Of course Arkansas beat Ole Miss on Saturday night. Of course they did.
What else could have happened in this season? This ridiculous, nutty, close-shave, razor-thin, insert-cliche-here season. Arkansas was always going to storm out to a 42-6 lead on the No. 14 team in the country. Arkansas, they of the 5-5 record with the fire-the-coach segment of crazies gaining traction in circles both sound and unsound.
Only half-kidding, by the way. A bonkers season that has made little sense continued to make little sense in the penultimate game of the year. In what felt like the first time this season, Arkansas was actually on the right side of the madness.
Consider it all.
~ A freakish fumble at the goal line that was run back for a touchdown only after the defender handed it off halfway down the field to someone else in a game Arkansas lost by one possession.
~ A Mississippi State team that is clearly inferior to the Hogs beat them 40-17, anyway, in large part because of an absent KJ Jefferson.
~ An LSU team that is about the same as Arkansas 2022 beat the Hogs by one possession in large part (OK, whole part) because of an absent KJ Jefferson.
Liberty, a team in FCS just six years ago, beat Arkansas – at home, no less – by one possession in large part because of an unhealthy KJ Jefferson.
How Close the Razorbacks Got
Four losses that all could have been wins. Even if you want to stretch it and say MSU was the superior team that day, fine. Three should-have-been wins. Awfully close.
But instead of 8-2 heading into the game against Ole Miss, the Razorbacks were 5-5, hanging on by a thread. They then go out – with a healthy KJ Jefferson – and throttle Ole Miss, 42-27, in a game that wasn’t even that close.
Arkansas led 42-6 at one point early in the second half. Somehow. Ole Miss had two touchdowns called back because of penalties and the Rebels only trailed in total offense at the break by 60 yards, 369 to 309. In fact, Ole Miss outgained the Hogs by 200 yards, 703 to 503. Quinshon Judkins and Zach Evans both gained more than 200 yards apiece on the ground.
It wasn’t exactly glimmering. It also doesn’t exactly matter. After the game, coach Sam Pittman made a point to let the media know he was smiling at his wife. He wanted to be clear about it because he hadn’t much opportunity to do that in the last couple weeks. Winning solves a lot of ills.
“I thought this was really our first complete game,” Pittman said. “I think it says a lot about our team. We were focused and ready to go.”
Focused and ready to go, certainly. Complete game, not so much. The 703 yards allowed were the third-most Arkansas had ever given up and most since Texas A&M went for 716 in 2012, the infamous John L. Smith season. The difference, of course, is that the Hogs lost that game 58-10, a further testament to how much the sport has changed at the college level in just 10 years.
Arkansas Football Going Football
Gaining bowl eligibility was once the standard by which programs like Arkansas judged success. Now, no team can go 6-6 season in and season out and expect to keep its coach. But look at the Houston Nutt era at Arkansas. It was, even in retrospect (and outside the Gus Malzahn and Mitch Mustain drama), considered mostly successful. Arkansas had some bad seasons in that mix. Some awfully good ones, too. Never a great one. The Hogs were *this* close to having a great one in 2022.
Ten years ago, none of the conversations about Pittman’s job security would have been broached had Arkansas performed like it has so far this season (especially coming off John L. Smith). More and more, however, coaches are fired before their second year even finishes. Some like Chad Morris deserve every bit of the revolving door, but others might have turned it around if given more time.
In a world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, results are all that matters. How those results are gained is moot. For three weeks this season, that sort of approach was threatening to damn Pittman’s tenure even more quickly than the helium fans had pumped into his balloon. But on Saturday, in the nuttiest game in a season filled with them, the reverse held.
“I’ve caught some heck because I say one of our goals is to go bowling,” Pittman said. “And one of our goals is to go to a bowl. You can go to the Fiesta, Liberty, Cotton. There’s a lot of bowls. I didn’t say what bowl. Obviously we want to go to the best possible bowl we can go to.”
Arkansas got Ole Miss on the schedule at the right time lucked into victory for the first time this season and in its most important game. At last, they caught a break. And it came at the exact time they needed it most: at the breaking point. Because had the game been lost, things would have been broken. Instead, they’re bowling.
As the saying goes, luck is a product of hard work, and has it ever been hard this year.
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