Meaty middle of schedule is problematic for Hogs’ gridiron futures 


With the announcement of 2024 SEC football pairings last month because of Oklahoma and Texas joining the league, there has been more recent talk about next season than the one that’s knocking on our door.

However, the Arkansas Razorbacks will begin practices in less than a month, and SEC Football Media Days is just over a week away, convening this year in Nashville, Tenn., July 17-20, where the league coaches and a couple of players for each squad will assemble to kick off what legendary former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier dubbed “the talkin,’ season.”

For me anticipation is always high for Razorback football. Some pundits and fans are very high on the Hogs this season, going as far to say that if everything falls into place, the Hogs might have a chance of winning 10 games.

Others are still optimistic but perhaps a bit more realistic, predicting seven or eight wins, and there is always a faction who will predict a losing season, probably just to get the goat of their overly optimistic competitors and friends.

While I don’t bet myself, I’m aware that if you chose to do so, you can bet an over-under on the Razorbacks’s win total of either 6.5 wins or 7.5.

Generally my opinion falls into the optimistic category. I see the college football season like a three-month long Christmas holiday in which I get a gift/game every Saturday, except for the open date. 

Like Christmas, some gifts/games are fantastic, others are just O.K., and some are duds, but the anticipation is always great.

Since I was a teen, I’ve always approached Arkansas’ football schedule by breaking down the games in three categories — probable wins, probable losses, and toss-ups.

This year, I’d put the Razorbacks games with Western Carolina at Little Rock on Sept. 2, Kent State on Sept. 9 in Fayetteville, BYU at Fayetteville on Sept. 16, and Florida International on Nov. 16 in the probable win pile.

The games at LSU on Sept. 23 and Alabama on Oct. 14 fall in the probable loss pile.

The Sept. 30 matchup with Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, the Oct. 7 Ole Miss game at Oxford, the Oct. 21 Mississippi State game at Fayetteville, the Nov, 4 game at Florida, the Nov. 11 game with Auburn at Fayetteville, and the Nov. 24 game with Missouri at Fayetteville are toss-up contests.

So, if you take the six toss-up games and divide them by two, you get three wins to add to the probable wins total and three losses to add to the probable loss total. The simple math comes out to be 7-5.

My gut feeling is the Razorbacks will somehow do better than that, but I’ll admit I am usually overly optimistic about the Hogs. 

My optimism stems greatly from the return of K.J. Jefferson for his senior year, and the hope that returning offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ offense which features a Pro-Style component as much as it does Run-Pass Option will keep Jefferson healthier this season than last. Jefferson has been a solid leader with physical and mental toughness. This has earned him the respect of his teammates.

Maybe Enos will help with Jefferson’s touch and accuracy on his short and intermediate throws. Granted Jefferson played hurt much of last year, and missed the Mississippi State and LSU games with a shoulder injury. With shoulder injuries, quarterbacks usually have more accuracy on the longer throws than they do on short or intermediate ones that require more touch.

After the nightmare of the Texas A&M game last year where a Jefferson fumble inside the five basically turned the game around with a 14-point swing, I’m guessing ball security isn’t something we’ll have to worry about with him this season. I’m sure it’s been a point of emphasis with his coaches.

Jefferson is the biggest weapon for the Hogs the season. He is the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, and his physical toughness and desire has never been in question. 

Arkansas also has one of the best running-back rooms in the nation with Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, A.J. Green, and Rashod Dubinion. Dominique Johnson is still recovering from a knee injury, but he could possibly add to the wealth in the backfield at some point in the season.

It might take some time for the Razorbacks’ offensive line to develop in season with two new starters at tackle, but with more talent at the positions, offensive line coach Cody Kennedy should get the kinks worked out in September.

Defense is a question mark for me. Arkansas has reloaded through the transfer portal to go along with a solid collection of proven performers, and Arkansas’ new defensive coordinator Travis Williams and co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson have sterling credentials. However, you never know how it’s going to fit together until games are played. The SEC is a meat grinder of a league, and while the Hogs’ schedule is no tougher that it usually is, Arkansas’ schedule is usually one of the toughest in the nation.

Arkansas’ schedule looks like a gristle sandwich to me. The top and the bottom of the schedule looks manageable, but there is not a program in the nation that would savor the four-week stretch that sends the Razorbacks to Baton Rouge, La. on Sept. 23, to Arlington, Texas to play A&M on Sept. 30., to Oxford, Miss. on Oct. 7, and to Alabama on Oct. 14. That’s Murders’ Row if I ever saw one.

Each of those games would be physically demanding on their on, but in tandem, that four-game stretch is like a visit to the butcher. The Razorbacks could feel like a pulled-pork sandwich by the time they return to the friendly confines of Razorback Stadium to face Mississippi State on Oct. 21 before enjoying a much needed open date on Oct. 28.

It would be fantastic if the Razorbacks could find a way to be 2-2 over the course of those four games. Arkansas will probably be an underdog in each of those games. However the real question is how healthy will Razorbacks be for the back half of the schedule, which are all toss-up games in my estimation except one.

And that’s the real question facing every SEC team going into the season. How healthy will your team be throughout the season.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman addressed this question the day after the regular season ended last fall. He let his entire strength, conditioning and nutritional staff go after the Razorbacks faced one of the most if not the most injury-plagued seasons in the program’s modern history.

Most injuries on the football field are unfortunate events, but when you face the number of injuries Arkansas did last season, it’s only logical to question what role training, conditioning, and nutrition might have played in them.

Pittman has a great personality, even a congenial one, but one of the attributes I appreciate in him is that he’s not afraid to act when he sees an area that needs improvement.

SEC football is ruthless competition at every level. A head coach only hinders his program’s efforts at being successful if he fails to address issues that might be holding the program back. 

Pittman, who is an incredibly positive individual, gives the Hogs a fighting chance because he’s not afraid to face issues that are unpleasant and make decisive decisions for the good of the program.

So 7-5 looks like a reasonable prediction for the Razorbacks in the regular season. Anything better would be gravy. Anything worse would feel like underachievement.

I’m sure as the hype builds for the season, I’ll convince myself that 10 wins are more than possible for the Razorbacks in the regular season, but for now seven to eight victories would be my call.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 Football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 59 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (3 p.m. ESPN+/SEC+)
Sept. 9 – Kent State (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (TBA)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)