There’s no escaping the difficulty of Arkansas’ schedule

Arkansas opens SEC play against four Top 25 teams in a row with none of those games being played in Fayetteville.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson responds to questions during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

We all know how difficult the Arkansas Razorbacks’ football schedule is from late September through mid-October.

It’s brutal.

The Razorbacks open SEC play at Baton Rouge, La. against the No. 5 LSU Tigers on Sept. 23 and then head to Arlington, Texas to face No. 23 Texas A&M on Sept. 30 at supposedly a neutral site deep in the heart of Texas.

From there the Hogs are on the road again, this time at Oxford, Miss. to face No. 22 Ole Miss on Oct. 7. The gauntlet continues with a trip to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 14 to face Nick Saban’s No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Razorbacks haven’t won since 2003. That’s longer than many of the Hogs have been alive.

As tough as that stretch is — and make no mistake it is — the Razorbacks do have the luxury of easing their way into the season with a very manageable first two games against Western Carolina at Little Rock and Kent State at Razorback Stadium on the first two playing dates of the season.

If the rest of the Razorbacks’ schedule wasn’t so darn difficult, Hog fans and sports reporters across the state would be bemoaning how unchallenging the first two games are.

To be honest, the games against Western Carolina and Kent State shouldn’t be as straining to the Razorbacks as their last two scrimmages were.

That could be a very good circumstance in terms of figuring things out and building some momentum for a squad that has basically retooled its defense and is rebuilding its offensive line and receiving corps.

In today’s day and age, most head coaches don’t have a ton of say in the their team’s scheduling. Contracts for games are handled so far ahead of time that coaches and/or athletics directors who are in place when the negotiations for certain games were made might be long gone by the time the games are actually played.

Thankfully Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek and Sam Pittman have restored a level of stability to the Razorback football program that has not existed on the Hill since Bobby Petrino’s fateful Sunday morning motorcycle ride that drove the program into a ditch that it has had a hard time escaping.

To be fair, Arkansas did enjoy an all too brief renaissance under Bret Bielema, but it was short lived and buried when boosters began a flirtation with Gus Malzahn that ultimately ended with the two-year Chad Morris era that still gives me shivers four years removed from that debacle.

Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) runs the ball against Mississippi during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Hog fans should be forever grateful to Pittman — and for that matter Yurachek — for delivering the program from that kind of incompetence. Yes, Yurachek and Morris arrived at the same time, but it was the UA Board of Trustees who were duped by super agent Jimmy Sexton into hiring Morris.

The Razorbacks may not be world-beaters under Pittman and Yurachek, but the program is no longer the embarrassment it was for too many seasons during the previous decade. And to be fair to the UA Board of Trustees, it did make a strong hire with Yurachek.

With the overhaul that Pittman and assistant Cody Kennedy are overseeing with the offensive line as three new starters plant their fingers in the dirt, opening the season with perhaps less than competitive opponents might allow any kinks to be worked out of the offense as it transitions to first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ schemes.

KJ Jefferson has a wealth of experience as a starter, but having a couple of games to adjust to his new coordinator and offense before the Hogs face what should be an improved BYU squad on Sept. 16 should be beneficial.

The Razorbacks need to be primed when the Cougars come to Fayetteville, looking to return the favor of upending the Hogs on their home field like Arkansas did to BYU the year before.

Expect the Hogs to rely early and often on the running game, led by Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, voted a second-team preseason All-American by the Associated Press. A Hog running back hasn’t received that type of preseason respect since Darren McFadden back in 2007.

Like McFadden, who ran with Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, Sanders runs with a deep Razorback backfield that includes Liberty Bowl star Rashod Dubinion, A.J. Green, and Dominique Johnson.

Hopefully the Razorbacks can build a level of confidence in their first two games that will carry them through an extremely challenging set of games from mid September through early October.

The Razorbacks have no doubt improved by leaps and bounds under Pittman, but for the program to take another step forward, it needs to avoid the midseason three-game losing streak that the Hogs suffered each of the past two seasons in late September and early October.

The Hogs need to find a way to go at least 1-3 if not 2-2 in that four-game run with LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Alabama if they hope to show the type of improvement many are calling for this season.

More than a few bold prognosticators are picking the Razorbacks to go 10-2 or 9-3 in the regular season. Either would be outstanding.

I personally can’t be that bold with a prediction until I actually see this team play.

I do like the squad’s attitude and it’s potential, but the difficulty of the late-September, early-October schedule has me hedging my bets and making no grand predictions.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 11 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (12 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)