Brutal schedule could work to Arkansas' benefit ... eventually
Luck has evaded the Arkansas football team in recent years.
So when the SEC released its conference-only schedule Monday, it came as little shock that the Razorbacks received seemingly one of the least favorable draws. Arkansas was already slated to play 4 SEC teams ranked in the preseason coaches poll (as well as Tennessee, which tied with Boise State for 26th). Now it’s 6 – including 3 teams in the top 10 – with the additions of No. 4 Georgia and No. 8 Florida.
No wonder AD Hunter Yuracheck called it the “most challenging schedule in the history of college football.” And that was before anybody knew the Hogs would open against Georgia and close with Florida, LSU and Alabama in a 4-week stretch.
Although that claim is probably a bit hyperbolic, Arkansas has a case.
Looking at just the past few seasons, Maryland in 2017 could make an equally compelling argument. The Terrapins opened the season with No. 23 Texas (though the ‘Horns would finish the season unranked and just 7-6) and also had UCF, which finished the season undefeated, in nonconference. In Big Ten play, they faced No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 10 Ohio State and No. 12 Penn State (led by Saquon Barkley). In all, Maryland faced the same number of ranked opponents (6) that the Razorbacks have on their schedule right now.
Texas A&M played 5 top-10 teams last year — including 3 No. 1s. So, yes. Yuracheck might need to amend his opinion a bit.
The big difference, of course, is the lack of nonconference games. It might not be fair to compare this year to other seasons for that reason. Sure, it was maybe a bit of a relief to lose No. 10 Notre Dame from the schedule. But games against Charleston Southern and Louisiana-Monroe would have been nice opportunities for tune-ups in Sam Pittman’s inaugural season. Instead, Pittman will dive right into Division I head coaching with SEC football on Sept. 26 — against his former team in Georgia that has Playoff aspirations.
Regardless of whether Arkansas actually has the toughest schedule in college football history, it’s brutal for a team that is on a school-record 19-game conference losing streak. Aside from Georgia and Florida, Arkansas also has No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 LSU, No. 11 Auburn and No. 13 Texas A&M. That’s probably 6 guaranteed losses – though anything is possible (Feleipe Franks revenge game against the Gators?)
Yuracheck added that the increased strength in opponents was an “excellent opportunity” for the Razorbacks. It’s hard to disagree and certainly the right way to look at it. Right now, the goal is to get football played. If that means taking on a couple of tough games, so be it. There is probably more to gain developmentally for Arkansas’ younger players going against stiffer competition. And they should still have solid opportunity to win in games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri.
Expectations were already fairly low for 2020. Sure, the Razorbacks have sneaky upside with the addition of Franks at quarterback. Rakeem Boyd is still a monster. The offense will put up points. But it’s not like these extra games are going to make their path to the SEC championship more difficult. To predict Arkansas finishing bowl eligible would have been an optimistic outlook. So it doesn’t feel like the Razorbacks are losing out on much with the conference-only schedule. A couple of potential wins, sure. But in a transition year like this, the scores will probably matter a bit less than the game-to-game progress. What’s really the difference between 5-7 and 3-7? Or 4-8 and 2-8? They’re all forgettable seasons.
It seems like a no-brainer. Give Arkansas the experience now and hope it is better for it later. Yuracheck was right about that, at least. The schedule isn’t going to change. The only way to respond is to try to turn it into an opportunity for growth.