It’s hard to call any SEC schedule “favorable,” to be sure, but Chad Morris’ first hand of 12 games at the helm of the Arkansas football program this fall will be roughly the equivalent of a full house: The Razorbacks draw conference titans Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville, their only true road games are in Auburn, Ala.; Fort Collins, Co.; Starkville, Miss.; and Columbia, S.C.; and they won’t be drawing the presumed best of the East Division.
That’s why we’re taking a cautiously but firmly positive angle on this team. I won’t say “bullish” because anytime there is a coaching change that drastically alters the style of play from a team that went 11-14 the past two seasons, you don’t suddenly find yourself thinking a national contender is in your backyard unless you’ve been, um, lysergically affected. Nevertheless, Pearls has pegged the Hogs to be a solid 4-2, 1-2 team after the first half of 2018, and we think the third trio of games in the dozen is where the team can really stretch its metaphorical legs.
Ole Miss at Little Rock, Oct. 13: It is likely that, despite Hugh Freeze’s catastrophic and humiliating fall from grace, Matt Luke will keep the Rebels playing at a feverish pace. The trouble is, for as talented as the skill players in Oxford are, the lines aren’t quite up to snuff after a lot of the program’s best guys in the trenches recently ended up doing constructive things like huffing dope through gas masks on Snapchat or entering MMA because the NFL no longer found a place for serial domestic abusers. Arkansas, in all seriousness, is a more disciplined on-field experiment than the Rebel Shark Bears, and the Hogs play their best game in their Central Arkansas digs in years, rekindling the idea that maybe they should get at least another game there every season. Chase Hayden has a particularly fun day for the Hogs, throwing a TD pass on a trick play, running for another score and even throwing in a receiving touchdown to set a Razorback mark for versatility. Arkansas 41, Ole Miss 27.
Tulsa at Fayetteville, Oct. 20: What you need to know about the Golden Hurricane is that they won 10 games under Philip Montgomery in 2016 and he was on a few radars for bigger programs as a result, and then they sagged to 2-10 last fall and Montgomery no longer looks quite like the wunderkind he was when he was leading Art Briles’ Baylor offense a few short seasons ago. Tulsa gets to play three Arkansas foes in nonconference play this year — including the Hogs, Arkansas State and UCA — but after vanquishing the first two of those, the Hurricane stand no chance against a Razorback squad with burgeoning confidence on both sides of the ball. A swarming Hog defense makes the homecoming experience a grand one, with linebacker Dre Greenlaw winning the Crip Hall Award for a fumble recovery he carries to paydirt in the opening few minutes and a couple of big sacks later. The Hog offense plays it close to the vest in its last nonconference outing and advances to 6-2, 2-2 with a big rout. Arkansas 48, Tulsa 13.
Vanderbilt at Fayetteville, Oct. 27: Is it ever “fun” to play Vandy? Not hardly. Derek Mason may be a modest 18-31 with zero bowl wins or winning seasons after five one-year terms in Nashville, but this is always a well-coached bunch, and Kyle Shurmur is easily the program’s best quarterbacking prospect since Jay Cutler was flinging it around in the mid-aughts. The 6-4 senior is coming off a fine 2017 campaign (26 touchdowns, obliterating a school record, against only 10 interceptions) and he’s going to have found some capable targets by this point in the season. The Commodores accordingly push the Hogs hard, because the Razorback bye week has still not occurred, and though it ends well, it also turns into the most exhausting game the team plays all season. Ty Storey’s late scoring toss to Cheyenne O’Grady on a throwback play cements a hard-earned seventh victory. Arkansas 30, Vanderbilt 24.
You’re reading this all correctly: We’ve got the Hogs 7-0 against everyone outside the state of Alabama three-quarters of the way in. Yeah, it’s gutsy, or in another word, stupid. But tell me you’re not convinced this team will be demonstrably better than its prior couple of iterations and I’ll call you an unjustified cynic. I guess we’ll be even, then, huh?