See part one here.
When we last left our beloved Razorbacks of 2018, they had meandered through a slightly atypical nonconference slate of three games unscathed, per Pearls' annual prediction. With anticipated victories over largely unfamiliar foes (Eastern Illinois, Colorado State and North Texas) in the rear view, the Hogs end the season's opening month and start October with a much more challenging barrage of foes, bookended by the two powers from the Yellowhammer State.
One thing that bodes well for the Hogs as they enter conference play in 2018 is the fact that, historically, lowered expectations lead to decent results. Arkansas wasn't supposed to be a contender when Houston Nutt took the helm in 1998 but Morris clearly will borrow from that team's example 20 years after it went 9-3 and pushed eventual national champ Tennessee to the brink in Knoxville. Bobby Petrino's first team was woefully short on experience and depth, but managed to win five games despite numerous early season blowouts, and came up just shy of bowl eligibility thanks to three narrow losses in SEC play.
At Auburn, Sept. 22: The Tigers are a chic pick this year to upset Alabama's proverbial apple cart, and with fairly good reason, as quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns after settling into a groove as the field general last fall. Auburn is going to be a slightly unknown commodity on the defensive side, and that's something that Hog offensive coordinator Joe Craddock can exploit. This could end up being a shootout but ultimately the Tigers hang a loss on the Hogs with a big final quarter, though the outcome is somewhat encouraging to Razorback fans who have watched the Tigers steamroll the Hogs by a combined 108-23 margin the past two seasons. Stidham's second-half accuracy and a couple of ill-timed Razorback turnovers fell the visitors, but it's a loss that pays immediate dividends the following week, too. Auburn 44, Arkansas 31.
Texas A&M, Sept. 29: Feeling a bit of swagger after showing some fight against a consensus Top 10 Auburn team, the Hogs are primed to put an end to six seasons of agony against the Aggies, the last four of which have featured three bitter overtime losses in Arlington. The Hogs embrace the opportunity from the outset with a 21-0 first-quarter blitz anchored by a long scoring run from Devwah Whaley and a De'Vion Warren end-around. Knowing that Alabama looms the following week and that an 0-3 start in the SEC would be damaging, Chad Morris doesn't let up even as the Aggies try to nudge their way back into the game in the third quarter. The first clash between Morris and A&M's overpaid Tallahassee refugee Jimbo Fisher goes decisively, and perhaps surprisingly, for the former. Cole Kelley plays an efficient game at quarterback and gets 100-yard rushing efforts from both Whaley and Chase Hayden in a long-awaited victory in Jerry Jones' self-aggrandizing temple. Arkansas 38, Texas A&M 23.
Alabama, Oct. 6: Alabama's secondary is being retooled this fall, which means that somehow three of these unknown, untested defensive backs will end up being by-God All-Americans by the time it's all said and done for 2018. With that said, the Hogs unleash an early attack on the back end of the Tide's vaunted defense, and Kelley, given nice protection from the Tide's almost relentless rush, throws two pretty first-half touchdown passes, one each to Jared Cornelius and Jonathan Nance. Arkansas has had a couple of near-misses against the Tide in Fayetteville (2010, 2014) and this one will, unfortunately, go down as another one as the power running of Damien Harris after halftime is simply too much for a worn-down Arkansas defense to resist. As with the Auburn game, Arkansas plays with guts and composure despite being outmanned, but the talent disparity wins out in the end and the Hogs drop to 4-2, 1-2 after the first half of the schedule is behind them. Alabama 31, Arkansas 20.
Next week's Pearls will dig into the third quarter of the Razorback schedule, and it's a segment of the campaign that seems to offer a chance to really fight back after having this tough second stretch behind the team. We're projecting a quality first year for Morris and the overhauled Razorback defense, so stay tuned and, even if it counters all possible logic, maintain hope.