It’s no secret that, even with Arkansas football getting both a win and a week off, the Hogs have a chore ahead of them.
Ole Miss, LSU and Liberty are hardly fun teams to play in November. The aggregate record of those teams is a surprising 20-4, and they’ll all come to Fayetteville within the month.
And the Hogs need quality wins. Auburn won’t likely register as one of those, but it’s now become easily the most important game of the year in many respects.
In fact, winning on Saturday will arguably do just as much good as a win over Alabama would have, all else being equal. Knocking off the standard bearer is great and all, but nowhere near as sustainable as taking care of business against an SEC bottom dweller when you get the chance. The former is phenomenal, but the latter foundational. While the Tide may be the aspirational program for most anyone, for the Hogs, it’s critical to get back to competing with the other Yellowhammer State team, too.
Sam Pittman’s fairly magic touch on the football program is due in large part to his recognition of its history. He surely knows, then, that Jordan-Hare Stadium has oddly been a great place for Arkansas teams on the ropes to gather themselves.
And Saturday’s matinee against the Tigers offers a rare chance for the Hogs, too: they could be the team that sounds the dismissal knell on Bryan Harsin.
Conversely, it’s been a place for some embattled Hog coaches to thrive. Pittman’s not in grave peril by any means, but he can really get this 2022 campaign back on track with a victory.
Houston Nutt Saved Himself Twice…
No Razorback coach to date handled a trip to the Plains better than Houston Nutt. Controversial though he was and may still be, he sported a 3-2 mark at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That included a hard-fought victory in 1998, part of his 8-0 start, and then the Hogs memorably vanquished the Tigers four years later thanks to Fred Talley going historically wild in a 38-17 rout.
Nutt’s need for a miracle was bigger four seasons later, and the odds of that kind of performance were much longer. No. 2 Auburn had national title designs, and the Hogs still hadn’t figured out quite how to implement Gus Malzahn’s offense.
They didn’t really do much that day, either, but Darren McFadden broke loose for one long run, Reggie Fish became a household name for good reasons and a smothering defense led Arkansas to the 27-10 upset.
Nutt inarguably resurrected his Razorback career with both of those wins. Arkansas ended up winning the SEC West both seasons, a totally improbable outcome this season.
But Pittman can still draw some lessons from those wins even years later. Auburn’s stout in the backfield but shaky at quarterback, as they were then, and this will be seemingly the umpteenth 11 a.m. kickoff between the teams in their SEC history. (But for real, this will be the 12th time in 29 years they’ve kicked off before noon.)
…and even Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith made it comfy.
Nutt left a fairly bare cupboard in 2008 for Bobby Petrino, and the Hogs were in the midst of a terrible stretch when they went to Auburn. Fortunately, the Tigers’ disarray was even worse.
The Hogs scratched out a 25-22 upset that ultimately sent Tommy Tuberville scrambling for a new offensive coordinator. It wasn’t a thing of artistry, but it provided an initial glimpse of Petrino’s creativity and Joe Adams’ playmaking ability:
Even in the low-ebb year of 2012, with John L. Smith aimlessly doing whatever he did for those few weeks, Arkansas did just fine down on the Plains. His Hogs, a national punchline for nearly a month, somehow dredged Auburn 24-7 on the strength of five Tiger turnovers.
Auburn got salty pretty quickly after that under Malzahn, who bested the Hogs seven of eight times. The last of those, though, was the 2020 officiating doozy.
Pittman unquestionably remembers that.
Could Arkansas End the Harsin Era?
Harsin’s been on skates from the moment he arrived, rather unwelcome, from Boise State. He was no slouch in Idaho, winning 69 games and the 2014 Fiesta Bowl in seven seasons there.
But his hiring in 2021 to succeed Malzahn rankled a fan base that has proven to be…ahem, demanding.
The move drew immediate criticism. Malzahn inked a massive deal with the Tigers and won a lot of games, but the offense grew stagnant, and he lost more big games than he won.
Auburn wanting a change was no great sin, but Harsin wasn’t welcome from the jump. A 6-7 first year didn’t help matters, and then there was the matter of an in-house investigation that didn’t exactly end with Harsin being vindicated.
The Arkansas football staff, hopefully and assuredly, cares nothing about this drama. They’ve had a little extra time to try to heal a defense in need of it, and to keep the offense’s mojo from the BYU trip sustained.
What this trip can provide is an end to a six-game skid against the Tigers. That’d be another emphatic statement that Arkansas is equally as capable of eventually threatening Bama’s choke-hold on the West when Nick Saban decides he’s done.
Whether Harsin survives that is of no consequence to Pittman, but losing another to Auburn could mean that the Hogs see the embattled Auburn head coach again in 2023.