When Arkansas hired Sam Pittman, the offensive line coach at Georgia, to be its head football coach I heard from some of my Razorback friends.
To be kind, let’s just say they felt like athletics director Hunter Yurachek should have made a sexier hire with a proven track record as a head coach.
What they got was a middle-aged offensive line coach who looked like an offensive line coach. How in the world was this guy going to compete with the Nick Sabans, Jimbo Fishers, and Kirby Smarts of the world?
But look at where the Hogs are now. They are 3-0 with a No. 16 national ranking. One of those wins was over Texas, a 40-21 decision which was not even that close. When the game was over, the Arkansas students stormed the field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium. The celebration made Yurachek’s athletics budget some $100,000 lighter, courtesy of the SEC. But it sent a message that was not lost on Pittman.
“The state of Arkansas is proud of the football team again,” said Pittman. “And that means a lot to me.”
Last week Arkansas handled Georgia Southern 45-10 in the Razorbacks’ first game as a ranked team in five years.
The Hogs will be looking for their first 4-0 start since 2003 when they travel to Arlington, Tex., on Saturday to play No. 7 Texas A&M (3-0) on the CBS SEC game of week at 3:30 p.m.
With both teams being nationally ranked and playing in the coveted 3:30 p.m, ET time slot, this marks another milestone game for Pittman, who went 3-7 in the COVID-impacted season of 2020. Of those seven losses, three were by three points or fewer. One of those losses was 30-28 decision against Auburn when a clear officiating error dictated the final score.
In short, Arkansas played much better last season than its record would indicate.
Arkansas looked like a well-coached football team and this summer Pittman believed it would carry over into this season.
“I don’t want to promise anything,” Pittman said during SEC Media Days in July. “We’re a team in progress.”
But remember where the Hogs have come from. Bobby Petrino put Arkansas back in the national spotlight with trips to the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl in 2010 and 2011. That era, as we know, did not end well.
Bret Beilema took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls but it didn’t work in Fayetteville. He was let go after a 1-7 SEC record. Chad Morris posted back-to-back 0-8 conference records and was gone. The conference losing streak grew to 20 games last season before Arkansas upset Mississippi State 21-14.
Those who spend their time calling the Hogs are convinced that Pittman has them headed in the right direction.
“He’s created a belief in our student-athletes and they believe in him,” Yurachek recently told the Associated Press. “They will run through a wall for him and that’s important when you coach. I can tell you we’re not the most talented but there is nobody who is going to outplay us, who’s going to play harder.”
The Aggies, who have beaten Kent State (41-10), Colorado (10-7), and New Mexico (34-0) are six-point favorites to win the game at AT&T Stadium. There are story lines galore:
**--Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, played on Arkansas’s 1964 championship team. One of his teammates was Jimmy Johnson, who would go on to coach the Cowboys to a pair of Super Bowl championships.
**--The game, which has been played in Arlington since 2014, was moved to Texas A&M’s Kyle Field last season due to COVID concerns. Now it is back to AT&T. Pittman made no secret of the fact that he would have loved for the Aggies to come to Fayetteville this season.
“Would I rather have them here? Yeah, after we played at Texas A&M last year,” said Pittman. “If we can get you in here we like our chances.”
**--Don’t expect a ton of points because there are two really good defensive coordinators in this game. The defense of Texas A&M’s Mike Elko leads the nation in scoring defense (5.7 ppg) and passing defense (77.3 ypg game).
**--The matchup of Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the-former head coach at Missouri, against play-caller supreme Jimbo Fisher should be a classic.
“Barry makes you dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s when you’re playing against him,” Fisher said on the Paul Finebaum Show on Monday.
**--Texas A&M lost starting quarterback Haynes King in the second game against Colorado, but backup Zach Calzada came off the bench to lead a touchdown drive that gave the Aggies a tough 10-7 win in Denver. Last week against New Mexico Calzada competed 19 of 33 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s playing with more confidence,” Pittman said of Calzada. “He’s a fine quarterback.”
“Zach can get the ball to all parts of the field with his arm,” said Fisher. “I thought he played a solid game last week.”
K.J. Jefferson, the new Arkansas quarterback, completed 14 of 19 passes against Texas and 13 of 23 for 366 yards against Georgia Southern.
“I like what’s going on at quarterback (for us),” said Pittman.
**--Texas A&M has won nine straight games in the series.
“It really hasn’t been a rivalry the past nine years,” Pittman said. “You have to win to make it a rivalry.”
**--Dating back to last season, Texas A&M has won 11 straight games, which is tied with Oklahoma for the second-longest streak in FBS. Alabama leads all schools with 17 straight wins.
**--The X-factor is which team will be able to run the football and dictate tempo. Texas A&M has the splendid Isaiah Spiller, who is averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and speedy Devon Achane.
The fact that Arkansas is playing a game of this magnitude in just the fourth game of Pittman’s second season as coach, tells you everything you need to know about the Hogs.
Win or lose, the pride is back at Arkansas. And that’s a big deal,