American patriot Patrick Henry famously said “Give me liberty, or give me death” a little more than a year before the U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain.
You can tell he wasn’t a college football coach because there’s not a Power Five coach in America savoring the opportunity of stepping out of conference to face a squad as talented and capable as Hugh Freeze’s No. 23 Liberty Flames (6-1), particularly in November when teams like Sam Pittman’s Arkansas Razorbacks (5-3, 2-3 SEC) are attempting to string together enough victories to earn a sunny bowl destination around New Year’s Day.
The Flames are one of the best independent programs in college football, and there is nothing Liberty would like better than bolstering their reputation with an SEC pig-killing in hostile territory.
Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Saturday with the game being televised on the SEC Network.
Pittman didn’t ask for a schedule that included three non-conference games against teams that would be ranked in the national polls at one point in the season.
Nor would he have scheduled a non-conference game with a program like Liberty this late in the season when his squad is gearing up for a late-season SEC run, but that’s the schedule he inherited when he took over the program just shy of four years ago, and he wants his Hogs to make the most of it.
Next up for the Razorbacks
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri
The games were even on the docket before Hunter Yurachek became the Hogs’ director of athletics in late 2017. Though it was off the field, the Razorbacks earned a big win by fending off Auburn to retain Yurachek. Arkansas’ overall athletics program has never been in better shape on the field, and that is a bold statement considering the accomplishments of the legendary Frank Broyles.
Defeating Liberty would extend the Hogs’ winning streak to three games and lock up a bowl bid this week before facing LSU and Ole Miss — the teams that occupy the 10th and 11th spots in the first Bowl Championship Series Poll — the next two weeks.
All three of those games are in the friendly confines of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which weighs in the Hogs’ favor unless they play poorly like they did against Texas A&M at Arlington on the last Saturday of September. Had the Razorbacks not let that game slip through their fingers, Arkansas would already be bowl eligible.
The Razorbacks can’t take the Flames lightly. The Hogs know how powerful playing “with a chip on your shoulder” can be, and no doubt Liberty will carry one into Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
The Hogs have been as much as a 13.5-point favorite this week, and the Razorbacks’ physicality — at least on the offensive line — should weigh heavily on Liberty, particularly late in the game, but Arkansas, which has been notoriously slow starting this season, would do well to set a fast pace early in a game that could become a scoring track meet.
Liberty is going to move the ball. Every team that the Hogs have played this year has thanks to a cascade of injuries in the Razorbacks’ secondary that retarded the entire defense’s ability to improve throughout the season.
With Arkansas’ depth in the secondary greater now than at any point since the opening game, the Hogs can finally hope to gel and improve as a defensive unit. That’s the hope anyway.
Freeze said that junior quarterback Johnathan Bennett, who is 4-0 as the starter, will also start against the Hogs, but senior Charlie Brewer, who opened the season as QB1 before hurting his hand in the opener against Souther Mississippi is available too.
Bennett has completed 77 of 134 passes (57.5%) for 939 yards and 8 touchdowns with 7 interceptions. His top target is physical junior DeMario Douglas (42 catches for 615 yards and 5 touchdowns).
The Flames’ rushing attack is led by junior Dae Dae Hunter, who has all the earmarks of a SEC-caliber back. A transfer from Hawaii, Hunter rolled for 213 yards on 23 carries against BYU. He has 121 carries for 825 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield with 18 catches for 149 yards and 1 touchdown.
The Flames have a stout defense, ranked No. 26 in the nation. They are allowing just 330.5 yards per game, 123.5 on the ground and 207.3 through the air. The Flames get after the quarterback, averaging 3.75 sacks to tie for third nationally. Their 8.8 tackles-for-loss average puts them 12th in the nation. The Flames have also picked off 11 interceptions, which ties them for ninth in the nation.
So the Razorbacks have their work cut out for them on both sides of the ball.
This truly is a lynchpin game for everything the Razorbacks are working toward this season. A victory would set the table for two monstrously big games with SEC rivals LSU and Ole Miss.
Hog fans would be revved up for back-to-back home games that will tell the tale whether this will be a November to remember or frankly a season that fell short of expectations.
Whether such lofty expectations for this season were reasonable is a question we can debate or forget once we know what happens.
But a victory over Liberty will keep Hog fans focused on football for at least another week, while a loss would likely switch our state’s focus to the deer woods and college basketball.
There is nothing wrong with either of those, but November is much more fulfilling when Razorback football remains at the forefront of our sports minds rather than tucked in the back of our minds.