To those outside the Razorback Nation, Arkansas’ football game against Mississippi State at 11 a.m. in Razorback Stadium is just another midseason ballgame that has no bearing on the national or even regional college football scene.
Either the Hogs (2-5, 0-4 SEC) or Bulldogs (3-3, 0-3) will win on Saturday, and outside of those in the Magnolia State and the Natural State, few will care unless they put money on the game for some reason.
Pride is on the line for Arkansas and Mississippi State in the ESPN-televised game.
The game is big for first-year Bulldogs coach Zach Arnett. It’s a legitimate opportunity for him to garner his first SEC win as a head coach, which would certainly add some juice to Mississippi State’s efforts to become bowl eligible in his first season.
However, it is an even bigger game for the Razorbacks and their fourth-year head coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman knows that better than all of us. He said that Monday when he labeled Saturday’s contest a must-win game for his Hogs, who are in the midst of a hard-luck, five-game losing streak.
Pittman has good ol’ boy mannerisms and a down-home charm that’s hard not to like. He’s authentic as the day is long, but don’t mistake his good-natured practicality for naivete.
Pittman knew exactly the gauntlet he was throwing down to his team when he made that calculated statement on Monday. He admitted as much when he was questioned about the statement again on Wednesday.
Echoing a statement legendary college and pro coach Jimmy Johnson made during his ultra-successful tenure as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Pittman said that sometimes he will talk “through the media” to his team to drive home a message.
He explained it’s a way of saying it without actually saying it to the team.
What Pittman says to the team directly is private. It’s a “family conversation” that’s not supposed to escape the Razorback dinner table, so to speak.
No doubt, Pittman, who has often said the mind is very powerful, is going to great lengths to prepare the Razorbacks mentally as well as physically for the task at hand Saturday. He wants his Hogs to understand the stakes in no uncertain terms.
The homecoming game against the Bulldogs can act as a fulcrum for this Razorbacks squad to launch a turnaround for this season.
The Hogs have been plays away from a breakthrough at various points over the last five weeks but have come up just short time after time.
Saturday is the day to halt the negative progress. Pittman has drawn a line in the dirt, and publicly challenged his Razorbacks in a way he has not done before this season.
I’m personally eager to see how his Hogs respond.
With a victory Saturday, this season remains salvageable. A winning record and a bowl trip remain a possibility. That’s the type of positivity and hope the Razorbacks need to carry into bye week.
Technically, the Hogs could lose to Mississippi State on Saturday and still earn a bowl game by winning their last four games.
However, Arkansas has never won at Florida where they play on Nov. 4 and Missouri, whom the Razorbacks close out the season against on the day after Thanksgiving, looks tougher and tougher as each week goes by.
A loss on Saturday puts the Razorbacks on a stoney path that’s hard to forecast where it might end.
Pittman has made a calculated risk by publicly going all in with this ballgame. He’s challenged his Hogs to play beyond current expectations and to make a bold statement that the Razorbacks are on the rise for the rest of the season.
That is a gutsy gamble, one that will hopefully pay off with an inspired performance by the Razorbacks on Saturday.