Two-thirds of the way through what the punditry expects will be another turbulent football season for Arkansas, Pearls has arguably applied a more optimistic sheen to things and projected a 5-3 record heading into November. To recap, we anticipate the Hogs will drop their first three rather brutal conference tilts against Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama, but the slow scrape back toward the middle of the standings begins with a rousing win over Georgia in Little Rock and has the team buoyed for a big finish.
We've previously observed that the easily overlooked dirty secret of the dismal 2013 season is that the team finished rather strong. In much the same manner that Bobby Petrino's 2008 debut was marked, the middle of the campaign was a litany of blowout losses that conveyed the sense that the team was a rudderless ship running aground, but things were encouraging enough at the tail end to warrant a less jaded view. If Bret Bielema is going to change some fans' unpleasant perception of him, he's going to have to coax at least one victory out of the group in the penultimate month of 2014. Pearls believes he will do that and throw in another for good measure.
At Mississippi State, Nov. 1. There is a building consensus among college football watchers that Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the better-kept secrets in the country, a Tebow-style bull on the ground with a far stronger and faster delivery through the air. He didn't get a chance to torment the Hogs last year due to injury, but he was dynamic in the Mississippi State rout of Rice in the Liberty Bowl with five total touchdowns and it made him a chic preseason pick for some hardware. Still, though, the Dan Mullen era continues to be noteworthy for being just shy of sustained excellence, and Prescott wasn't quite as sharp against big-time competition.
Arkansas will contain him to some extent in this tilt in Cowbell Country, but the Bulldog defense is geared to thwart the Hogs' ground attack. Due to a season low in team rushing output, the Hogs have to go to the air more, and though Brandon Allen ends up with his first career 300-yard game, it's offset by a couple of bad interceptions leading to scores for the other guys. Bulldogs 31, Hogs 20.
LSU, Nov. 15. The boot matchup no longer serves as the post-Thanksgiving leftovers meal, but it's still a crucial game for both teams. It will come after a bye week that, for a change, actually favors Arkansas. The loss in Starkville will expose some loose screws that need tightening and the extra week will allow some minor injuries to heal a bit. But most importantly, the Hogs will seize upon the Tigers' own reeling: LSU will have suffered its fourth loss of the season the week before against Alabama, and the mood around Baton Rouge will be decidedly unpleasant.
This will arguably be the least disciplined team in the Les Miles regime and it will show on a sunny Saturday in Fayetteville as the Hogs take advantage of early miscues and have the benefit of another stellar crowd at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Brooks Ellis' fumble return for a touchdown highlights a big 21-point first quarter and the Tigers are caught flat-footed and unable to mount a serious rally due to Anthony Jennings' pronounced struggles throwing downfield. In what becomes the second signature win of the Bielema era, Arkansas stuns the suddenly hapless Tigers and notches that important sixth victory. Hogs 34, Tigers 19.
Ole Miss, Nov. 22. The fun continues into the next week against the Rebels, who didn't quite emerge in 2013 as many anticipated after Hugh Freeze's first season at the helm. Bo Wallace won't play in this one due to injury, having been battered all year long to this point, and the Razorback defense's confidence is already booming after a good showing in the LSU homecoming. This time, senior linebacker Martrell Spaight does the honors in an all-everything showing: two sacks, a forced fumble and his first career interception off a deflection highlight a strong showing against Ole Miss' suddenly flustered offense.
Meanwhile, the Rebels' defense can't contain Jonathan Williams, who has a touchdown reception and run in the first half and then becomes a grinder late, wearing off precious clock in the fourth quarter. Williams' career-best 183 yards rushing leads the Hogs to another stellar all-around performance, and frustrates an Ole Miss offense that thrives on timing. By the time Laquon Treadwell scores his second touchdown and amasses the last of his 145 receiving yards, it's too little and far too late, and the Hogs have secured a stronger bowl position with win No. 7. Hogs 24, Rebels 21.
At Missouri, Nov. 28. The Hogs get a shot at an eighth victory and a .500 SEC record, but it goes off the rails early. Missouri seems far more charged about the new rivalry game bookending the schedule than the Hogs do, and after a blocked punt and other miscues amass early for Arkansas, things get worse when Allen suffers a severe ankle sprain and cedes control of the offense to his untested younger brother. For all of Austin Allen's prodigious efforts after halftime, though, a 21-point deficit at the break is too much to overcome.
Missouri ends up securing an Outback Bowl berth and it leaves the Hogs to take the lesser but nonetheless appreciably cushy trip East for a game in Nashville at year's end. Williams crests the 1,000-yard rushing mark and Hunter Henry, a stalwart all year long, breaks DJ Williams' season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Tigers 33, Hogs 18.
Season's almost here, my friends. We'll give an advance diagnosis of what it will take to topple Auburn in the opener next week and revisit the season predictions down the line to muse over how stupid I've been for such an unabashed public display of optimism.