Chad Morris knows that whatever grace period he might’ve garnered as a first-year coach of a rebuilding program housed in a vicious division is now gone. A 2-10, 0-8 season in which the team was disjointed, outmanned, and ultimately just plain bad hastened the trial by fire.
If Morris’ ballyhooed offensive mind and recruiting acumen start paying dividends in 2019, it will be predicated, rather ironically, on the EARLY games on the slate. The Hogs face a league foe in the second game of the year, the earliest such SEC now since the 2014 team opened at Auburn in a bizarre and still-irrational scheduling decision. And the nonconference slate is not all that daunting, so the first quartet of games really affords this team a chance to prove just how much progress it has made in short order.
As we’ve done each year for the past several, Pearls is breaking down the 2019 schedule across three installments. Full disclosure: My record in this little endeavor is indisputably terrible, but hey, it’s fodder for you to reject at your leisure.
Portland State (Saturday, Aug. 31): This is not supposed to be a challenge, but then again, that presumption cost the anemic 2018 Hogs any opportunity to be even average. Colorado State, an indisputably awful lower-shelf FBS team, and North Texas, a pretty fair Sun Belt squad, combined to drive a stake into our hearts early in the season and made the remainder of the year considerably less interesting.
The Vikings of the FCS have possibly had the most mercurial few years imaginable. In 2015, current coach Bruce Barnum took a generally middling program to the second round of the FCS playoffs and won some honors in his first year on the job. Fast-forward two seasons, and Barnum — his surname suits him in a way, huh? — is suddenly embroiled in controversy for an inappropriate relationship, and his third team suffers a winless season. The Vikes bounced back to win four games last fall, and Barnum probably saved his own backside in the process.
Arkansas isn’t going to have much difficulty in this matchup, even if skeptics out there feel otherwise. Ben Hicks will start, but it will be his only start of the season once Nick Starkel takes over in the second quarter of this blowout and quickly dissects the Viking defense. ARKANSAS 47, PORTLAND STATE 17
At Ole Miss (Saturday, Sept. 7): Arkansas last played an SEC foe this early in the season in 2014, when a scheduling oddity (or screwjob, if you want to be technical) had the rebuilding Hogs, in the throes of a program-worst nine-game losing streak, got to take a road pummeling at Auburn to start the year. Ole Miss isn’t as good as that Auburn team, and there’s a chance that this Razorback team could be quite a bit better, talent-wise, than that team Bret Bielema cobbled together in his second year.
The Rebels are still a bit shaky after the Hugh Freeze debacle, in which Houston Nutt naturally played a key role as the wily henchman, but Matt Luke’s third team still may be salty. Jordan Ta’amu is gone, as are several prominent receivers. Just as Morris is trying to reconstruct from the ground up, the Rebs are in a similar place.
The decisive factor here: Ole Miss will have a pretty rowdy night-game crowd, and the Rebels will jump out to a fast start and lead 21-3 at halftime. In the second half, some nifty playmaking from T.J. Hammonds and Treylon Burks will have the Hogs draw within 21-17, but the fourth quarter turns into a bit of a shootout and Arkansas can’t quite scale the hump. OLE MISS 42, ARKANSAS 34
Colorado State (Saturday, Sept. 14) — This kind of matchup should frankly never have “big game” status at all, but for the Hogs and their slightly wounded pride after a hard-fought loss, beating the terrible team that ambushed you and sent your season astray a year prior. Mike Bobo’s first three teams were consistent to the nth degree —each went 7-6 overall, 5-3 in the Mountain West, and lost a bowl game —but the Rams bottomed out last year with a terrible 3-9, 2-6 showing. C-State came back to defeat Arkansas in that hideous game (I mean, the broadcast was in standard definition for crying out loud) and barely won anything else all year, losing to FCS Illinois State in the process.
Bobo’s on the hot seat. Arkansas is trying to claw back to respectability. This one will be an aesthetic nightmare full of turnovers, but in the end, the Hogs get this very humble and somewhat pathetic slice of revenge. Rakeem Boyd’s three touchdown runs and a couple of nifty TD tosses from Starkel carry the day. ARKANSAS 42, COLORADO STATE 24
San Jose State (Saturday, Sept. 21): You’re noticing something, right? Specifically, this may be the weakest opening four-game stretch the program has had in a long while, and San Jose State is the bookend of this quartet of mostly uninteresting games.
The Spartans are, you’ll be shocked to hear, kinda terrible. Brent Brennan boasts a 3-22 record after two seasons at the helm, and maybe that’s because he had no head coaching or coordinating experience on his CV. The bigger problem is that the Spartans have historically delivered an unsatisfying product to their notoriously indifferent fan base: Though they’ve oddly performed well in lower-tier bowls over the years (7-3), the program sits 16 games under .500 overall.
Brennan may have a better team this fall than he’s had the last two years, but they won’t be able to do much against a Hog defense that plays a highly charged game. McTelvin Agim’s transition back to defensive tackle pays off in a big way as the senior records a pair of sacks and a highlight-reel scoop and score on a fumble. Starkel’s touchdown pass and touchdown run stake Arkansas to a 35-3 lead by halftime and Hicks cleans up efficiently in the second half with a nice pair of scoring throws. Arkansas surges to 3-1 and braces for a far tougher foursome of contests ahead. ARKANSAS 52, SAN JOSE STATE 20