The final one-third of this year's Razorback schedule isn't quite the thorny gauntlet that Part II represented. In fact, after what we suspect will be a customary dispatching at Alabama on Oct. 19, the Hogs take a needed respite for the bye week before trying to scratch for bowl eligibility in November.
Fortunately, I don't think it'll take long for this team, inexperienced as it may well be, to hit that six-win mark. When we last left our cardinal-and-white (no anthracite, please) troops, they were in the throes of a three-game losing streak after a projected 5-0 start. Nov. 2 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium brings salve in the form of Auburn.
There continues to be a lot of fuss about Gus Malzahn, particularly in this state, but what the offensive wunderkind inherited for his first tour of duty on the Plains is an abject mess. Even the squad Malzahn was de facto coach of in 2009, in Gene Chizik's first year as the placeholder-in-tracksuits, was in substantially better shape than the remnants of Chizik's 3-9, 0-8 shipwreck from last fall.
Arkansas had basically one well-rounded effort away from home last season, and that was a commanding beating of a historically inept Tiger team. The Hogs have always been relatively comfortable playing at Jordan-Hare, but they've also regained their footing against the Tigers in Fayetteville after Houston Nutt lost his last three home tilts against them. In 2013, the winning streak against Auburn at home reaches three as well, due largely to another banner showing by the Hogs' defensive line. It doesn't reach the level of an out-and-out thrashing, but it gets awfully close to that after halftime. Hogs 34, Tigers 14.
A 6-3 Razorback team then travels to Oxford for a date with Ole Miss, which, if you really paid attention to what happened last fall, wasn't quite impressive enough to warrant the fawning treatment it's receiving this preseason. Yes, firing Nutt was smart. Yes, hiring Hugh Freeze as the successor made sense. But what exactly did the Rebels accomplish last year? They were massively whipped at home by Texas, threw away a potential win over Texas A&M before the Aggies and Johnny Manziel hit high gear and feasted on bad competition (three league wins came against Arkansas and Auburn, teams that combined to go 7-17 a year ago, and Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl).
The Rebs, to their credit, did come a long way from the abyss to which they were driven in 2010-11. But Freeze's team was far from perfect, and quarterback Bo Wallace was turnover-prone in his first year as starter. Wallace is being pitched as a possible breakout guy this fall, but the Hogs will fare better against him this time and sniff out the screen passes. Unfortunately, the Rebels' overhauled defense will also present problems for Arkansas, and this one ends up narrowly on the wrong side of the ledger. Rebels 24, Hogs 20.
Arkansas's last showing in the home state in 2013 is a bow in the capital city against Mississippi State, which is fiendishly close to emerging from the middle of the proverbial pack but still cannot hit those elusive heights under Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs are now regularly securing bowl bids, but last year's squad started 7-0 and then got roundhoused in a three-game stretch thereafter by Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in succession. Had it not been for (wait for it) Arkansas limping into Davis Wade Stadium for a 31-point recovery pill last November, the Bulldogs might've well ended up jeopardizing Mullen's long-term standing.
Mullen isn't going to end up on the hot seat, and Tyler Russell clearly gives the Bulldogs their best pure passing threat since Arkansas joined the SEC, but this is an opportunity for the Razorbacks to finish out the home slate in fine fashion and Jim Chaney's offense embraces the call. Brandon Allen's first 300-yard passing day highlights an overall balanced onslaught, and Arkansas cements a winning record in Bielema's debut campaign. Hogs 41, Bulldogs 23.
The 2013 regular season wraps in Baton Rouge on Nov. 29. Put Pearls down as the ultimate LSU cynic at this juncture. For all the bravado that made Les Miles' first few seasons adventurous, the shtick is wearing thin, and the off-field fiascos are becoming too numerous to discount. By the time Arkansas heads south, there's growing discontent about an underperforming batch of highly-rated recruits, and it's possible that if the Tigers drop this one to the Hogs, Miles finds himself squirming in the press room about job security questions.
LSU will, after a less than impressive season, finish on a high, however. In what becomes arguably the craziest Golden Boot game in a series already laden with tense moments, the Hogs and Tigers duke it out for 60 minutes plus, and this one closes in the second OT with Miles getting some vindication. A trick play on fourth down scores the winner after the Hogs punch through a go-ahead field goal. It's a bitter closing moment, but also one that signals optimism going forward. Tigers 39, Hogs 36.