With an SEC-only slate in 2020, Arkansas’ football schedule was the hardest in program history.
The SEC office’s sadistic gift of Georgia and Florida to Arkansas as its “randomly” selected SEC East opponents prompted UA athletic director Hunter Yurachek to deem the Hogs’ schedule as the hardest in college football history before the season.
It actually might have turned out that way had a few of Arkansas’ preseason Top 25 opponents like LSU and Auburn played better. It would have helped, too, had Florida, Georgia or Texas A&M ended up in the College Football Playoffs as an additional SEC representative alongside Alabama.
Those opponents failing to live up to lofty preseason expectations is a big reason Arkansas’ 2020 schedule doesn’t rank as the hardest of all time. In fact, TeamRankings.com places the Hogs’ 2020 strength of schedule at No. 10 in the nation:
However, USA Today egghead Jeff Sagarin’s numbers tell a different story. They rank Arkansas’ 2020 schedule as the toughest in the nation (find the Hogs at the No. 56 ranking overall here). That’s pretty impressive considering Alabama (at No. 3) played three extra games and all three of their opponents (Florida in SEC title game, Notre Dame and Ohio State in College Football Playoffs) were elite.
Arkansas’ 2021 football schedule won’t get much easier, as you can see in the slate released today:
2021 Razorback Football Schedule
Sept. 4 v. Rice
Sept. 11 v. Texas
Sept. 18 v. Georgia Southern
Sept. 25 @ Texas A&M (in Arlington)
Oct. 2 @ Georgia
Oct. 9 @ Ole Miss
Oct. 16 v. Auburn
Oct. 23 v. UAPB
Oct. 30 BYE
Nov. 6 v. Mississippi State
Nov. 13 @ LSU
Nov. 20 @ Alabama
Nov. 27 v Mizzou (in Little Rock)*
Of these teams, Alabama (No. 2), Georgia (No. 4) and Texas A&M (No. 6) rank as the most formidable, according to ESPN’s latest 2021 college football rankings. Before 2020, Arkansas typically played Alabama at the start of the season but now it appears the Crimson Tide prefer the Hogs as a way to rest heading into the Iron Bowl.
Sam Pittman, however, may also like this change. The Hogs don’t need an extra early-season challenge with Texas and Georgia already on the slate. Getting Bama on the backside of the season, when Arkansas already has plenty of confidence from playing most of its schedule, should help the Hogs too.
Ole Miss, which Arkansas beat last year, chimes in at No. 18 in Year 2 of Lane Kiffin’s reign there.
“With Matt Corral returning and John Rhys Plumlee potentially becoming another playmaking option, Lane Kiffin’s offense will keep piling up points,” Dave Wilson wrote. “But any hope of a breakthrough hinges on improving a defense that ranked 126th in yards per game allowed and 117th in points per game allowed (38.3). The Rebels play road games against Alabama and Auburn and face a feisty Liberty team [coached by Hugh Freeze] in November, and they have the Egg Bowl scheduled in Starkville.”
Arkansas will also take on No. 20 LSU and No. 21 Texas. Both programs underwent coaching upheavals, with LSU’s Ed Orgeron bringing in new coordinators and Steve Sarkisian starting Year 1 in Austin after graduating from the Nick Saban Academy of Coaching Reputation Rehab.
Both Orgeron and Sarkisian reportedly showed interest in wresting Barry Odom away from Pittman.
Arkansas vs Texas
ESPN’s Wilson highlighted how important Oklahoma will be to Sarkisian’s fate before mentioning the game against Arkansas in Fayetteville on the 20th anniversary of 9/11:
“Since Mack Brown’s exit in 2013, the past eight Red River Showdown games have been decided by a total of 52 points, an average of 6.5 points per game, but the Longhorns are just 2-6 in those. The road schedule is a little salty: at old rival Arkansas, at Baylor, at Iowa State, at West Virginia and a trip to TCU, which is 6-1 against Texas since 2014. Sarkisian will have to find out if Casey Thompson is for real after a near-perfect Alamo Bowl performance, but RB Bijan Robinson gives him an offensive centerpiece to build around.”
With projected wins against Rice, Georgia Southern and UAPB, Arkansas’ 2021 schedule has breaks in it that the 2020 schedule didn’t. But it also features only two SEC games in Fayetteville. This is due to the Missouri game happening in Little Rock and the contract Arkansas has with Texas A&M to play games at Cowboys Stadium through 2024.
The Aggies still get the upper hand in it, however. As beat reporter Trey Biddy points out: “Due to the pandemic, Texas A&M was able to skip out on their turn being the home team in front of a split crowd and instead played the game in Bryan-College Station at Kyle Field in front of the largest crowd in college football last season.”
Arkansas, unfortunately, doesn’t get a home game in return.
Ole Miss’ ascent also keeps the SEC schedule conference just as tough as it was in 2020, even with Auburn dropping out of the Top 25 under first year head coach Bryan Harsin.
So, is it again the hardest in the nation?
With all the usual way-too-early caveats, yes.
Arkansas, along with Rutgers, are the only two programs projected to play against six Top 25 teams heading into the 2021 college football season, according to 247Sports.com.
By dint of Arkansas playing in the SEC, Arkansas “wins” the tiebreaker here.
“This feels like a broken record because the Razorbacks have faced one of the nation’s toughest schedules for several consecutive seasons, part of it being one of the bottom-dwellers in college football’s toughest division,” Brad Crawford wrote.
“Unless something changes, Arkansas will take on Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU on the road next fall and battles Texas during the non-conference slate. Sam Pittman knows changing the culture and winning in Fayetteville wouldn’t be easy, but the 2021 slate defines brutality.”
See Pig Trail Nation’s Alyssa Orange dissect the Hogs’ 2021 football schedule here:
For more analysis on the 2021 Razorback football schedule and beyond, check out our below piece from early January:
Arkansas Football Fans Shouldn’t Lose Common Sense After Texas Bowl Invite
I’m happy. You’re happy. We’re all happy. The Hogs finished 3 and 7 and got invited to a bowl game!
That’s how low our expectations were for this season… Three and effin’ seven. WOOT WOOT!
Even accounting for my expectations, I’m still thinking: “We won 50 percent more games than I thought we would!” And I’m not-so-secretly counting that Auburn game as a win, so let’s call it 100% better than expected.
But the football gods didn’t officially let the Hogs get to 4 wins this season. Through blown calls, missed opportunities, and a global pandemic, it just couldn’t happen. But it’s hard not to feel (maybe overly) optimistic. Even had Arkansas lost a tight Texas Bowl and finished at 3-8, I’d still be pretty hyped. I think a large chunk of Arkansas Fandom is with me.
This is a problem.
Make no mistake: the Sam Pittman “turnaround” looks good. It looks like it has foundation. We’re all crossing our fingers that this could be our guy for the next 10 years. There’s something likeable about Pittman. Something that seems to resonate with Arkansans the way Chad Morris and Bret Bielema never did.
Despite losing the last four regular season games, the Pittman Hype train has already left the station. And guess who’s on-board? Most Arkansas fans, myself included! And guess what else is on board? A great big pile of cash!
We need to pump the breaks. We’ve been at this point in the not so distant past, and if we don’t learn from those mistakes, we’re liable to repeat them. We have to know this turnaround, if it actually is that, will take years.
Getting to .500 doesn’t mean the program’s shifted. Even if we end up with a winning record in 1-2 years, it’s likely to be followed by a down season or two. Sure, looking ahead, there’s reason to be hopeful. Just assuming Pittman’s Year 2 squad wins its three cupcake matches, and notches another 3 SEC wins, we’re a bowl win away from finishing 7-6.
But great players leave, and coordinators move on to bigger and better opportunities. And sometimes you even lose great assistant coaches in lateral moves, as Justin Stepp’s departure for South Carolina shows.
Ten thousand things that can derail your program for multiple seasons are always waiting in the wings. How long can we really expect Barry Odom and Kendal Briles to stay? Texas and its new coach Steve Sarkisian just got finished pounding on the door of Odom. Whether Odom and Briles are successful, and get hired away, or fail and get fired, both coordinators almost certainly have a 2-3 year shelf life at Arkansas.
We have to know that there will be bumps in the road. Replacing coordinators is just one of the obvious ones. So, we can’t crucify Pittman if he has a backslide in the win column like Bielema did in Year 4 and 5 after his Year 3 8-5 mark.
Don’t get me wrong. Bielema needed to go, but let’s be honest – we only liked Bert. We never loved him.
We liked Bret Bielema’s bluster. We liked the way he could grab headlines away from more accomplished coaches at SEC Media Days. We liked his swag, his social-media savvy, and his ability to out kick his coverage.
But he never earned our love. For that, you have to beat Bama from time to time. And you can’t lose 5 straight to Texas A&M.
But hey! We did that to ourselves. We backed the money truck up to Bielema’s 6,300 square foot mansion after he went 2-6 in conference play in 2014.
Sure, we had blanked Ole Miss and LSU in back-to-back games. In truth, both those teams were stumbling their way to the finish line, each losing 3 out of their last 5 games.
And yes, Bert notched a borderline-erotic win over Texas (6-7) in the Texas bowl. But in retrospect, the 2014 squad largely hung its hat on the outstanding defensive play of four NFL-caliber talents – Deatrich Wise, Jr., Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight.
Once they were gone, Robb Smith didn’t look like such a great defensive mind and neither did Bielema. But Bielema still got paid after that 7-6 overall season — 4.6 million yearly for 6 years for going 1 game over .500.
Big money for a little state like us.
Expectations do that to you. We didn’t pay Bielema that much for a 7-6 season. We paid him for the promise of consistent 8+ win seasons. But even when he delivered an 8-5 season in 2015, it was clear that the 2-4 start to that season wasn’t a fluke. Alas, the ink was dry, and Bielema’s suing the Razorback Foundation to keep collecting on wins never earned.
Arkansas will likely, hopefully, soon return to these crossroads. We’ll be sitting above .500, and deciding on the future of our head coach. This time, I hope we’ll take a step back and contemplate our recent mistakes with Bielema.
There’s no reason to rush a big-time contract if Pittman has a successful Year 2 or 3. We need to take it slow. Bumps in the road jar much harder, after all, when your car’s weighed down by a hefty contract.
Here’s Hunter Yurachek chiming in on ridiculously large buyout clauses, like the one in Bielema’s contract:
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