Hello there, Arkansas: You're officially ready to compete in the SEC West
There was a moment when it all could’ve reverted back to the pre-Sam Pittman days.
Up a touchdown, Arkansas was in familiar territory. That is, leading in the 4th quarter against Texas A&M. For the 5th time in the last 8 games, the Hogs had just that. The Aggies had the ball, ready to be the Lucy to Arkansas’ Charlie Brown one more time. A&M had all the momentum after Isaiah Spiller’s 67-yard touchdown run while Arkansas’ passing game came to a screeching halt after KJ Jefferson went down with a knee injury.
Goodbye, unbeaten start. Adios, national darling of college football. Hello, all-too-familiar reminder that Arkansas can’t have nice things.
And then, something strange happened.
Zach Calzada threw a ball of his lineman’s helmet, and Arkansas defensive back Montaric Brown dove and intercepted the pass. Even stranger? The play was reviewed, and it still went the way of the Hogs.
Hello, flipped field. Hello, back-breaking field goal to go up 2 scores. Hello, victory.
For the first time in a decade, Arkansas beat A&M.
Scratch that. That didn’t tell the story of Arkansas’ monumental win.
Hello, SEC West contention.
Don’t freak out, Alabama fans. Nobody is saying Pittman’s squad is suddenly about to overtake the Tide as the West front-runner. Beat Georgia next week and then we can have that conversation.
For now, though? Yes, Arkansas is ready to make its presence felt in the West. You don’t punch Texas A&M in the mouth like that and fade off into mediocrity.
A&M came into Saturday with the No. 1 scoring defense in FBS. All Arkansas did was rack up 443 yards of offense.
A&M came into Saturday with the No. 1 passing defense in FBS with 77 yards per game. All Treylon Burks did was rack up 160 yards … in the first half. Shoot, Burks bested A&M’s average on 1 play.
TREYLON BURKS IS GONE💨💨💨#CFB
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 25, 2021
Burks and Jefferson both went to the locker room with injuries in the second half. Game over? Nah, not when you fly around the football like Barry Odom’s defense.
Remember how I said Spiller had that 67-yard touchdown? Outside of that play, A&M gained 205 yards all day. Calzada was all out of sorts against a 3-man rush with drop-8 coverage. Tre Williams had a lot to do with that. The guy looked virtually un-blockable, albeit against an A&M offensive line that’s not on the level it was at in 2020.
With how dominant Odom’s defense was against the Aggies and with what he did to Steve Sarkisian’s Texas offense, they might not allow him back in the Lone Star state.
Why Jimbo Fisher insisted on dialing up pass plays against Odom’s defense was, well, let’s just say it was “perplexing.” As much credit as Odom, Pittman and Kendal Briles deserve, Fisher has to take some blame for A&M’s showing. Fisher, AKA the $90 million man, didn’t create enough high-percentage looks for Calzada, who had accuracy issues of his own. A&M looked like the basketball team who had all week to prepare to face a zone defense, and then decided that chucking 3-pointers without any ball movement was the best way to beat it.
But Saturday wasn’t about the failures of A&M; it was about the success of Arkansas. It was about the success of Pittman.
You know, Pittman, AKA the guy who was tasked with getting Arkansas’ first SEC win in over 1,000 days last year. Pittman is the guy who pleaded with Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek to get his first head coaching job after decades of coaching offensive lines, and he didn’t care that he wasn’t the first choice. Blue collar mentality? That’s underselling what Pittman did to turn Arkansas around that quickly.
If you could’ve gone back to Dec. 2019 and put odds that Arkansas would be a top-10 team in Year 2 of the Pittman era, they would’ve essentially been a lottery ticket. We’re only 14 games into the Pittman tenure, but boy, it sure feels like Arkansas found itself the winning ticket.
And sure, that’s what many were saying after the Texas win 2 weeks ago. But at the same time, the Longhorns lost a nonconference game in 8 of the last 9 years. Had Arkansas shown up to Dallas and let Lucy pull the football again, what would the conversation have been? Probably something to the effect of “welcome back to the SEC West, Arkansas. It’s still a gauntlet.”
It is still a gauntlet. Road trips to No. 2 Georgia and No. 13 Ole Miss are on deck, which would mean Arkansas could have to face 4 top-15 teams in its first 6 games.
Arkansas needs Jefferson’s knee injury to be minor, or else that uphill climb with Malik Hornsby will be major. All due respect to the young Arkansas’ signal-caller, but the offensive production came to a standstill without the ability to stretch the field like Jefferson did. Trelon Smith and Rocket Sanders can only do so much, though Grant Morgan and the Razorback defense clearly doesn’t mind a little heavy lifting.
The Hogs deserve all the love they’re about to get. You’re not supposed to flip the switch like Pittman did. But when you have the right mindset, you make the right hires and you get the right super seniors to stick it out, hey, I suppose a rebuild like Arkansas’ is possible.
In case there was any doubt heading into Saturday, a new era is here in Fayetteville. Who knows where it’ll lead. All we know? It’s far less embarrassing than the previous one.
Welcome to the party, Charlie Brown.