The best bet for Arkansas fans now is that Covid-19 cancels the college football season. That may be the only way Arkansas doesn’t finish winless.
The SEC announced last month it was playing a 10-game, conference-only schedule in light of the pandemic. Friday, the schedules were officially released and Arkansas was dealt a low blow with the additions of a home game against Georgia and trip to Florida. Both teams are picked to challenge for the SEC East crown.
It was a cruel and unusual trick to play on the Hogs, who are trying to climb back from rock bottom with new coach Sam Pittman. I’ll let my esteemed colleague Andy Hodges pontificate on how the SEC did the Hogs dirty.
So, now Arkansas will not open with quality mid-major Nevada, at Notre Dame or at home against Sun Belt Conference foe Louisiana-Monroe, who shocked Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in 2012.
Now Arkansas will play SEC East teams Tennessee (who was originally scheduled), the Bulldogs and Gators.
This would be a tough schedule for a team loaded with returning starters coming off a national championship let alone a team who has endured two of the worst seasons in its school history with a new coach and no spring practice to implement schemes or evaluate talent. Talk about dire straits.
“We already owned the nation’s strongest 2020 football schedule and with these additions to our SEC-only schedule, we now own the most challenging schedule in the history of college football,” Hogs athletic director Hunter Yurachek said via social media Friday afternoon. “As Razorbacks we have never backed down from a challenge, this year will be no different. Our focus remains on the growth of our program and supporting Coach Sam Pittman and our football student-athletes as they embrace this extraordinary opportunity.”
That may be the most “glass-half-full” quote I’ve ever seen, but truth be told, Yurachek can’t be happy. Where’s Kentucky and Vanderbilt for Pete’s sake?
For now, it’s the reality Pittman and company have to deal with.
If Arkansas was going to enter a hopeless season, Pittman is the guy to do it with. We knew, or at least those of us who are realistic knew, Arkansas’ ceiling was probably three or four wins and maybe playing competitively in a few losses.
That would be a major accomplishment compared to the dumpster fire that was the Chad Morris Era. It would possibly lead to momentum for 2021 as somehow Pittman continues to land talented recruits. That unexpected stellar performance needs a column of its own soon.
On the low end of things maybe two wins. But, still with the hope of a new regime.
What Pittman needs to guard against now is that a dreadful record and several blowout losses against a stacked schedule doesn’t set the program back five years.
How he will do that is the same way he has navigated the obstacles that have already arisen — with positivity and reassurance.
By all accounts, Arkansas players and recruits have bought into what Pittman is selling as a program on the rise. His stock in my eyes really took off when he hired talented offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach.
Those two moves along with the great recruiting have gone hand-in-hand in setting the tone.
Before Covid, I was leaning more toward three or four wins with a late-season run because the roster does have some talent, especially on offense and Pittman’s ability to coach the offensive line, which has been a major disaster recently.
You have to figure if Pittman could pull some strings on the line, senior running back Rakeem Boyd could have a monster season.
He’s already being recognized on preseason watch lists despite the fact that it is a common fact he’s had little help up front. When you couple in the fact that former Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks is under center with talented sophomores Trey Knox and Treylon Burks to pass to, that could cause optimism that wins over Ole Miss, Missouri, Mississippi State and ULM are possible.
A good debut against Nevada pushes the win potential more. You’d also have to hope that a beleaguered defense led by linebackers Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan could step it up.
So, who can Arkansas beat on the revised schedule?
Well, Arkansas won’t be favored in any game. A lot depends on how the schedule falls. With new coaches, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri seem like the best bets, but if the Hogs are 0-9 heading to Columbia, Missouri, to play Missouri in December that probably gives the Tigers the edge.
However, Mizzou has its own problems drawing LSU and Alabama on the revised schedule.
The gap between Mizzou, Ole Miss and Mississippi State isn’t as far as some may think. Arkansas just has to make sure they keep perspective and play well against the West teams who will be picked near the bottom.
Tennessee is real wild card. They have struggled, but some expect them to have a breakout season.
If Arkansas doesn’t go 0-10, Pittman needs to be commended because a whole bunch of media members have already penciled in that mark.
If the worst does happen, Pittman needs to shrug it off and hopefully start anew with a more realistic schedule next season when Rice, Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff are added.