Last week, we suggested in this space that Arkansas would be buoyed by raw exuberance of a new regime and the fortuitous structure of the schedule to bolt out to a 4-0 start in 2013. The second third of the campaign promises to be substantially more daunting, but there are caveats.
Consider that Arkansas opens SEC play with its first true home game against Texas A&M in over two decades, and that this A&M team has been the lightning rod of the offseason. Consider that the following week puts the Razorbacks on the road to the Swamp, where the Hogs have never won a game but also had a shimmering upset snatched away from them four years ago.
Consider that the Hogs return home on Oct. 12 to play South Carolina, which boasts the country's most dynamic defensive player but also has historically scuffled on this state's turf. And lastly, consider that Game No. 8 is against Alabama, which...you know, let's not think about that one just yet.
The Razorbacks do open SEC play Sep. 28 in Fayetteville against the Aggies. If they manage to be 4-0 against the non-conference slate, then this game projects as far more intriguing than we would have thought about eight months ago. A&M was last year's darling, an upstart team brazenly jumping into the pool with the rest of the thoroughbreds and riding a freewheeling young quarterback with a catchy, if grossly unimaginative, nickname. The Ags popped Bama on the road, destroyed a typically oversold Oklahoma team in the Cotton Bowl, and had the first freshman Heisman winner in history. How could 2013 possibly turn sour?
Well, Johnny Manziel can't stay off Twitter, can't keep his family quiet and quite possibly can't sign any swag without suitable remuneration (this matter hangs over College Station like the proverbial thundercloud as I write this). What hasn't been stated is how the Aggies will replace a veteran offensive line anchored by No. 2 draft pick Luke Joeckel, or where Manziel will turn for a surefire possession receiver now that Ryan Swope is gone.
This one may or may not qualify as the season's first true shocker, but Arkansas's veteran players are still stinging from a listless rout at Kyle Field last year, and are committed to opening SEC play in big fashion. The Hogs ride Brandon Allen's best-ever game (200+ passing yards and a career-high four touchdown throws) to a 5-0 start. Hogs 33, Aggies 27.
Bloom comes off the rose the next week, though.
Florida isn't the machine it was under Spurrier or Meyer, and in fact, there's got to be a few Gator fans who worry that Will Muschamp is more Ron Zook than either of the aforementioned titans who made Gainesville the center of the football universe at various times in the last 20 years. That said, the Gators are flush with adept talent on both sides of the ball, and returning quarterback Jeff Driskel's development accelerated measurably over the course of the last year.
Arkansas won't handle the stress of Ben Hill Griffith Stadium well. The Gator defense plays at a tenacious pitch from down to down and some of the Hogs' younger players show chinks in the armor. Despite a decent running day from Alex Collins, the Hogs turn it over four times and surrender five sacks in a deflating loss. Gators 27, Hogs 13.
Limping back to Fayetteville, the Hogs get thrown around a little by the Gamecocks, whose slow burn from mid-level also-ran to upper-shelf program is nearing completion under Spurrier. Jadeveon Clowney's showing in this one will be a little understated, but he is flanked by capable help on the line and in the defensive backfield. Arkansas will have a steady game on the ground, but Allen will struggle against the rush.
What decides this game is special teams. The Hogs get gashed for a kick return score and a long punt return that sets up Carolina's Connor Shaw for one of three short TD runs. Gamecocks 40, Hogs 27.
And lo, with a two-game skid and sagging fortunes, the Hogs get to ship on down to Tuscaloosa before the bye week. I won't bore you with details here, but it's going to be supremely ugly. Alabama is the reigning alpha and omega of this little sport, and even if AJ McCarron throws an errant one or two or T.J. Yeldon muffs an exchange, this is the best Alabama offense that Nick Saban has had in seven seasons down South. There's simply too much balance and brute strength for a fledgling competitor like Arkansas to overcome.
And, naturally, the quality of the Tide defense speaks for itself. Arkansas won't quit like it did in 2012, but it won't fare much better than it did in 2011, when the Hogs were ranked in the Top 10 and came to Bryant-Denny Stadium with visions of shedding the Saban yoke. This will be the Hogs' worst loss of 2013, which isn't terribly unnerving given the competition, but it does mean that going into the final third of the year, the Hogs will be on a three-game skid and hardly on good footing for November. Crimson Tide 42, Hogs 10.