket Sanders will be getting ready for their first NFL training camps this time next year.
They will leave big jerseys to fill next spring.
That said, I think the Hogs’ SEC opponents for 2004 look equitable when compared to the other teams in the league.
It’s nice to not have to play Alabama, a team Arkansas hasn’t beaten since 2006 when Houston Nutt was the Hogs head coach and Nick Saban was coaching the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
I’d love to see Arkansas end that losing streak in Tuscaloosa this season, but even my rose-colored glasses aren’t Razorback red enough to predict that upset no matter who is playing quarterback for the Crimson Tide.
The kept kept Arkansas’ “trophy games” with LSU, Texas A&M, and Missouri alive, but more importantly, Texas visits Fayetteville to renew that rivalry. Longhorn fans don’t view the series the same way, but for Razorback fans of a certain age, there isn’t any game that means more.
For Arkansas fans, beating Texas has always equaled respect in the eyes of the nation. That means a ton to Hog fans. It’s dangerous to stoke those flames too high. But just like there was nothing that could keep Hog fans from flooding onto field after beating Texas in 2021, fans’ emotions and expectations can’t be quelled.
It’s also natural that the Hogs will play Ole Miss and Mississippi State once again. Both series have brought their share of thrills and woes to Arkansas’ program since the Razorbacks joined the SEC for the 1992 season.
The Auburn game may be the one that I’m the least emotionally linked to, but as long as Hugh Freeze is the Tigers’ coach, the game will be interesting.
His Liberty defense did a number on the Razorbacks last season while Jefferson was playing hurt. Liberty threw a monkey wrench in the Hogs’ season, ensuring Arkansas wouldn’t return to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
But that’s enough thought on a season that is more than a year away. Hog fans should enjoy their summers. The Razorbacks report for preseason camp in a little over six weeks. It will be here before we know it.