Nothing in this world is perfect, but as things go, this has been a pretty good open-date week for Sam Pittman and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Respect is something the Razorback football program hasn’t gotten a lot of during the three previous seasons, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say the Hogs have been the darlings of college football this week, reaping plaudits and a good bit for respect for their 2-2 start to this COVID-19 infected season.
The college football world seems to clearly understand Pittman’s first Razorback squad by all rights should be 3-1 at this juncture if not for an inadvertent whistle and an awful officiating ruling that returned a backward-pass fumble to Auburn and allowed the Tigers to kick a game-winning field goal for a forever tainted 30-28 victory.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: College Station, Texas
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
Arkansas’ defense and defensive coordinator Barry Odom have officially and unofficially been lauded by the media and fans alike with senior linebacker Grant Morgan and freshman Hudson Clark, racking up individual honors left and right this week as the Hogs put in early work on their gameplay for next Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. Halloween meeting with the No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies (3-1) at College Station.
While the Razorbacks have practiced all week, Pittman eased off the physicality in hopes of getting his team as close to healthy before entering a six-week gauntlet that is probably as challenging as just about any six-week period the Razorbacks have ever played.
Each contest is against an SEC opponent, and every one of the teams but Missouri have been ranked in the Top 25 at some point during this season.
Pittman said after the Razorbacks complete an early morning weight workout and attend their classes today, they are free for the weekend until reporting for a 6 p.m. academic meeting on Sunday followed by their first COVID-19 test of the week.
Pittman said he’d rather trust his players to be responsible this weekend concerning COVID-19 than to try to strap them down for the weekend. Pittman said he and his wife Jamie would spend the weekend boating and watching football at his cabin on Lake Hamilton before returning refreshed for work on Sunday.
The head Hog, who said earlier in the week in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that Arkansas would be his last job, and joked that he would stay away from Skinny Dip Cove for the sake of the program and the people of Arkansas.
No doubt the rest of his staff will also take some family time for themselves before returning all attention to the Aggies, which may be the most complete team the Hogs have played this season.
Georgia probably has a better defense than the Aggies, but A&M’s offense is directed by Kellen Mond, a versatile senior signal caller whom Pittman joked has been an Aggie since 1932. Mond’s completed 8 of 130 passes for 984 yards and 9 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
He’s supported by a veteran offensive line and skilled running back Isaiah Spiller, who has rushed for 430 yards and 4 touchdowns already this season and averages 6.7 yards per carry.
The Aggies are averaging 28 points per game in victories over Vanderbilt (17-12), Florida (41-38), and Mississippi State (28-14). Their lone loss came at the hands on of No. 2 Alabama, 52-24.
It stands to be another great matchup, particularly if the Razorbacks can continue to shake the kinks out of their offense that hasn’t necessarily fired on all cylinders this season.
Arkansas has struggled to keep drives alive at junctures this season, mainly because the Razorbacks have struggled to run the ball effectively, putting pressure on Feleipe Franks and the passing game to come through on third down far too often.
The Razorbacks are averaging just 102.2 yards a game rushing and just 2.7 yards per carry. Those are dismal numbers that could bite the Hogs in the back half of their schedule.
Franks is having a solid season throwing the ball, completing 82 of 128 passes for 64.1 percent and 243.5 yards per game with 8 touchdown against three interceptions, but if the Razorbacks could get their running game moving at a better clip, he would find even better opportunities to feed the ball to receivers Treylon Burks (19 catches 249 yards, 2 TDs), Mike Woods (14 catches 185 yards, 1 TD) and De’Vion Warren (11 catches, 231 yards,3 TDs).
Trelon Smith (56 rushes for 236 yards) has emerged as a solid running back, averaging 3.9 yards per carry, but Rakeem Boyd, injured in the Mississippi State game, has had trouble finding his footing with just 90 yards on 33 carries, although he did find the end zone to cap a drive against Ole Miss last week.
The Razorbacks do work behind a somewhat inexperienced offensive line that obviously hasn’t gelled yet. Until it does, Arkansas’ offense will likely struggle with consistency against SEC competition. No doubt Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will keep his troops toiling to find an answer to their running woes.
It simply might just be a matter for Boyd working himself back in game shape. He’s a proven SEC-caliber back, and when he gets the rust knocked off his game, he might begin to play like it again.
Optimism is running high among the Razorback Nation, but the Hogs must keep improving, particularly on offense and special teams if this truly is to be a comeback season for the program.
I’m personally cautiously optimistic concerning the rest of the season, but with the pandemic there are even more uncontrollable variables at play than in a normal year.
I hope Hog fans can be as proud of their team as they are at this juncture, once the regular season concludes with an imposing home date with Alabama on Dec. 5 at Razorback Stadium.
I’m not suggesting the Razorbacks have the wherewithal to upend the Crimson Tide, but it will be interesting to see how many of the other five games Pittman’s Razorbacks can manage to win.