My family goes to the beach at least a couple of times a year. It’s my wife’s doing; I don’t much care for it. I don’t like sand, I burn faster than a cheap bag of microwave popcorn, and lugging a plastic-wheeled wagon loaded down with 6.5 tons of tents, toys and assorted picnic flotsam isn’t at the top of my list for fun ways to spend the hottest days of the year in the hottest locations on the planet.
I also bring a book. I don’t know why. My wife and I have been parents for nearly 10 years, more than half of our marriage, and in the last decade, the words I’ve actually read at the beach might comprise one thin pamphlet.
But every year my hopeful nature wins out, and I pack a paperback, only to leave it lying alongside cans of Pringles and bottles of SPF 50 while I help one kid with the Boogie Board and try to make sure the other doesn’t cartwheel her way directly into a riptide.
It’s a cycle. In the intervening months between beach trips, I conjure an image of myself happily shaded under an umbrella, sipping a cold beverage, knocking down a few chapters, nodding off and occasionally looking up to smile at my family, frolicking in the waves.
It’s an alluring fantasy, and even though I know now that’s all it is, it’s certain by June I’ll have forgotten it all over again.
I know what some of you are thinking right now. These are the good times, appreciate them. I know that’s true, and I’m going to try to remember it.
Which (somehow) brings me to Arkansas’ secondary.
Watching white-knuckled as the Cincinnati quarterback loosed numerous overthrows to open receivers during last week’s game, I had the same feeling I get every year when I’m summoned from my beach chair somewhere near the middle of page two.
This is what it’s really like. I remember now. There’s a reason we’ve been dropping eight guys into pass coverage for the better part of the last two seasons, just as there’s a reason I’ve never finished half the beach reads I’ve attempted in the last 10 years.
I think a lot of fans go through a common cycle. A good season leads to an offseason in which all flaws, warts and worries gradually fall from our memories until by the time Week 1 arrives, we’re convinced of our own invincibility.
Then the games start and we’re mildly disappointed when the product on the field doesn’t match the perfection we imagined.
I don’t fault those of us who felt a little let down by last week’s win. In our/their defense, it’s been a long time since we could come into a season with expectations as lofty as they are right now for the Arkansas football program. Prior to this season, the last time we were ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 was 2015. There are rhythms that must be relearned.
And unlike the 2015 season, when the Hogs’ stay among the ranked didn’t survive past Week 2, the foundation beneath us now feels sturdy, even staring down one of the nation’s toughest schedules.
We don’t need to look back any further than last weekend for evidence.
It’s been mentioned a few times that last weekend’s win over the Bearcats was Arkansas’ first over a ranked opponent in a season opener in nearly 50 years. That’s not nothing, but the more impressive fact to my eyes and ears is that it was Cincinnati’s first regular season loss since 2019.
I think even those of us who know, intellectually, that the Bearcats have been a pretty good football team, still struggle to reconcile that with the fact that the gulf between the American Athletic Conference and the SEC West is roughly the size of the Pacific Ocean. Only a fool (or those who program ESPN’s FPI rankings) would argue otherwise.
Note: Out of respect and concern for the collective IQ of our readership, I’ve chosen not to provide a link to said “rankings,” but trust me, they’re very, very dumb.
Even still, entering last weekend, Cincinnati was 22-2 over the last two seasons with wins over five ranked foes and losses coming only against Georgia and Alabama – two teams whose excellence even FPI can’t miss. Also: The Bearcats sent nine guys to the NFL in the most recent draft, so that record wasn’t totally the product of a forgiving schedule.
More encouraging signs:
- Arkansas was far from flawless offensively, and still managed to rush for 224 yards and pass for 223.
- We did that with one of our best backs, Dominique Johnson, sidelined by injury. In other words, the Hogs are loaded at running back.
- The void left by Treylon Burks won’t be filled by a single player, but the committee of receivers collaborating in the effort to do so acquitted themselves quite well. If you include tight end Trey Knox in the mix they combined for 14 catches, three touchdowns and zero drops.
- KJ Jefferson and Kendall Briles remain excellent in crucial situations. We saw it time and again last season, and we saw it at the end of each half on Saturday – a beautifully orchestrated and executed, 7-play, 70-yard, touchdown drive in just 57 seconds heading into halftime, and a 10-play, game-clincher that soaked up the final 5:49. When your quarterback and chief play-caller excel in those situations, close games are bound to go your way more often than not.
- The transfers are already paying big dividends. At receiver, defensive line, linebacker and cornerback, the Hogs’ highest profile additions via the transfer portal showed themselves to be difference makers. The coaching staff precisely addressed the roster needs and appears to have done an excellent job of filling them with talent upgrades.
And again, I feel like I need to stress this for myself as much as anybody else, all that was done against Cincinnati – they may not be Alabama, but they’re a heck of a lot better than Rice, who the Hogs struggled with for two-and-a-half quarters in last year’s opener.
The road gets no easier. South Carolina is back on the rise under second-year coach Shane Beamer, and legitimately dangerous with high-profile transfer Spencer Rattler at quarterback and the Hogs possibly missing our two best defensive backs.
But Sam Pittman has Arkansas back to a point where winning is the weekly expectation. Without even taking into account where this program was prior to his arrival, that’s a pretty great place to be.
So even if receivers occasionally are running uncovered behind our secondary on Saturday, and even if our offensive line isn’t mauling South Carolina the way I think we will, I know these are good times, and I’m going to try a little harder to appreciate them.
Photo credit: University of Arkansas
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.