KJ JEFFERSON: Steady performance in game 1. Brian Chilson

It’s hard to assign meaning to what Arkansas did Saturday in beating Cincinnati. I’m gonna give a try.

The matchup was an outright curiosity, one of those unnervingly sweaty Labor Day weekend affairs with which we’re well acquainted. But for the first time in a spell, it was a nonconference opener that presented something rare: an opportunity. Coach Sam Pittman himself said he had no real idea why the Bearcats were on the schedule, but did his usual polite, droll routine.

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“Well, I mean when Cincinnati was put on the schedule, I was saying why,” he quipped after the Hogs’ 31-24 win at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. “You know, I’m going be honest with you, and I’m glad it’s over and we’re 1-0. I don’t want to play them [again]; we’ve already played them once that’s plenty.”

Razorback football had a prime-time ESPN slot, a full house, and a ranked foe coming off its apex campaign. Yes, this is purportedly the same Razorback football that three short years ago started out with a limp, ugly seven-point win against an FCS team called Portland State. And at that time, even that felt like an accomplishment given the rather morbid context.

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On Saturday night, Arkansas had its first win over a ranked nonconference team in its opener in 48 years. That last win, over USC in 1974*, was a true upset — Frank Broyles’ career was winding down and the Trojans were No. 5, a powerhouse in their own right.

No such circumstance this century. The Hogs, fresh off a nine-win revelation of a season, carried a ranking of their own into this one. At No. 19, and with the Bearcats at 23, the Hogs weren’t staring down some overpowered barrel perhaps, but they were taking on a hard-nosed, gifted team that broke into the playoff nine months ago and accordingly forged a path into the Big 12.

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Instead of succumbing to the weight of expectation, as it often has, Arkansas’s football team did something novel and downright amazing Saturday. It handled the hype with aplomb, made every decisive play in a game that frankly didn’t have many, and acted like a top-flight program should when it gets a chance to impress a broader audience.

I promise this isn’t meant to be snarky. It’s just a function of history: Arkansas typically starts the football season with a patsy or a pro team, not a lot of gray area. In 2006, USC came to town and dump-trucked the Hogs in front of a record crowd, but the Trojans were bigger titans then than they were in ’74, and the Hogs were tiptoeing into a new offensive system.

The Hogs drew the injustice in 2014 of a season-opening road trip to Auburn; the former didn’t win an SEC game in Bret Bielema’s accursed first year, and the Tigers were coming off Gus Malzahn’s honeymoon year nicely loaded. Predictably, Arkansas faded after a good first half; the same outcome unfolded in Pittman’s very first game in 2020 against Georgia, which simply overpowered the Hogs late.

Oh, there was a Miami game or two that we shouldn’t have started out with, naturally. I’ll leave it at that.

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Anyway, returning stalwart quarterback K.J. Jefferson looked prepared, confident and loose. Rocket Sanders ran hard, if not always instinctively. Trey Knox showed his evolution from lanky wideout to strapping tight end is complete, and caught two scores. Bumper Pool provided expected leadership on the defensive side, though the Bearcats were aggressive and productive after halftime.

Again, though, Arkansas never seemed unsteady. A team that is just getting the idea of how to consistently win treated their opponent with suitable respect, but also exercised control of the game just the way it should have. Sanders’ second career 100-yard rushing game led a balanced, if a shade disjointed, offensive attack; several receivers contributed in the first audition to take over Treylon Burks’ No. 1 target role.

How does Arkansas, then, keep from nosediving when it’s obvious that South Carolina is a sneaky trap of a conference opener? The Gamecocks have made nice strides of their own under Shane Beamer, added Spencer Rattler from Oklahoma for a quick fix at quarterback, and blew past Georgia State in the second half Saturday after your typical first-game troubles subsided.

Pittman has yet to overlook or miscalculate an opponent, granted, but the nasty slate of opponents down the line means Carolina doesn’t stick out for an SEC opener the way, say, Texas A&M does. And speaking of the Aggies, Arkansas is ranked No. 16 again after dispatching the Bearcats, the exact ranking they had facing A&M a year ago. All that means is that the Hogs could, by beating South Carolina and Missouri State on Sept. 17, find themselves in a Top 10 matchup with the Aggies this time.

Whew.

These are, of course, good problems to have. Taking down a ranked opponent in the opener and having a balanced, near-450-yard effort is great, yet it’s even more gratifying to know that Arkansas did not play its sharpest or most disciplined football and won anyway.

That might also work against South Carolina, but Pittman, nor these capable assistants, would be content to see a repeat performance. There were secondary breakdowns that occurred before Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher left with injuries, and the punting game really could’ve been a bigger liability than it ended up being.

Even short-handed, less than totally crisp, and not quite settled on a successor to Burks, Arkansas should handle its business again this weekend at home. The fact that I can even type those words without wincing is evidence of just how far the program has come.

*A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that Arkansas had its first win in 47 years over a ranked nonconference team in its opener. It also erroneously included that the game against USC was in 1974.