The second leg of the 2017 Arkansas football season is no picnic, metaphorically or otherwise. We projected a week ago that the Hogs would start solidly in September against a softer slate, with a rout of Florida A&M to open things and two wins over ex-Southwest Conference foes to follow (TCU in Fayetteville and the SEC opener against Texas A&M after the early bye week).
The fourth game of the year represents a cushy opportunity to push the September record to a spotless 4-0, and a chance to beat Aggies in consecutive weeks, which is an oddly pleasurable distinction for longtime Razorback fans. The Las Cruces, N.M., version is abjectly terrible year in and year out. Head coach Doug Martin is 10-38 in four years there and "boasts" a career ledger of 39 wins against 91 losses, which makes him a mystifying choice for continued employment.
Then again, New Mexico State football has never flourished under anyone's direction. This program is annually good for two to four wins, and always a choice patsy for power conference schools to pick on. The Hogs feel emboldened by the chance to finish out the first month unbeaten and in the rankings, and do not waste time dispatching these Aggies. This is where Cole Kelley gets his first extended work at quarterback and he doesn't disappoint with a couple of third-quarter touchdown throws in relief of Austin Allen, who barely breaks a sweat in throwing three first-half scores of his own. Arkansas 55, New Mexico State 17.
October starts the real season in earnest for the Hogs, with the first two true road games back to back. The first one is at Columbia, S.C., and for as flawed as the Gamecocks appear to be, as with most East Division teams, they will be pesky and problematic because Will Muschamp does know how to construct an attacking defense even if his acumen elsewhere is subject to derision.
The Cocks had a bit of an overachieving first year under his direction in 2016 and do return some potent players. Linebacker Skai Moore is coming off a major injury and had an off-field scrape this spring but is a proven playmaker, and Carolina's tight end/receiver combination of Hayden Hurst and Deebo Samuel is well established. The Hogs will struggle to contain quarterback Jake Bentley and their historical struggles at Williams-Brice Stadium will reveal themselves again, as the Cocks use a balanced attack to take down the Razorbacks and pin them with their first overall and conference loss in a game that goes back and forth until the waning minutes. South Carolina 34, Arkansas 24.
Unfortunately, Arkansas could've used the momentum and inherent prestige of a 5-0 start because the following week, the Hogs head to Tuscaloosa. Now, Pearls will spend a bit more time analyzing this game because of the very gravity of it, but also because it represents the midpoint of a season that Bret Bielema cannot afford to see go off the rails the way 2016 did.
The Crimson Tide will be unbeaten and No. 1, as is local custom, when this game is played on Oct. 14. They will also ostensibly be coached by Nick Saban, barring some kind of fall from grace, tragedy or impromptu retirement decision from the reigning lord of the sport. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is being heavily hyped as a Heisman contender for good reason, what with all the weapons and protection he could want at his disposal and another pro-caliber defense getting him and his skill people back on the field quickly by tormenting offensive linemen across the greater South.
Here's the funny thing, though: Arkansas seemingly limped into Bryant-Denny Stadium two years ago and pushed the Tide into a four-quarter game. Ultimately it was a loss but one that gave the Hogs a shot of adrenaline for the remainder of the season, as they won six of seven after bowing to the Tide in a respectable dogfight. Bielema's charges provide a similar effort here in 2017.
Allen stays composed and measured against the Tide secondary that bedeviled him a year ago, and manages to become the first Hog quarterback in seemingly ages to not cough up a turnover against Bama. His direction and some steady running from freshman Chase Hayden have the Hogs smelling a massive upset well into the second half, with Arkansas taking a slim 20-17 lead into the final period.
Ultimately, the Alabama defense buckles down and forces two three-and-outs, and Hurts throws for one score and sprints off right tackle for another, and the Tide get away clean. Alabama 31, Arkansas 20.
The first half of the season down, and the Hogs at 4-2 and 1-2, everything then tilts on a home game against Auburn and an opportunity to atone for a Defcon 5-level embarrassment on the Plains the year before. We will break that one down as well as the ensuing trip to Oxford and homecoming against Costal Carolina next week in the third part of a four-part season projection.