Rakeem Boyd / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
In many ways, the Arkansas Razorbacks have already met or exceeded expectations of some at the mid-point of the SEC football season.
The Hogs are 2-3 but really ought to be 3-1 going into their 6:30 p.m. Saturday contest with the Tennessee Vols (2-3) at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. If not for some slip-shod officiating in what will forever officially be a 30-28 loss at Auburn, Sam Pittman’s Hogs would have a winning record.
So, 2-3 is official; however, the hearts and minds of all Hog fans know better.
Next up for the Razorbacks
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7
Where: Fayetteville, AR
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
That said, a competitive 2-3 is better than the general consensus going into the season.
A lot of fans would have taken a two-win season for the entire year. They wouldn’t have been happy or satisfied, but they would have understood.
Las Vegas assigned an over/under win total for the Razorbacks of 1.5. Some didn’t even give Arkansas a chance to win that many games.
The Hogs had only won one SEC game in three seasons, and an all-SEC schedule did not seem to bode well for a first-year head coach and a team that struggled to line up correctly at times last year.
However Pitt Boss Sam and his Razorbacks flipped the script on that old narrative and don’t even like to talk about last year. They are focused on Saturday’s game as a short-term goal with building for the future the longterm mission.
With those goals in mind, Saturday’s game is huge for the Razorbacks. It’s big because it is the only game the Razorbacks have to play this week, and for a college player, with only around 50 opportunities to perform, every game has to be special.
However, it’s big from a fan’s view because it is only one of three realistic chances for another victory left this season.
If the Razorbacks are going to reach .500, Saturday’s game is a must-win. Maybe not mathematically, but I’m not at all optimistic about Arkansas upsetting No. 8 Florida at Gainesville next Saturday or the possibility of ambushing No. 2 Alabama on Dec. 5. It would take a Covid-19 nightmare of sorts for the Hogs to win either of those games, and no one would want that.
That leaves Saturday’s date with the Vols, the Nov. 21 home game with LSU, and the Nov. 28 game at Missouri as the three chances at wins.
I can envision the Hogs winning all three of those games, but make no mistake each one will be difficult for the Razorbacks to win one by one. Each of those teams were expected to be better than the Razorbacks at the beginning of the season, and Arkansas and Hog fans can take absolutely nothing for granted.
That said, the Vols do appear vulnerable, roiling in the undertow of a three-game losing streak. However, two of the three losses were to No. 2 Alabama and No. 5 Georgia. Most teams in the nation would go 0-2 against them. The other loss was to a hard-luck Kentucky squad that played one of their best games of the season on a very bad day for Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols.
The big question is what did Tennessee’s coaching staff, which includes Pittman’s good buddy offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, correct or not correct in the open week?
The Aggies had an open week before facing Arkansas, and their offense went through the Hogs like you-know-what through a goose. There were extenuating circumstances. Razorbacks freshman safety Jalen Catalon was ejected from the game in the first quarter for targeting. Despite his youth, he’s the quarterback of the back end of the Hogs’ defense and perhaps the best player on the unit.
Also Aggie senior Kellen Mond is playing excellent football at quarterback for the Aggies. If he keeps it up behind his veteran offensive line, A&M might run the table and sneak in the back door of the College Football Playoff.
That can’t be said for Vols senior Jarrett Guarantano. His play has been erratic, but Georgia and Alabama defenses tend to do that to quarterbacks. He was probably still shellshocked against Kentucky.
Where the Vols do compare with A&M is that they have a strong running game, relying on hard-nosed runners Ty Chandler and Eric Gray behind a monstrously large and talented offensive line.
Arkansas’ defense, under the direction of Barry Odom, has specialized in making teams play against their strengths this season, but that backfired last week in the loss to the Aggies, who were able to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations because of their running game.
Mond then picked apart the gaps in Arkansas’ zone coverages rather easily because of the excellent protection provided by A&M’s stout line.
The Vols aren’t in the Aggies’ class this year, but if they can establish a running game, it might be another long day for the Hogs’ defense.
The Vols pose similar problems to other SEC defenses with a quick and athletic front seven, and defensive backs that can run all day. That’s just life in the SEC.
Arkansas has improved incrementally offensively, and the Razorbacks appear to be as healthy — especially at skilled positions — as they have been all season. I expect quarterback Feleipe Franks, running back Rakeem Boyd and the receivers to play well Saturday and for the entire offense to improve its execution.
But will that be enough to defeat the Vols?
It seems many in the Arkansas media have positive thoughts about the Hogs’ chances. I’m leery, though.
While there is no doubt Pittman and his staff have improved this Arkansas team in terms of work habits, desire, and execution, there are no guarantees against the back half of Arkansas’ schedule. Even against the struggling Vols.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said Thursday on his Zoom call with media that when he’s turned up his juke box this week that 1980s funk has been the theme for Tennessee week. The head Hog, who also revealed that he plays the guitar and piano, has been listening to Rick James, Chaka Khan, and the Gap Band among others this week.
“Super Freak,” Rick James’ 1982 smash hit, wouldn’t be a bad nickname for all-purpose Razorback Treylon Burks, who is the only Hog this year to catch passes, throw passes, and rush the football. Burks’ touchdown catch against Ole Miss on Oct. 17 was the No. 1 “Play of the Day” on ESPN.
Burks posted his first career multi-TD game and second straight 100-plus yard receiving game at Texas A&M. He made seven catches for 137 yards and two TDs, and leads the Razorbacks this season with four.
Burks is the first Hog to have back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in a single season since Keon Hatcher in 2016. The sophomore has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Burks, who missed the Mississippi State game, has 26 receptions for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns this season. Pittman said Burks could line up at running back if necessary when acknowledging the departure of A’Montae Spivey, who entered the transfer portal earlier this week.
Razorback senior running back Rakeem Boyd called Burks a “freak” athlete when asked about the sophomore Wednesday night. I’m sure Boyd wouldn’t mind adding the “super” superlative to his description.
Speaking of Boyd, he looked like his old self last week against the Aggies, rushing for 100 yards and scoring a touchdown in the loss. Treylon Smith remains the Razorbacks’ leading rusher with 251 yards on 61 attempts this season. Boyd had 188 yards on 51 carries this season.
Senior quarterback Feleipe Franks completed 23 of 31 for 239 yards and threw three touchdowns against the Aggies. He also rushed for a career-high 91 yards on 16 carries and became the first Razorback signal-caller to gain at least 90 yards since Matt Jones rambled for 93 against Texas in 2003. Franks has thrown for 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions this season.
Junior linebacker Bumper Pool made a game-high 14 tackles against A&M and set a career-high with 3.0 tackles for loss. Pool leads the SEC and is third nationally in tackles, averaging 12.5 stops per game. Senior linebacker Grant Morgan ranks second in the SEC in tackles averaging 11.6 per game, right behind Pool.