The first five weeks of Arkansas’ football season hasn’t been kind to head coach Chad Morris, the Hogs, or their fans.
The Razorbacks’ 2-3 start isn’t where Morris, the Razorbacks, or fans wanted to be entering October, which contains arguably the toughest three-game stretch of the season with back-to-back games agains No. 7 Auburn and No. 1 Alabama, but it seems any three games you give the Razorbacks, they’ll find a way to make them tough. They certainly did in August and September.
With these Razorbacks — as young, inexperienced, and depth-depleted as they are — everything comes hard. The Razorbacks made Portland State and Colorado State look better than they were before finally beating both by respective scores for 20-13 and 55-34.
The Hogs created problems for themselves with sins of commission against Ole Miss, making too many mistakes to get out of their own way in a very winnable game before falling 31-17.
Two weeks later, the Razorbacks shocked all Hog fans, showing them just how bad they can be when they don’t show up to play in an embarrassing 31-24 loss to San Jose State that could haunt the program all season long.
Give the Hogs and their coaching staff credit for putting up a credible fight against Texas A&M. The Razorbacks were driving for a possible winning score before a series of mistakes set the Hogs back once again, and the Aggies, who were a 23-point favorite, limped away with a 31-27 victory.
The Aggies won the game but were so unimpressive to Associated Press voters that A&M tumbled from No. 23 in the AP poll to No. 25. Teams are very rarely adjusted down in the poll after a win. That’s how tenuous the Aggies victory over Arkansas was viewed.
Mercifully, the Razorbacks have an open date this week. A friend gleefully reminded me at dinner Monday that at least the Hogs won’t lose this weekend.
“Yeah, I guess the Razorbacks will win the Red-White game one way or the other,” I responded.
With the football Hogs off, Eric Musselman’s first-year basketball Razorbacks play their Red-White scrimmage at 3 p.m. Saturday in venerable Barnhill Arena, which served as the historic home of Razorback basketball until Walton Arena opened in 1994.
However, I’m not ready to fully turn my thoughts over to basketball yet. Under the circumstances, I’m trying to view the rest of the football season through my Razorback rose-colored glasses.
The way I see it, let’s forget about the first five games. Nothing can be done about them anyway, and look at the final seven games as a mini season.
It’s going to be a tough one with the aforementioned games against the No. 7 Tigers on Oct. 19 at Razorback Stadium and the No. 1 Crimson Tide on Oct. 26 at Tuscaloosa, plus a date with No. 5 LSU on Nov. 23 at Baton Rouge. I have no illusions or expectations for those games. My hope is that the Razorback come out of those three games relatively healthy.
But the other four games — at Kentucky on Oct 12 at 6:30 p.m., at home against Mississippi State on Nov. 2, at home on Nov. 9 against Western Kentucky, and at Little Rock on Nov. 23 at 1:30 p.m. — I don’t concede.
As poorly as Arkansas has played this season, their effort against Texas A&M has me convinced the Razorbacks can win any one of those four games, and it’s not inconceivable they could win all four if they are lucky with injuries and they continue to improve week by week.
Low and behold, the Razorbacks’ magic number for a bowl game is four victories. Admittedly, it is a long shot, there really is no room for error, and none of those opponents are going to roll over for the Razorbacks.
But if the Razorback do manage to go 4-3 in their last seven games, a bowl game will await them, and that would be a true mark of progress for Morris’ program, which by some estimates made last week is three to five years away from bowl eligibility.
I’d argue the Razorbacks are closer than that based on playing the Aggies off their feet last week in AT&T Stadium. The Razorbacks made a valiant effort despite having starting quarterback Nick Starkel knocked out of the game.
Second-team quarterback Ben Hicks really deserves credit for playing well when Starkel went down. Certainly, part of that is the change of pace for the Aggies, who probably had done little preparation for Hicks, but he still executed when called upon, arguably better than Starkel had.
To me, I’d give Hicks playing time even if Starkel is able return to the starting role. Hicks is the more mobile of the two even though he’s not what you would call a dual-threat quarterback. He can buy some time with is feet which allows receivers to flow back to him. That kind of play can drive a defense crazy, and it opens up window for receivers to make plays.
Starkel is yet to show he can create on the run. He counts only on his arm to push the ball into tight windows, and thus far his judgment hasn’t been the greatest when under pressure.
As long as Arkansas’ receivers learn how to adjust to Starkel and Hicks’ different strengths and characteristics, playing them both might be a decent option to throw a curve ball at opponents.
It’s hard to tell after just one game, but the Razorback defense seemed to play better with defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis making the defensive calls from the press box where he can see the field better and where frankly he is more comfortable.
Senior defensive end Jamario Bell (6-5, 265) has made an impact since his return against San Jose State. He looked agile, quick, and strong on the edge against the Aggies.
I’m actually somewhat excited to see how much the Razorbacks can improve over the next two week before suiting up against Kentucky, which is also enjoying an open date this weekend. Maybe the only good thing about an inexperienced team is that it can make strides within the season. Hopefully the Hogs will do that.
Maybe there will be a noticeable improvement in the Razorbacks when they line up against Kentucky on Oct. 12. That would be a welcome site.