Well, we’ve finally made it to the end of 2020. For some, the year has been catastrophic due to COVID-19 and at least very uncomfortable for the majority of others. The civil unrest and discord our nation has endured this year has also been tough. We can all agree, we aren’t sad to see it go for a myriad of reasons. I don’t think I’ve been more sincere when wishing someone “Happy New Year.” I now sincerely mean it, and hope 2021 is a relief and a breath of normalcy for us all.
Sports have been a distraction since the MLB cranked up last summer along with the NBA’s bubble. Football season has hit some snags, but has moved along. It’s been good.
As we have high hopes for next year here are eight sports predictions to look forward to.
1. Packed stadiums – I saw a couple of Facebook memories of our family at large, packed stadiums, and it nearly made me teary. I so look forward to this again. I believe by the time college football kicks off in September, stadiums in Arkansas will be at close to full capacity. With the vaccine being circulated this month, a large portion of our population could be vaccinated by then. That would mean less restrictions on large gatherings. Mask use may still be required, but the vaccine is a game-changer in so many ways including our entertainment opportunities.
2. Great American Conference will play a full football schedule – The state’s NCAA Division II football programs that are members of the Great American Conference didn’t play football this year. With the vaccine circulating in full force, all fall sports will begin on time in the GAC with fall football camp in August. The teams will play a full schedule and the Division II football playoffs will resume as normal.
3. Hogs basketball ends Sweet 16 drought – I know Arkansas hasn’t played anybody in the non-conference and has struggled at times, but this is a talented team that will be playing its best basketball come March. Coach Eric Musselman has proven to be a great tactician and scout, with more talent on his roster, albeit inexperienced, the Hogs will play in the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 1996.
4. Butch Jones rolls at Arkansas State – New A-State Coach Butch Jones probably won’t be at Arkansas State long, but Red Wolves fans won’t care because the former Tennessee coach is going to win big early and get back to the Power 5 Division I ranks. There is a core group of talented players on the Red Wolves roster, including star quarterback Layne Hatcher that can contend for a Sun Belt Conference title next year. Jones will fill the holes quickly and make the necessary adjustments on defense to allow A-State to bounce back from a disappointing 4-7 2020.
5. Arkansas Women to the Elite 8 – Coach Mike Neighbors is doing exactly what most pundits thought would happen when the Greenwood native was hired FIVE years ago – Arkansas is winning. The Razorbacks are ranked No. 10 in the nation and looked primed to compete for an SEC Championship. Neighbors has stocked the roster full of talent with more on the way, and that means Arkansas will be very good for a long time. This year they roll all the way to the Elite 8 just short of the Final Four, where they will probably be soon enough.
6. Bryant wins fourth straight state Class 7A State Football Title – Bryant High School Coach Buck James is enjoying historic success in Saline County orchestrating a third-straight state title and is riding a 30-game winning streak. The streak will go down by the time Bryant reaches the conference season, and they may not win the 7A-Central. However, the Hornets, who must replace a glut of starters including two-time All-State quarterback Austin Ledbetter, will be in prime form by November and will make a run with a semifinal playoff road win to secure another championship. Bryant has that much talent and James is that good of a coach. He has a chance to do things at Bryant over the next several years that haven’t been accomplished at the 7A level.
7. Arkansas baseball back in the CWS – Arkansas baseball was predicted to have a monster year in 2020. The Hogs came out of the gates very flat, and then the season was canceled due to the pandemic, so we will never know what would happen, but the expectations are still. Early polls have the Hogs in or near the Top 10 even without Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin who were taken in the MLB Draft in the first and third rounds, respectively. Hogs catcher Casey Opitz is one of the top players in the country, and Coach Dave Van Horn has young talent to reload even with loss of stars such as Martin and Kjerstad.
8. Hogs will go bowling – Arkansas was supposed to go to the Texas Bowl in Houston this week with a 3-7 record but TCU couldn’t play due to COVID-19 issues. That’s OK; Arkansas got some good practices in and now knows that many key seniors will take advantage of a “free” COVID year and return next year. That ensures that the entire offensive line is intact. Senior quarterback Feleipe Franks most likely won’t return, but the Hogs should have enough talent to win six more games next year and earn a bowl bid. The Hogs fought hard this year with a tough schedule, and fans should be encouraged by first-year coach Sam Pittman. Going to a bowl next year could be the start of big things to come.