The Arkansas Razorback football players are enjoying a few days off thanks to this weekend’s open date, but head coach Sam Pittman and his coaching staff will be out pressing the flesh and being seen on the recruiting trail this weekend.
As legendary Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson always liked to say “recruiting is the bread line for college coaches.” Bread as in continuing to eat and getting paid, and bread as a vital part of any meal.
Coaches must have players, and the better quality of players that can be recruited, the better that program is going to be.
No doubt Pittman has upgraded the quality of athlete on his Razorback roster as he closes in on what will be his fourth year as coach, but the struggles the Hogs have had with injuries in the secondary shows that Arkansas needs to recruit better and better depth for the program to take the leap forward that fans were hoping to see this season.
The Razorbacks righted their ship for the moment last week with a 52-35 victory at BYU, but that win guarantees them nothing the rest of the way.
The back end of the Hogs’ schedule isn’t as daunting as the middle was, but there are more toss-up games in the Hogs’ final five regular-season games than ones I would opine that they should win.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Auburn
When: 11 a.m. Saturday Oct. 29
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
Streaming: SEC Network
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri
Arkansas will likely be favored against Auburn, but the Razorbacks have had a notoriously hard time winning on the plains even when they’ve been considered equal or better than the Tigers. Auburn might not be elite along the offensive and defensive lines as they usually are, but the Hogs aren’t either or they wouldn’t be sitting at 4-3 right now.
The Razorbacks still have to compete like their hair is on fire to have a chance to win in the SEC. They aren’t talented enough to just throw their jock straps out on the field and expect to win. Other than perhaps against Liberty, the Razorbacks will not have a distinct athletic advantage over any opponent left on their schedule.
One might expect them to win at least two of their final five games against Auburn, Liberty on Nov. 5, LSU on Nov. 12, No. 7 Ole Miss on Nov. 19, and Missouri on Nov. 25 to become bowl eligible, but nothing is guaranteed.
The Razorbacks have to play better defense than they have through their first seven games during this final five-game run, or they tempt an early Christmas holiday this year with no bowl trip. That’s just a fact.
While there isn’t a single game left on their schedule that I think the Hogs’ can’t win, the way this season has gone, I’d be uncomfortable picking them better than 6-5 at this juncture, and with more hard luck on the injury front, their final record might not be that good.
Arkansas made a huge leap last season from the bottom of the SEC barrel at the beginning of Pittman’s first year as coach to near the top last year. Taking nothing away from any of those players or their coaches, a lot of that had to do with the large number of super or Covid seniors bolstering their ranks.
Arkansas wasn’t able to retain as many for this season. Not having so many additional, experienced players return this year has affected the Hogs’ depth.
Pittman thinks maybe he’ll have a few more next year to bolster the Hogs’ ranks depending on a number of decisions by players like Jalen Catalon, who has been out for all but the first game of the season with a shoulder injury, and quarterback KJ Jefferson among others.
Those are worries for another time, but the point is that Arkansas was not as well positioned as many of us hoped they would be to make another large leap in the most competitive and cut-throat conference in the nation.
So many assumed the Hogs would just automatically make the leap to 10 wins this season because the Razorbacks jumped up to nine wins last year.
Now, the Razorbacks could still win 10 this year if they run the table in the regular season and win their bowl game, but ask yourself how likely is all that to happen under the current circumstances?
I hope that happens, but it’s not a realistic expectation for where the program is at this moment. That’s not an indictment of Pittman or his staff. I think they have done a marvelous job of putting out the dumpster fire left by Chad Morris and helped by the UA Board of Trustees when they opted to clean out the stables with a fire hose in an all-chips-in move to hire Gus Malzahn as head football coach in late 2017.
Since then Hunter Yurachek and Pittman have restored sanity to the program. Pittman’s no-nonsense, working-man’s attitude toward coaching and building a program is working, but you can’t go from the depths of where Arkansas’ program was in the early winter of 2019 when Pittman arrived to perennially in the penthouse of the SEC without some road bumps along the way.
Every loss or losing streak shouldn’t have fans out on the ledge demanding changes like a few were a couple of weeks ago. Such rash overreactions are partly to blame for putting Arkansas in such a deep hole before Yurachek and Pittman arrived.
Pittman doesn’t have a magic wand, but he does have a plan and a workman’s attitude for building the Razorback football program. Anyone who has built anything knows there are ups and downs before any project is complete, but the struggles are what makes the successes so sweet.