FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The stakes Saturday for the 5-3, unranked Arkansas Razorbacks and second-year head coach Sam Pittman are huge.
A win at home over the Mississippi State Bulldogs makes Arkansas bowl-eligible and likely assures the Hogs of holiday plans in some decent destination city, ranging from Memphis to Charlotte to possibly somewhere in Florida. It would assure – no matter what happens on the road in games at LSU and Alabama to follow – that the CBS-televised regular-season finale against Missouri the day after Thanksgiving won’t be a win-or-stay-home outing, and it could mean the Hogs would be playing for as many as eight wins, the best regular-season total for the program in 10 years. (Even if the Hogs lost those two upcoming road games, reach seven regular season wins would equal Bret Bielema’s best efforts this past decade.)
A win Saturday, with the fact that Arkansas’s three losses are against teams ranked 1, 12 and 15 in the Associated Press poll, would likely put the Hogs back into the Top 25 heading to Baton Rouge next week, where Arkansas could be a slight favorite against struggling, injury-riddled and mostly coachless LSU on the road for the first time in 22 years.
It would calm the Hogs’ reactionary fans who were sky high at the end of September and now act like the sky is falling after a rough October. Yes, reactionary Hog fans, get upset all you want, but that was a heck of a loaded stretch to face last month. You knew in August it was a heck of a stretch, on top of a couple of huge September matchups, and yet somehow Sam Pittman managed to beat both Texas and Texas A&M to raise your hopes up maybe too high.
Now, truth is, much of the Arkansas crowd is usually all about what the team has done lately, and any hopes can really be dashed with a November fizzle on top of the 0-3 stretch last month. Remember when former Hog coach Houston Nutt reminded Arkansas faithful of the saying he’d learned as a youngster, that “they remember what you did in November.” That credo came from Frank Broyles, who likely also co-opted it along the way from some great coach before him. The fans are thrilled by the good Novembers with their carryover to the next season, but they also remember the bad.
Broyles’ stellar Arkansas coaching career started with six straight losses. But he won his last four games in 1958, all in November, and from 1959 to 1962, his Hogs claimed three Southwest Conference titles, either outright or ties, and finished second for another. All four years they were in a New Year’s Day bowl when all the bowls really mattered and there were so few of them. After a brief lull, a .500 season in 1963, Broyles won a national title with his undefeated 1964 team, ran the overall win streak to 22 games through 1965 (losing in the Cotton Bowl to LSU) and kept the steamroller going until a shocking loss at Lubbock to Texas Tech to close out 1966. In that eight-year period, Broyles went 28-3 (the other two losses were in that down 1963 year) in November games. He was 18-0 in November through his first four seasons; no wonder he preached “they remember what you did in November.”
Of course, as good as the Hogs were, the quality of opposition had something to do with it. Broyles didn’t play Texas in November (though he did play the Longhorns three times in December, losing all three; but he did beat then-No. 2 Texas A&M in December in 1975).
Lou Holtz, Broyles’ successor, benefited from the SWC slate and the likes going up against Rice in November too; he was 12-0 in his first three years. Interesting note: When Broyles went 0-3-1 in November in 1976, along with an early December loss to Texas, he knew it was time to go, while Holtz was out after a 1-2-1 November in 1983. In case you were wondering, Arkansas’s winningest coach by percentage, Ken Hatfield, went 16-5 in November games, 3-0 in his last year, the second of back-to-back SWC titles, before he left for Clemson.
Southeastern Conference scheduling doesn’t afford quite the same luxuries as the Hogs’ “golden days of yore,” and especially the past two years with Alabama stuck near the end of the slate. LSU has always been in that November run, too. Tennessee, when it was a powerhouse, was often situated in November for Nutt.
While Nutt encouraged the team and fans for a strong November finish, he was just 4-4 in November his first two years, the seasons in which he wowed Hog supporters with their first real SEC success (outside of Danny Ford’s one SEC West title in 1995), and he was 6-6 through year three. However, it seems the arrival of quarterback sensation Matt Jones in 2001 changed the fortunes, as Nutt had Novembers of 2-1, 5-0 and 4-1 from 2001-03. Those Darren McFadden-led teams of 2006-07 went 6-2 for Nutt in those consecutive Novembers, and then the coach was asked to take his show elsewhere.
No one is asking Sam Pittman to run the November table, not with Alabama looming, though a 3-1 mark would be a great conclusion to his second year. Still, among these four games is Missouri, which has won five straight vs. Arkansas, and Saturday’s foe, Mississippi State, which has taken seven of the last nine. On paper, it doesn’t look as huge of a hill to climb as those three SEC games in October were, but a 1-3 or worse finish will not sit well with those reactionary Hog fans who can’t see how big of a rebuilding job this really is.
Pittman in 2021 has been blessed with having a good number of “super seniors,” the 5- and 6-year guys who received an additional year because of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and having players who had paid their dues, particularly among the returning linebackers and a couple of offensive linemen, were key ingredients in the 4-0 September start. But, for some reason, none of that experience translated to the rest of the team in front of a raucous Georgia crowd in Athens on Oct. 2, and what ensued was an embarrassing 37-0 loss for a team suddenly and briefly ranked eighth in the country.
I suspected then that the wipeout mentally floored this team, especially the defense, but it took defensive end Zach Williams’ quote saying pretty much those words in a story by the Democrat-Gazette’s Tom Murphy last week to confirm it. The Hogs’ offense rebounded after the Georgia debacle with an incredible, gutsy effort at Oxford in a 52-51 loss to Matt Corral and the Rebels, but then seemed a step slow and not as sharp in falling 38-23 to Auburn at home Oct. 16. The defense, though, never fully recovered from the exposure at Athens, when their three-man front look was pulverized by Georgia’s running game, with little or no adjustments made. The Bulldogs passed a handful of times, but it wasn’t required in just plowing over Arkansas, and it seems the Hog defenders suddenly began second-guessing themselves, the plan or something. They seemed to realize that, the Texas and A&M perfomances aside, they were a fraud in measuring up to great SEC defensive play. The way they had played with reckless abandon in September had vanished.
We’ll note this once again: In Barry Odom’s two years running the Arkansas defense, the Hogs have yet to stop a competent quarterback. Corral certainly improved over last year, but he was totally out of his
element in throwing six picks early last season at Fayetteville, and the Hogs upset Misssissippi State with K.J. Costello and Tennessee with Jarrett Guarantano struggling and confused by Odom’s schemes. Costello threw four interceptions, including a pick 6, and while Arkansas’s offense only managed 14 points, all that was enough in the 21-14 shocker at Starkville. Against Tennessee at home, Kendall Briles’ Hog offense erupted in the third-quarter to take the game over after trailing 13-0 at the half in a 24-13 victory.
Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern and Texas A&M all got poor quarterback play to open this season against Arkansas, though A&M’s Zach Calzada apparently figured out the position a few weeks after the Arkansas loss, leading the Aggies’ 41-38 upset over then No. 1 Alabama.
Mississippi State’s Will Rogers hit 36 of 39 passes last week in a 31-17 upset of then 12th-ranked Kentucky in Starkville. Most quarterbacks would have a hard time completing 36 of 39 passes against air. When analysts say Mississippi State can’t run the ball, they fail to grasp that MSU Coach Mike Leach’s quick, short passes in his “Air Raid” IS his running game, though don’t be fooled that he’ll never have his quarterback hand the ball off.
Rogers, whose father is a high school football coach, has operated this style of offense for years. He was groomed for the role; it’s almost second nature to him now. The question might be, can Rogers run it when he has to? Teams like Arkansas might be forced to find a way to make him run, to take away the flats and get some token pressure on him – even if it only hurries Rogers to throw quicker or off-balance, since sacks are rare unless your talent is Alabama-like – and try to get Mississippi State into third-and-medium or longer situations.
Kentucky’s downfall last week, besides apparently being flat for the game in all phases except special teams (the Wildcats ran a punt back for a touchdown), was allowing 7-8 yards or more on first down too often to Rogers and Leach. If Arkansas is giving up similar yards on first down, it will be a long afternoon Saturday. Hold the Bulldogs to 4 or less yards on first down, however, and force them into difficult second and third downs, will go a long way toward deciding the game.
And, for Arkansas’s defense, it must somehow force a few turnovers. In SEC play for the Hogs, opposing turnovers have been rare this year. In the two wins last season over the Mississippi schools, the Hogs totaled 11 takeaways. Last month, the Hogs turned Ole Miss over zero times. A zero takeaway day against the Bulldogs this year doesn’t bode well.
Despite the warnings, from here and elsewhere, Arkansas’s fan base before the Auburn game mostly chose not to believe reports that Bo Nix had turned his game around at LSU a couple weeks before and that Auburn was playing much better than it had in September. The same could be said for fans’ opinions of Mississippi State, though maybe people are more wary now: This is not same, lacking-confidence bunch of Bulldogs that miraculously rescued a win over Louisiana Tech at home, or that lost at Memphis. Despite the way Arkansas seemed to expose the Bulldogs’ deficiencies last year with its three-man rush, drop-eight defense, Mississippi State soon benched Costello and turned to Rogers at quarterback and by the end of last season had improved enough to beat Missouri, the same team that outscored Arkansas 50-48 a few weeks earlier. Now, like Arkansas, the Bulldogs seek bowl eligibility with a win on Saturday.
2021 didn’t get off to a great start for them, but now the Bulldogs find themselves ranked 17th in the first College Football Playoff poll that came out Tuesday night (there were among teams receiving votes outside the Associated Press Top 25). Their defense is much improved from earlier in the year and is loaded with athletes with SEC speed, and probably with a lot more depth than Arkansas possesses. Mississippi State has outrecruited Arkansas more often than not in the past few years.
Arkansas will want to establish its running game, but defending the run has become one of the Bulldogs’ stronger areas of late. Keeping it out of the hands of the Air Raid seems sound at a distance, yet it’s Leach’s Air Raid that actually plays ball control, too. He’ll gladly nickel-and-dime you the distance, and the red zone doesn’t seem to be as much of a stumbling block to the Bulldogs as it has been at times for Arkansas, especially in the loss to Auburn.
Maybe Rogers can’t possibly duplicate a 36-for-39 passing day two weeks in a row. But if Arkansas offers him the same soft zone defense that Kentucky did last week, he’ll likely come awfully close to it.
So, Sam Pittman starts what we’ll consider his first “real” November as a Hog head coach; last year’s schedule was a jumbled mess with COVID, anyway. A winning month will convince the reactionary fans that progress is indeed being made, even if they couldn’t see it in October, and it will provide solid momentum going into this recruiting season and with the 2023 class that begins its visits and commitments in the coming months. The whole future of Razorback football doesn’t hinge on winning Saturday, or at least two if not three games this month, but anything less will leave a lot of the Hog faithful wanting, and November will just be a bad memory.
Jim Harris has covered Arkansas Razorback football since 1976 for a variety of state media organizations, including the Arkansas Gazette and ArkansasSports360.com. He provides commentary each week as part of the team on THV’s “HogZone” Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.