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UA football digging out from disaster

OPINION by Bob Wisener | June 27, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman reacts after a score during the first quarter of Arkansas' 24-10 win in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 1, 2022.

A friend in Kentucky whose sports thoughts usually dwell on horse racing tweeted an interesting graphic about college football.

Within, one sees how your Arkansas Razorbacks rank in games won over the last five years, a stretch in which Bret Bielema and Chad Morris took turns running the program until Sam Pittman answered a distress call.

Arkansas, a 9-4 record last year notwithstanding, is closer to the bottom than the top. The 8-26 run from 2017-19. counting the last season of Bielema and the 20-game disaster of the Morris era, saw some of the worst football ever played at the school, where the program dates to 1894. If there had a been a vote among the national media, the 2018 and 2019 Razorbacks - Morris' bunch, losers to San Jose State and Western Kentucky, with nary a victory over a Power Five, might have been recognized as the worst in NCAA Division I. Down there with Kansas, where a fired UA athletic director took refuge before getting axed a second time. It is not good when Otis Douglas' name comes up in a discussion about Razorback football.

Arkansas, in good times or bad, has a large fan base and a winning tradition in football (surely you have heard of the 1964 team's 11-0 success, Cotton Bowl championship and road victory over No. 1 Texas included, and the 1977 team's Orange Bowl ambush of Oklahoma). Through it all, Arkansas has won four of its last five bowl games with Bielema the only Razorback coach to win his first two and Pittman triumphing last year, 24-10 over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

Arkansas fans enter the 2022 season with a high degree of confidence, although not as giddy as in 2012, where John L. Smith found himself with a top-10 team in September only to crash in relief of the fired Bobby Petrino, who had Razorback Nation thinking it was about to play Woodstock until he went cycling one April day.

Such is the changing nature of college football that Arkansas might be just as competitive this year but with a lesser record than in 2021. The opening game with Cincinnati poses a challenge against a top-10 team last year whose coach, Luke Fickell, is recognized among the college game's up-and-coming stars. Later comes a night game at Brigham Young, conditions under which the Cougars often play at their best, and a Fayetteville visit from Petrino's Missouri State squad, which still seems incredible.

The other nonconference game is against Liberty, which has held on to Hugh Freeze, who recruited up a storm at Ole Miss until some off-the-field stuff ended his reign at Oxford. Arkansas State fans remember Freeze as one in a line of fine coaches during a particularly showy last decade, that list including Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin, two coaches with Auburn in common.

Pittman has made such a good impression that Arkansas probably will escape its usual sixth- or seventh-place projected finish in the Southeastern Conference Western Division. No getting past Alabama, which along with Clemson posted 60-plus victories the last five years. It helps that Alabama, which has not lost to Arkansas in the Nick Saban era, must visit Fayetteville, where the Crimson Tide lost in 2006 before launching its current W15 streak in the series. So do border rivals LSU and Ole Miss, against which Arkansas split on the road last year, LSU breaking in new coach Brian Kelly (late of Notre Dame) and Ole Miss about to begin Year Three on the Lane (Kiffin) Train.

South Carolina, the rotating SEC East opponent, made strides last year under a new coach and landed quarterback Spencer Rattler, last year's preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, in the transfer portal from Oklahoma. Rattler is sure to test a defense that returns Steve Atwater clone Jalen Catalon in the secondary and, under coordinator Barry Odom, has drawn raves in each of Pittman's first two seasons.

An early-season SEC challenge comes from Texas A&M, which has won 40-plus games since 2017 and landed Jimbo Fisher's strongest recruiting class, one that has Saban, his former boss at LSU, yapping. The Aggies see themselves poised to rule the SEC West in the event Saban, who turned 70 last year, retires at Alabama. Fisher, remember, is the only former Saban assistant to better him in battle. And that Jimbo, he of a national title at Florida State, talked up this group of incoming freshmen as an inducement for staying in College Station when his name came up regarding other jobs.

The 2022 season is only a foretaste to 2025, when Texas and Oklahoma join the league. And marks the Little Rock matchup of Arkansas and Arkansas State, which many on both sides expected never to see. Texas' commitment from Arch Manning to work under Steve Sarkisian is enough to make Razorback fans hear voices in the night.

Razorback Nation frankly will be disappointed if by 2025 the school is not celebrating an NCAA title in men's basketball after back-to-back NCAA Elite Eight appearances under Eric Musselman followed by a top-five recruiting class. In all my years covering Razorback athletics, I have never seen the fan base more giddy about more sports than now in what is becoming a golden age under athletic director Hunter Yurachek.

All it takes to puncture the balloon is a swath of interceptions against, say, Cincinnati or an unfortunate bicycle ride by an UA athletic official on April Fool's Day, as has happened before. As for coach Pittman, although he was not around when Petrino's program crashed, don't play it again, Sam.

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