In the span of just over 21 days, Arkansas football soared from college football’s periphery to penthouse. But the fall from No. 8 to No. 17, thankfully, isn’t as precipitous.
In the last game, which ESPN flaks ruthlessly hyped as the “Bounce-Back Bowl,” Arkansas shrugged off a bevy of defensive failings on the road against Ole Miss. K.J. Jefferson’s two-point try sailed over Treylon Burks’ outstretched hand to cement the Rebels’ 52-51 win.
Since that came on the heels of a humbling at Athens, these Hogs now have had a dose of heartbreak to address.
From Coach Sam Pittman’s standpoint, he’s still shepherding a Top 20 team that is one of the season’s best stories to date. A second 53-52 victory in Oxford in the last four trips there might’ve put his team on a New Year’s Six path, but Pittman isn’t griping.
Nor should he. With a now-wounded Alabama team still sitting at the back of the schedule, Arkansas nonetheless made it through a brutal six-game gauntlet with a winning record.
Momentum is fleeting, though, and the Hogs lost theirs for a moment. If they’re looking for an opportunity to reclaim it, the remaining schedule is ripe with opportunities.
First Order of Business: Payback for the Plains
Arkansas ended September by easily dispatching Texas A&M, then No. 7, to rid itself of a nine-game skid in that series. The Hogs haven’t beaten Auburn since 2015, and the current drought carries a hard asterisk.
Last year, Auburn carried a No. 13 ranking into an atypically early battle with the Razorbacks. The Hogs, fresh off chilling a lengthy losing streak with an upset win at Starkville, fell behind 17-0 and seemed too small for another big moment on the road.
The Pittman influence, already perceptible, really showed itself from there. Arkansas put two touchdowns on the board in the second quarter to draw within 20-12 by halftime, then Feleipe Franks’ 30-yard scoring strike to De’Vion Warren with five minutes left gave the Hogs their first lead.
The 28-27 margin ostensibly should’ve stayed in place. Auburn moved into position for a winning field goal, then Bo Nix unthinkably fired a backward spike in an effort to kill the clock.
Despite a clear recovery by the Hogs, and a lengthy review by officials, Auburn retained possession. Anders Carlson poked home a 39-yarder with seven seconds left to secure the Tigers’ 30-28, ill-gotten victory on the Plains. (Somehow, Nix thinks Auburn never gets the benefit of these kinds of calls.)
Pittman kept his postgame comments measured on something that sparked tons of controversy on the airwaves, but for a team trying so hard to overcome its own recent culture, the loss could have been crippling. Instead, Arkansas rallied, winning against both Ole Miss and Tennessee over the next three weeks.
Until that game, Arkansas’s recent history against Auburn had been nothing short of awful. Touched off by a 56-3 pasting in 2016, the Hogs lost four straight to the Tigers by an average margin of nearly 42 points.
Hogs’ November Nemeses Looming
The motivation to “red out” Reynolds Razorback Stadium this weekend for Auburn boasts built-in significance. It’s a conference game, and even if Gus Malzahn no longer roams the Tiger sideline, it’s a chance to reverse the Hogs’ brief slide in the rankings.
For all the nastiness that could be hurled at the SEC for the Hogs’ 2021 slate, it also offers some virtues. For one, the Hogs get to stay in Arkansas for the Oct. 23 tilt in War Memorial Stadium against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and they’ll be a clear favorite.
The bigger bonus, however, is that the bye week follows. The COVID-altered 2020 schedule didn’t even afford the Hogs time off until the Missouri and Alabama games were rescheduled. And traditionally, the bye week fell at a curious or occasionally cruel time.
Thanks to its placement in 2021, the Hogs don’t leave the state again until they embark for Baton Rouge the week of the Nov. 13 game with LSU. They draw Mississippi State on Nov. 6, and while the Bulldogs are undeniably dangerous, Arkansas still holds favorite status.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: LSU owns a winning streak of equal length to Auburn’s. Thanks to Bret Bielema blowing the 2016-17 matchups handily, and Chad Morris doing what Chad Morris did best the next two years, the Hogs haven’t vanquished the “other Tigers” since 2015, either.
The skid against Alabama, which now looks mortal at least, is at a whopping 14 years. As for that finisher at home against Missouri, well, yet again, it was the 2015 team that last took the third SEC Tiger team down.
How’s that for a chance to announce a programmatic rebirth? One virtue of being down for a while is that redemption or vengeance is always within reach.
Arkansas Football Subplots Aplenty
Barry Odom’s return to Missouri as Arkansas’s defensive coordinator unfolded terribly last year. The Hogs yielded over 650 total yards, and couldn’t preserve a potential upset win.
His defense just took another unexpected licking at Oxford, similar to that endured at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo. He won’t be lacking for desire to see his unit regain composure after it surrendered 600 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground to the Bulldogs and Rebels. Don’t forget that Hog defensive anchors Tre Williams and Markell Utsey also transferred in from Missouri.
Even factoring in the win at Starkville last year, Arkansas hasn’t exactly worn out the Bulldogs. Prior to that win, the Hogs actually took it on the chin from MSU plenty, too: Bielema beat them just once in five tries (2016), Morris went 0-2, and John L. Smith owned the 2012 loss for a total of seven losses in eight games.
Pittman’s deft, savvy media touch even reaches kickoff times. When asked this week about the possibility of four straight 11:00 a.m. kickoffs, even the sour experience of the last two weekends didn’t sap his enthusiasm.
“I’m grateful for 11 a.m. games,” he said. “They’re a lot better when you win because you can go home, look at everybody else, and say, ‘Why’d he make that call? Why’d he do that?’ and have a good time.”
“But when you lose,” he cautioned, “it’s not any fun.”
Pittman has implored the rejuvenated Razorback fan base to turn out, not just for Auburn really, but for the next three imminently winnable Fayetteville dates. If the team responds and advances the record and the cause accordingly, these last two slip-ups have served their purpose.
NOTE: The original publication of this story erroneously stated that Arkansas’s October 23 game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff would be in Fayetteville, but the game is in Little Rock.