The second phase of the Arkansas football schedule is predictably nasty. When things went sharply south in 2013, it was largely due to a horrid four-game stretch in October that was earmarked by all the customary trappings of a team in the throes of collapse.
The Hogs were hopelessly outclassed and did themselves no favors by being sloppy and, at least on a couple of occasions, appearing to have no interest in finishing out games with any measure of pride. That was abundantly evident when Alabama and South Carolina tuned them up and set them down a pretty rough path to the finish.
The good news is that the guts of this 2014 slate won't bear witness to a quitter, though it won't seem to be ripe territory for much in the way of inspired football, either. If Pearls' forecast in the last edition — a 3-1 start for the squad against the most unconventional early-season battery of opponents in a long while — had you thoroughly convinced I was teletyping from the moon, have no such trepidation. We'll fall back toward Earth a bit during the middle part of this trilogy. The schedule just lends itself to that kind of malaise.
Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium, Sept. 27: It's not hard to forget that the Hogs had a clean three-year sweep of a then-Big 12 foe from 2009 to 2011 in Arlington, Texas, and it's just as easily remembered that once the lopsided Bobby Petrino-Mike Sherman battle of wits had left the sidelines, the Aggies punished Arkansas so badly at Kyle Field in an SEC matchup in 2012 that the margin of victory was greater than the Razorbacks' three wins in JerryWorld combined. That was in essence the coming-out party for Johnny Manziel, and he was steady if a more ancillary figure last year when the Aggies extracted a much tougher win over the Hogs.
Accordingly the 2014 matchup returns to Arlington, for a neutral -site matchup and represents the start of another epoch in the teams' rivalry. There's no Johnny Football and no Mike Evans out there this time, but the Aggies still have a wealth of tragically unheralded tailbacks that will again play a substantive role in Kevin Sumlin's attack. These Hogs won't feel quite as comfy in the space-age confines as Petrino's squads did, but it will be an entertaining shootout of sorts. The end result is a scoreline that looks similar to the one of a year ago, where Jim Chaney's offense gamely tries to play catch-up but is ultimately punchless over the last critical period. Aggies 41, Hogs 30.
Alabama, Oct. 11: Yes, it's 104-0, a squeaker tilted toward the poor, luckless Tide, in the post-Petrino years. Matching 52-0 blastings notwithstanding, hear me out: This will be a game of which Hog fans can and will be proud. Don't mistake this for ordaining a miracle, but note that things look murkier for Bama right now than they're used to. Despite being absurdly talented as is the custom, this is an offseason of uncertainty by the program's untenable standard: They're facing a massive question mark at quarterback trying to replace A.J. McCarron, and the defense got awfully porous late last year in a two-game skid to end what long seemed destined to be a three-peat season.
The absence of McCarron's self-assured moxie means that top-shelf targets like Amari Cooper have to work a little harder to get loose, and early on in 2014 it's still going to be a chore. The backfield is obviously not a problem with T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry having all the appearance of a three-headed monster, but Arkansas fans make Reynolds Razorback Stadium imposing for a change. For the first time since the Tide escaped Fayetteville with a narrow comeback win four years ago, the Hogs' home-field advantage is palpable.
The defense plays out of its mind for a good three quarters and the offense ensures that there won't be another shutout, but it's still not quite enough in the end to keep Arkansas from falling to the Tide for the eighth straight season. Crimson Tide 28, Razorbacks 27.
Georgia, Oct. 18: The SEC game in Little Rock this fall is a critical one for the reasons above. If Arkansas sits 3-3, 0-3 at the midway point, the fear of another precipitous fall lingers even though there's been cause for celebration at the effort put forth. The Bulldogs mark the third straight opponent that is trying to groom a replacement signal-caller, a terribly unenviable spot to be in.
At this stage of the year, Georgia won't be making the same progress in this realm as the Aggies or Tide, and it will hurt the Dawgs. This is a War Memorial crowd that matters, one that senses it could be curtains for the old venue soon enough, at least as far as games of gravity are concerned. There will be urgency on the sidelines and in the seats, and it will motivate the team beautifully.
The Hogs' determination takes the form of Brandon Allen, who plays so well it leads to an uncommon early lead. Not even a big effort by Georgia tailback Todd Gurley can thwart Arkansas on this Saturday. Hogs 34, Bulldogs 21.
Alabama-Birmingam, Oct. 25: Finally, a slight reprieve, no disrespect to the Blazers. This is the rejuvenator game at the end of a grueling stretch, and it is hyper-important for a team that wants to return to a bowl game. Arkansas will be lethargic and error-prone in an alarmingly bad first quarter.
Then Korliss Marshall explodes. The sophomore is off to the races for two long TD runs in the second quarter. He winds up setting a school record for yards per carry in a single game, eclipsing the 200-yard mark on only 10 rushes.
It's probably the messiest rout in recent memory, but it feels just fine to get to five wins with November looming. The Razorbacks enter the season's final month feeling strong, not ailing much and knowing they have a decent postseason shot in their collective grasp. Hogs 52, Blazers 23.
We'll answer the question as to just how good or bad the end is next week, and preview Auburn the following issue.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.