No midseason feeling of despair for fans of this Arkansas football team

Sam Pittman’s journey from genial, hard-working career assistant to SEC head coach made for a compelling side narrative as his second Arkansas football team launched into 2021 with a 4-0 start and No. 8 ranking.

Now, Pittman has a 4-2 squad, hammered by a truly elite Georgia team and spurned on a two-point try that would’ve beaten Ole Miss. This truthfully is a plot twist we should embrace, not because it wouldn’t have been glorious to vanquish the Rebs and move to 5-1, perhaps back into the Top 10.

Rather, watching how hard this coaching staff works after a dose of adversity is what interests me. It’s been a rite of passage in this state to spend much of autumn cursing futilely at the adults on the sidelines. I would have been elated to see any of Pittman’s predecessors, at least in the SEC era, thrive and excel.

They didn’t, at least not consistently, and that’s why Pittman is here. And his presence so far has been one that reassures the agitated folks among us so far. When the Hogs would have these midseason swoons in the past, my needle always hovered somewhere between “this guy can’t hack it” and “we’ll never be any good.” I don’t have those feelings at all at this juncture.

For starters, Arkansas has a quarterback who has taken a preseason full of skepticism and channeled it into performance. K.J. Jefferson threw only his third interception of the season against Ole Miss on a Hail Mary, so that’s hardly even a blemish on a six-TD effort that showed the sophomore’s mettle and skill in all sorts of ways. Jefferson completed a whopping 72% of his attempts, churned out 85 hard-earned rushing yards, and did everything mortally possible to give Arkansas one last chance at a second 53-52 victory in Oxford in four trips.

Jefferson’s job has been made easier by the accompanying development of all sorts of skill players. Kendal Briles is getting his sea legs beneath him as a play caller, Jefferson and Treylon Burks are now connecting with regularity and explosiveness, and now less-heralded contributors like Tyson Morris, Warren Thompson and Trey Knox are making significant plays. Meanwhile, that backfield keeps producing, whether it be Trelon Smith’s influential early-game power, Dominique Johnson and A.J. Green’s spot duty, or now Rocket Sanders’ McFadden-esque blasts off tackle.

Not many teams can go from a shutout to a 51-point outburst in a matter of a week. Yes, that disparity is owing largely to the utter terror that is the Georgia defense, but Arkansas didn’t lack confidence at any point Saturday in Oxford. Defensively, yes, there were significant, numerous lapses, but again, give the opponent its due. Matt Corral’s six-pick farce in 2020 got so much nauseating attention from ESPN — how many times did they play that clip of the Ole Miss QB vowing to play better? — but he’s a fine quarterback with deceptive wheels.

Arkansas didn’t get pressure on him, either, until a couple of plays late in the game when the Hogs were clinging to that last-ditch shot. You can expect that Barry Odom will be wary of Auburn’s Bo Nix doing a lot of the same improvisation that Corral does, but he’ll have the luxury of a red-out in the stands and a bunch of angry players who know they gave a listless showing a week ago.

Sure, Auburn is more than capable of stretching this skid to three games. Nix, long overrated, has now settled into a more stabilized playmaker role with Bryan Harsin taking over, but he’s still not all that accurate and not very well protected. The Tigers took a throttling against Georgia a week ago, too, and are coming in somewhat wounded from that experience.

Accordingly, this latest revenge date (Arkansas last took the Tigers down in a wonderful four-overtime battle in 2015) doesn’t have the same unsettling feel that the midseason pecking order battles usually have. Pittman authoritatively implored the students and fans to shake off the cobwebs and get ready for another early kickoff, and that isn’t just for show. He knows the value of 70,000-plus Hog fans in his corner, because before his arrival, that kind of turnout would’ve never occurred.

Normally, a team that loses a couple finds itself wanting for immediate, practical solutions to the problems at hand. Arkansas still looks and feels like a solid team from top to bottom despite the rough patch. As such, don’t expect a flat or uninspired effort from this 2021 team, and especially not with bowl dollars and recruiting prestige at stake.

I rarely do it, but since I did a half-season projection of the first six games, I’m gonna call these remaining half-dozen week to week. And this week, Arkansas will be mad, motivated, and prepared. Hogs 41, Tigers 24

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