BACK ON THE SIDELINE: Pittman's absence was noticeable against Florida. His return is good news for the Hogs' chances against LSU. Arkansas Athletics

You didn’t think the Hogs’ 2020 football season was going to unfurl without at least a couple of whippings, did you?

So don’t let that 63-35 undressing by Florida and its pinpoint, Heisman-worthy quarterback Kyle Trask really rankle you. The Gators and Trask are, in fact, very good. In fact, begrudgingly I’ll admit that Dan Mullen has really gotten the job done in Gainesville thus far, even if he’s become every bit as insufferable as some of his predecessors in that job. He’s developed this agitator streak that, I guess, plays well in a place like Florida when you’re winning, but probably never would have sat quite as well in Starkville.

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Arkansas was lacking its field general, what with Sam Pittman stuck in quarantine, and that mattered quite a lot even if the talent disparity dictated the results on Saturday night far more than any coaching vagaries. Barry Odom came down from the box to serve as interim head coach, which was the natural and proper course of action to take. The only problem is that it deprived Odom of his usual elevated view of proceedings from the box, and that shift in perspective was seemingly consequential.

Early in the game, Arkansas’s defense looked up to the challenge. Bad luck foiled the Hogs on a couple of plays in the early going but the offense kept pace. The game turned pretty sharply in the second quarter, though, when the Hogs failed to capitalize on a big defensive stop while trailing by only a single score. A quick three-and-out for the offense ensued, and from that point, Trask was machinelike in breaking down what had been a really steady, disciplined secondary. Arkansas couldn’t get a consistent rush and Trask just kept firing mostly midrange darts to all parts of the field, and the Gators’ lead swelled to 35-14 at halftime after it appeared the Hogs might get to the locker room down only one TD, or two at most.

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Trask, of course, snatched the quarterbacking job away from Feleipe Franks last fall when the latter’s injury pressed the former into duty. Fast forward a year, and Franks was back in Ben Hill Griffith Stadium — welcomed by boos, y’all? Classy! — to try to engineer the Hogs’ upset. He was as precise and confident as he’s been all year, played efficiently if not spectacularly (15-20 passing with no picks, two scores, and a couple of deft runs), but certainly looked dejected as the final minutes ticked away. He wanted a far more competitive game, and when he drew the Razorbacks within 35-21 with a nicely-engineered drive to begin the third period, that glimmer of hope remained.

But while Arkansas needed two TDs of 80-plus yards to reach a season-high point total by game’s end, Florida had efficient, methodical, and occasionally explosive drives all night. Trask was without his banner tight end Kyle Pitts but that didn’t stop him from flinging six more scoring passes to five different targets. He’s having a Heisman-worthy season: He threw four scores and was outstanding generally even in the Gators’ lone loss to Texas A&M — and the Arkansas defensive backs got turned around or deked away from the ball all night. It was a particularly trying experience for guys like Hudson Clark, Greg Brooks and Joe Foucha, all of whom have adapted quite nicely to Odom’s scheme and made big, timely interceptions thus far. Against Florida’s array of physical, quick wideouts, they just couldn’t make the impact play despite some moments where they covered extremely well.

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It wasn’t a fun night for the Hogs in the end, even if Trelon Smith, Mike Woods and Treylon Burks tried to make it so. Smith’s 83-yard run trimmed the Gators’ lead to 21-14 in the second quarter and for this elder sort, it recalled Barry Foster’s 80-yard romp up the gut against Miami in the Hogs’ agonizing loss to the top-ranked Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl in 1988. That upset bid stayed afloat till the end; this one basically died not long after Smith tore off to paydirt. Woods had an 82-yard catch and run for six late, and K.J. Jefferson spelled Franks and scored his first career touchdown on a nice little designed run in the final minute.

The last trio of games on the 10-contest slate presents the Hogs a real shot at 5-5, since Bama is the closer. LSU is up next and the Hogs’ progress, as well as the Tigers’ jarring regression, means that in the Year of Our Lord 2020, Arkansas is favored to beat Louisiana State in football. If you had somehow encountered no other bizarre circumstance this entire calendar year, then I suspect that little factoid would shake you to your core.

But it’s true. And yeah, some of it is due to the LSU program plummeting from unthinkable heights, but that latest betting line is credit to Pittman, who seems to have thankfully recovered from his viral bout and will return to the sidelines. That, of course, presumes that the damned scourge doesn’t wreak too much havoc on the respective rosters: both Pittman and LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who is having a season from hell, have a lot of losses due to illness and injury to deal with on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas was dealt a terrible blow late in the Florida contest when senior receiver and kick returner De’Vion Warren tore an ACL, depriving the Hogs of a solid downfield threat for the duration of this bizarrely upbeat campaign.

LSU is struggling still to find quarterbacking consistency with Myles Brennan hurt. And that bodes well for Odom’s defense to have a big, boffo return to form. There’s still significant speed on any Tiger roster, this one included, and you can expect that they’ll want to retain the Golden Boot since that’s one of the few achievements this flagging LSU squad can latch onto for next year. Expect both squads, or what remains of them by 11 a.m. Saturday, to fight like hell for not only those coveted bragging rights associated with that gilded monstrosity, but also for program pride.

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