Arkansas DB Jalen Catalon earned the Jim Thorpe Award Player of the Week / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
As if playing the No. 6 team in the nation didn’t make Saturday’s Razorback football game compelling enough, the story threads for Arkansas’ trip to Gainesville to play the Florida Gators at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN are juicy.
First, Sam Pittman will be there in spirit, but not in body as the first-year Razorback coach is sidelined until Wednesday after testing positive for Covid-19 twice earlier in the week.
Razorback defensive coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom will act as head coach in Pittman’s stead.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Florida
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14
Where: Gainesville, FL
Current Record: 3-3
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
Pittman said in a Zoom teleconference Thursday that he will address the team Friday, and then turn over the head coaching duties to Odom’s capable hands.
Pittman is a first-year head coach on the major-college level, but his wisdom and experience shines this week with him having the foresight to hire a staff member with head coaching experience like Odom to assist him in resuscitating the Razorback football program.
In fact, the experience and talent of his entire coaching staff has shined all season as the Razorbacks have risen from being the laughing stock of the SEC for the better part of the last three seasons to a formidable opponent this season.
There is no way Pittman, who was a head coach on the junior college and high school level before an extensive career as an offensive line coach, could have foreseen the possibility of him missing a game because of a coronavirus quarantine when he was putting his staff together last December and January, but again his foresight in hiring a very experienced and capable staff is to be applauded.
Pittman did not make Odom available to the media this week because he wanted him concentrating on his duties of coordinating the Hogs’ defense in their attempt to hold down the high-scoring Florida offense.
Dan Mullen’s Gators boast a high-wattage offensive unit quarterbacked by Kyle Trask that averages 495 yards and 42.4 points per game. The Hogs, averaging 24 points a game, haven’t scored 40 points in a single game this season.
Speaking of quarterbacks, any other week Razorback graduate-transfer Feleipe Franks’ return to Gainesville to face his former team would be the major headline all week long, but Pittman being out with the coronavirus kinda trumps that.
However, how Franks handles his return to The Swamp to face the team he quarterbacked for two plus seasons will be paramount to the Razorbacks’ chances of staging an upset. The Hogs are as much as a 17.5-point underdog going into the game, and the youngish Razorbacks are counting on their quarterback and leader to not only play well himself but also inspire his offensive and defensive mates to play over their heads.
Earlier in the week, Razorback players who were made available to the media – and particularly Franks – spoke of the game’s importance as one of their 10 opportunities to gain a victory this season. None of the Hogs would say the game carries any more significance than any other, but you know they would not only love to win this one not only for Feleipe and Coach Pittman, but also themselves.
Gaining a victory over the highly ranked and regarded Gators would be a monumental step for a program which more than a few felt would go winless this season.
Even though the Razorbacks’ unexpected turnaround this season has risen to a national story, few objectively would give the Hogs (3-3) a legitimate chance against the Gators (4-1), who flexed their muscles last week in trouncing then No. 5 Georgia, 44-28, in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Razorbacks have done well in slowing down a few high-powered offenses this season with Odom’s multiple defensive packages, but the Gators are the highest-powered offensive team in the SEC this side of No. 1 Alabama.
Arkansas might find its offense playing well like it did against Texas A&M, but still not being able to keep up with the weapons the Gators can deploy on any given down.
The cards just seem to be stacked against a storybook ending with Franks leading the Razorbacks to a victory over his former team in his home state.
One just hopes the circumstances of the game don’t amplify the pressure on the quarterback who has played exceptionally well for the Razorbacks since struggling a bit against Georgia in the season opener.
A great goal for the Razorbacks going into the Florida matchup is to play well and improve as a squad like they did in a loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago.
If they do that, they’ll continue to advance toward more winnable games against LSU at Fayetteville next week and then at Missouri on Thanksgiving weekend.
Now, if the Razorbacks do play well enough to pull off the upset of Florida that would be incredible, but by my calendar, it’s still six weeks until Christmas, and Santa Claus isn’t delivering just yet.