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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – With SEC media days looming to kick off football season, it’s time to evaluate the Arkansas Razorback football schedule to rank the least important to most important games of the season.
Arkansas came a bad call away from potentially upsetting Alabama last year. While the win would have been a huge feather in Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s cap and thrust Arkansas further into the spotlight, the annual battle with the Crimson Tide has been the least consequential game on the Razorback schedule for a long time.
A loss to Alabama doesn’t move the needle and neither do close battles. Barely losing to Nick Saban’s crew meant as much last year as it did when a missed extra point cost the Hogs during the Bret Bielema era.
A win would be big, but in terms of how much a win helps vs. how much damage a loss generates, there’s not much to see here because the loss means nothing.
The Flames have historically been the little engine that could under former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze. If his baggage weren’t so heavy, especially in the SEC footprint, Freeze’s success in Virginia would have long since translated to another Power 5 coaching opportunity.
The chip on Freeze’s shoulder makes Liberty a dangerous team in what is a no-win situation for the Razorbacks.
A win here gains Arkansas next to nothing even if the Flames were to go on to a 10-2 season. However, a loss would be embarrassing to both the program and the conference.
This is the slot usually reserved for a much lesser opponent after a long stretch of brutal SEC games that allows for recovery and evaluation of the back-ups on the roster just prior to the final recruiting stretch.
Not so much this year.
Ah, the non-conference game that isn’t a non-conference game for a trophy no one can name in a rivalry no one considers a rivalry.
This is a game with so little heat behind it that it gets relegated to War Memorial Stadium whenever possible. Nothing could be a bigger sign of disrespect toward a conference game and designating how little the other team matters in the grand scheme of things than making that team fly an extra few hundred miles to play in front of a small gathering sandwiched between a tiny zoo and a golf course whose preferred use is that of a parking lot.
Fortunately, this year’s game is Columbia, so it will at least technically be played on an SEC campus.
Nothing to see here other than the surprise on the face of Hog fans when they remember Mizzou is still on the schedule as their yearly “rivalry” game.
#9 South Carolina
Speaking of rivalry, Arkansas used to have a mild pitter-patter for the Gamecocks as a permanent cross-over team dating to back when the two came into the league together. They even shared a former coach in Lou Holtz.
Back then Arkansas recruiting didn’t stretch as far as it does now, so there wasn’t as much on the line. However, the Razorbacks need this win to maintain its status as the league’s rising Cinderella story instead of letting Shane Beamer slide on those glass slippers.
At the moment, Arkansas is gaining traction in Georgia, but if South Carolina takes the W and rides it to a big season, a lot of those Peach State inroads will potentially get washed away.
Week 7 is a loaded week across college football. Losses that will generate movement in the Top 25 will be unavoidable.
The good news is BYU typically comes in with enough credibility that a win could allow Arkansas to take advantage of some of the turmoil that will occur. However, a loss in the middle of these giant conference showdowns would fade into the background a bit more quietly, not hurting the Razorbacks as much as a non-conference loss might in a week earlier in the season.
BYU will catch Arkansas at the end of a stretch that includes Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State before heading into an off-week. Finishing that section of the schedule at least 2-2 without suffering too many injuries will go a long way in determining how much shine this team has at the end of the year.
Never has a game against Auburn felt like it has so little impact. It only tops out the bottom half of the list because it’s an SEC West game and those have to matter.
Gone are the days of Gus Malzahn rolling into Arkansas to steal a key recruit every now and then or trapping Arkansas assistants in elevators at Jordan-Haire Stadium during halftime. There is no “perhaps if we somehow pull the upset, Auburn will finally fire him and he can replace [insert bad hire here]” mentality anymore.
If anything, the thought might be to win, but just by enough to keep Auburn boosters clinging onto Bryan Harsin. Arkansas wouldn’t want to engineer a blowout and inadvertently damage itself by convincing torches and pitchforks crowd that it’s time to dump several million more dollars onto the dumpster fire going on at Auburn.
They might get it right this time, which would be bad for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas needs this win to get things rolling into November. It’s awkwardly placed between a pair of difficult non-conference games precariously positioned on either side of Halloween.
A win here is big because it’s an SEC victory, but, like last year, the outcome won’t tip the overall balance of the season either way.
#6 Ole Miss
If there is a team in the SEC that Arkansas can count on to provide the Razorbacks a victory, it has been Ole Miss.
Since the 7-overtime duel between Eli Manning and Matt Jones in 2001, Arkansas is 14-7 against the Rebels in what has been a wild, yet fruitful, series of games.
However, while the ball bounced the Razorbacks’ way against Mississippi State last year, a 52-51 loss to Ole Miss where things went the other way took a lot out of the Hogs and led to an October slump. The loss carried over to a defeat at the hands of a bad Auburn team the following Saturday, giving Arkansas three of its four losses in consecutive weeks.
A sweep of the Mississippi schools is important. There’s a lot of talent just across the river that is willing to traverse the border and join the Razorbacks when things are rolling.
What Arkansas can’t avoid is the Lane Train getting up and running at full speed. As Alabama gets ready to deal with life after Saban in a few years, the Razorbacks need to be positioned to slide into the role previously occupied by LSU and Auburn over the past decade as a strong No. 2 that slips into the No. 1 conference spot every few years.
That only happens if Kiffin’s yearly highlights are relegated to ducking bottles of mustard and not barbecuing pork.
While October can sometimes be a nightmare, November is where Arkansas often regains its footing. No team traditionally represents a chance to bounce back and gain momentum quite like LSU regardless of how the teams are playing when they meet.
Of the last 30 times these teams squared off, more than 1/3 of their meetings led to Top 25 upsets, while six resulted in a Top 10 team losing. In 2011, the two teams played to see who would have a rematch against Alabama in the national championship game, which LSU won in one of the few games that wasn’t closely contested.
This rivalry has produced two Miracles on Markham, the triple overtime thriller to take down No. 1 LSU in Houston Nutt’s final game, and a battle for the right to take on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl in 2010 – all in the name of the Golden Boot. Each of those wins, along with last season’s overtime win, hold a special place in the heart of Arkansas fans.
With South Arkansas and North Louisiana so hotly contested with potential key athletes in both areas, getting on a streak in this series means a lot.
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#4 Missouri State
Having a non-Power 5 school in the Top 5 seems ridiculous, but this game carries way more weight than it should.
For starters, Bobby Petrino stalks the sidelines of Missouri State as coach of one of the best teams in the FCS. With this game so early in the year, it’s unlikely Petrino spent his summer doing anything beyond staring endlessly at film on the Razorbacks.
Nothing would make the former Boss Hog more pleased than to safely navigate the backroads from Springfield to Fayetteville to exact revenge on the school where he once brought so much shame and potential for litigation.
This will be a grudge match between coaches, and Pittman needs the win to prove to Arkansas fans that he’s the man once and for all.
There’s a faction of the Razorback faithful who don’t care how much trouble Petrino got the university into or how dishonest he was when it all came out. He led Arkansas to a national Top 5 finish, and if he pulls off the upset, that section of the crowd will again clamor with bitterness about wanting him back in charge.
A loss will not only look horrible nationally, it will potentially kill recruiting and put Pittman immediately on the hot seat. Petrino might sneak out of town with every CD in the juke box tucked securely underneath his signature neck brace, taking Pittman’s joy with him.
#3 Mississippi State
This isn’t a game Arkansas won last year despite getting a W in the results column. It’s July and the Razorback defense still hasn’t stopped the Bulldogs’ offense, which has Mike Leach still kicking himself.
Mississippi State has been a key game each of the last two seasons.
In 2020, a win over the Bulldogs brought about the end of one of the darkest eras in Razorback history. The first win of the Sam Pittman regime was the first conference victory since a come from behind win over Ole Miss in October of 2017.
It ended a 10-game losing streak overall, and a 20-game SEC losing streak. In 2021, a series of baffling misses in the kicking game went in the Razorbacks’ favor, allowing the Hogs to ride the momentum to what was one toe tap away from potentially being a 6-0 finish to the season.
Mississippi State again falls at a point on the schedule where Arkansas might desperately need a win. If things don’t go well against Texas A&M and Alabama, this game could determine whether the Razorbacks fall off the October cliff that nearly sank their season last year.
There’s no Arkansas-Pine Bluff followed by an off week to help Arkansas recover this season. Plus, making sure Leach doesn’t get things rolling down in Starkville is of utmost importance also.
#2 Texas A&M
While a loss to Alabama doesn’t do much to hurt Arkansas in recruiting, a loss to Texas A&M is always damaging.
There was a time where beating the Aggies was expected. After the Razorbacks took down Texas A&M less than a week after it was announced the Aggies were moving to the SEC, the Hogs were 13-5 since 1977, including a 3-game sweep in the newly formed Southwest Classic.
Despite a series highlighted by close games, including three overtime thrillers, the Razorbacks’ win en route to sweeping the state of Texas last year ended a 9-game losing streak to the Aggies.
During the previous decade, A&M used the pull of being the only SEC school in Texas, along with dominance over Arkansas in the loss column, to establish itself as the top recruiter in Texas.
This, along with a string of poor head coaching choices, closed Arkansas off to premiere Texas talent, especially in North Texas and East Texas. Another win in Dallas over the deep pockets at A&M would go a long way in continuing to open eyes and doors in those two regions while also setting up a potential blockbuster match-up the following week with Alabama.
A win in your home stadium to open the season against a team that was last seen walking off the field in the college football playoffs should be a huge boost of momentum for Arkansas both on the field and in recruiting.
As a 2:30 p.m. ESPN game while going head-to-head with Georgia vs. Oregon before Notre Dame and Ohio State square off to close the day, the Razorbacks are in prime position to make a huge national splash.
A convincing win would put Arkansas solidly into the Top 25 before a morning home game against South Carolina. If the Hogs were to win over the next couple of weeks, the Aggies and Razorbacks could be locking up at Jerry World in a Top 10 match-up on CBS.
Then again, there’s always the other side of the coin.
Apparently the pollsters have forgotten Cincinnati is a returning playoff team. The Bearcats are nowhere to be found in the ESPN preseason Top 25 and come in at No. 25 in other polls.
A loss to a Cincinnati team pollsters don’t respect would not only kill any momentum gained from the year before and put a bit of doubt in some of the 2023 recruits, but it would make it a difficult climb into the Top 25.
After all, Arkansas is missing from the ESPN poll also despite a 9-4 finish, even though 6-7 Auburn, 6-7 LSU and a traditionally horrible Texas team that was beaten so bad the players quit in Razorback Stadium last year en route to a 5-7 season, show up at No. 11, 10 and 7 respectively.
The Hogs don’t get the Longhorns’ benefit of never having to prove themselves no matter how many losses pile up. They’re going to need to start off the season with a win or be stuck in the “also receiving votes” section for much of the year.
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