Light could follow what promises to be a dark tunnel through Tuscaloosa

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman talks to an official during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. Mississippi won 27-20. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

Since the Arkansas Razorbacks’ unexpected 38-31 home loss to BYU on Sept. 16, its felt like the Hogs have been traveling through a dark tunnel.

After four consecutive losses to the Cougars, LSU, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, and another likely coming at 11 a.m. Saturday at Alabama, there is a glimmer of light ahead. The Razorbacks’ remaining five games against Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn, Florida International, and Missouri don’t seem to be as challenging.

But first things first.

If I could, I would attempt to make a case for a Razorback upset of the No. 11 Crimson Tide when the two square off on ESPN in what is scheduled to be their last meeting of the SEC’s Western Division in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Next year Alabama rotates off the Hogs’ schedule in the SEC’s first season without divisional play since Arkansas and South Carolina joined the league in 1992.

However, my imagination fails me after what we have seen from the Hogs’ offense so far this season. Throw statistics out the window. The Hogs have the most ineffective rushing offense I’ve seen from a Razorback team not coached by Chad Morris since at least the early to mid 1990s when Arkansas was struggling with the transition from the Southwest to the Southeastern conference.

Honestly, that transition wasn’t necessarily the issue with most of the Hogs’ struggles from 1992 through 1997. The Razorbacks fell on hard times in 1990 when poor recruiting caught up with the program.

While the Razorbacks did win back-to-back Southwest Conference titles in 1988 and 1989, Razorback coach Ken Hatfield was looking to get out from under the thumb of legendary Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles and his manipulative tactics as an administrator.

Arkansas tight end Ty Washington (8) carries the ball into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

Rumors of Hatfield’s unhappiness at Arkansas had a chilling effect on the Razorbacks’ recruiting, particularly in Texas in 1988, ‘89, and ‘90 during a period when the Hogs were routinely third or fourth in line among top prospects behind Texas, Texas A&M, and the resurgence of Houston with their run-and-shoot offense.

Hatfield was courted by SEC programs after each of those championship seasons prior to Cotton Bowl appearances by the Hogs.

The story goes that Hatfield, who had respected assistant-coaching tenures at Tennessee and Florida before becoming the offensive coordinator and then head coach at Air Force, was linked to the Georgia job in 1988 when Vince Dooley retired.

The next year both Alabama and Florida showed interest. Under duress, Bill Curry left or was basically forced out Tuscaloosa to take the Kentucky job, and Galen Hall was fired midseason at Gainesville.

While all three programs were very interested in Hatfield as a head coach, each had some long-time assistants who were going to remain on staff. That precluded Hatfield from brining his entire staff from Arkansas with him, so Hatfield backed away from all three opportunities.

Georgia went with Ray Goff after the 1988 season, while Alabama turned to Gene Stallings, and Florida hired Steve Spurrier away from Duke after the 1989 season.

When Clemson fired Danny Ford in late January of 1990, it wanted squeaky-clean Hatfield and did not mind taking his staff to boot. All of Hatfield’s Arkansas assistants followed him to Clemson save for offensive coordinator Jack Crowe.

In a lurch and hoping to salvage a recruiting class, Broyles made what proved to be one of his worst decisions in his long career as Arkansas’ athletics director and promoted Crowe from offensive coordinator to head coach.

Crowe did a fine job coordinating Arkansas’ offense in 1989. What competent OC wouldn’t do well with skilled talents like Barry Foster, Quinn Grovey, James Rouse, Tim Horton, and Derrick Russell making plays behind a veteran offensive line?

But only Grovey and Russell had eligibility remaining in 1990. With a retooled offensive line, average backs and a horrible defense, Arkansas suffered through a 3-8 season. It’s was the program’s first losing season since going 4-5-1 in 1967.

With Crowe in over his head as a head coach, Arkansas’ recruiting continued to suffer until the Hogs’ surprise Western Division title in 1995 laid the groundwork from some solid recruiting by Ford, who became the Hogs coach after the 1992 season. Those recruiting classes would be the backbone of Arkansas’ resurgence in the early years of Houston Nutt’s tenure as head coach.

Ford couldn’t recapture the magic of the 1995 season. His parents were both in poor health back in his home state of Alabama, and his mind might not have been totally on the job. Back-to-back 4-7 seasons sent him back across the Mississippi River to South Carolina where he retired to his cattle ranch.

Sorry for that digression down memory lane, but the Razorbacks’ current offense reminds me of those bad to mediocre Razorback teams of the 1990s. They play hard, but they just don’t have a stinger.

Now, that’s not entirely fair. Crowe’s first team had one of the worst defenses Arkansas has ever fielded statistically.

Conversely, Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams and his staff have the Razorback defense playing aggressively well and opportunistically. It’s not a lockdown group, and I’d argue that it has a tendency to get worn down at the end of games. But the Hogs have a credible defense.

The same can’t be said for the offense. Everything seems so hard for the Razorback offense coordinated by Dan Enos. Again for those who rag on the play calling, it’s not the play called that is lacking but rather the execution of it.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t exonerate the coaching or the coaches. Coaches not only teach but also recruit the players. When players continue to perform at unacceptable levels, it’s on the coaches as well as the players.

Arkansas’ offensive line and every other player involved in the blocking schemes have been overwhelmed this season. Even linemen who have performed well in the past are struggling.

The Razorbacks have solid to great backfield talent in quarterback K.J. Jefferson and running backs Rocket Sanders, A.J. Green, Rashod Dubinion, and Dominique Johnson. They are the types of runners who can make plays with just a stalemate up front.

I wish I could tell you I foresee a better offensive effort by the Hogs on Saturday, but I don’t.

According to Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman, Alabama’s defensive ends are dominant. Arkansas’ offensive tackles have struggled all season long. Pittman said the Hogs have a plan to provide extra help on the outside, but I’m finding a hard time believing it’s going to happen this week.

The best thing about this Saturday rolling around is that the Hogs move that much closer to a more manageable section of their schedule.

After Saturday, the Razorbacks will have five games to make something out of this season. There are winnable games ahead.

Granted, Florida and Missouri look better at this juncture of the season than I had anticipated. Those games will be hard to win without serious improvement.

No matter where the Hogs stand today, incremental improvement is not too much to ask.

Can it happen?

It all depends on how mentally tough this Arkansas squad ends up being. Will the Razorbacks wear the weight of what most certainly will be a five-game losing streak after Saturday’s trip to Tuscaloosa like an albatross, or will they be able to put it behind them and improve as they move through their final five games?

With improvement, the Hogs have a chance to win three, four or maybe even five of their last six games.

I know that’s not what we expected or hoped for before the season began, but it is reality. Hopefully the Razorbacks can make the most of the opportunities that still await them.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-4   SEC: 0-3   Streak: L4

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 22
Oct. 7 – Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 20
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (11 a.m. ESPN)
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)