FAYETTEVILLE — It has become an annual rite.
College football schedules are released and the University of Arkansas is swiftly judged to have as tough a slate as any team in the country.
The pandemic-altered 2020 schedule was an all-timer for the Razorbacks after Florida and Georgia were the two added teams to the historic 10-game conference-only docket. Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek deemed it the toughest schedule in the history of college football, and there wasn’t a whole lot of pushback on that notion.
Time will tell where Arkansas’ 2021 schedule rates among the Razorbacks’ peers in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but at first glance it looks plenty salty, with a dash of historic rival Texas in the mix.
The normal array of SEC West rivals are there, headlined by an Alabama team that went 10-0 in the SEC season, held off Florida for the SEC championship, then trounced Notre Dame and Ohio State to claim the College Football Playoff championship.
Texas A&M is coming off a 9-1 season and No. 4 finish in the final Associated Press poll.
Auburn and LSU are expected to be back on the rise, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State look to be improved under second-year coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach, respectively.
Coach Sam Pittman’s first-year Razorbacks staked out a 3-7 record that exceeded virtually all expectations last season. Can they show further improvement in 2021?
Here is the schedule the Razorbacks must navigate, global crisis permitting, ranked in order from easiest to toughest games:
12 Arkansas-Pine Bluff
This will be a historic meeting, the first in-state opponent for the Razorbacks since facing Arkansas-Monticello, then known as Arkansas A&M, on Dec. 2, 1944.
The Golden Lions are scheduled to compete in a novel spring season, starting in February and concluding in early May under first-year Coach Doc Gamble.
The Razorbacks dispatched their last two HBCU opponents Alcorn State and Florida A&M by scores of 52-10 and 49-7 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, so they will be huge favorites. But with the long-held in-state scheduling ban lifted, at least interest will be up and the money generated will stay in state. Good show, athletic departments.
The Razorbacks have a way of catching nonconference opponents on the upswing more times than not, and that would apply to the Owls, who went 2-3 in the pandemic season after a miserable 3-9 run in 2019 that began with an 0-9 start.
Last year’s effort included a 20-0 blanking of No. 15 Marshall, Rice’s first win over a ranked opponent since 1997, and a 21-16 loss to a strong Alabama-Birmingham team.
Fourth-year Coach Mike Bloomgren brings back a well-regarded defense, and the quarterback scenario could feature bonus-year senior Mike Collins and sophomore JoVoni Johnson of Conway.
How about Owls’ freshman linebacker signee DJ Arkansas?
10 Georgia Southern
The Eagles (8-5) played Group of Five titans Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette tight, falling 28-14 on the road vs. the Chanticleers and 20-18 at the Ragin’ Cajuns. Georgia Southern smoked Louisiana Tech 38-3 in the New Orleans Bowl.
The Eagles will have a new look at quarterback after four-year starter and dual threat Shai Werts announced his transfer to Louisville after winning MVP honors in the bowl game.
9 Mississippi State
Hard to believe a team that beat LSU, Missouri and Tulsa last season is Arkansas’ ninth-best opponent out of 12, but it’s true.
The Bulldogs will be looking for payback after last year’s 21-14 home loss to Arkansas, and to show the haphazard offensive performance that day was a fluke.
Arkansas frustrated veteran K.J. Costello — who had thrown for an SEC-record 623 yards and five touchdowns at LSU the week before — and did not face the quarterback of the future, Will Rogers, that day in Starkville, Miss.
8 Ole Miss
The Lane Train also will be aiming to avenge a loss to the Razorbacks. With six turnovers in the books, the Rebels still had a shot in the closing minutes at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but the seventh Arkansas takeaway — Grant Morgan’s 23-yard pick-six — was a dagger in the 33-21 victory.
Quarterback Matt Corral will be seeking redemption after Arkansas’ drop-eight defensive scheme seized six interceptions against him.
The losing streak for Arkansas is up to five games in this rivalry, and that speaks volumes about the last half-decade of Razorback football.
The 50-48 game last year was one of the most exciting chapters in the Battle Line Rivalry, and maybe one that starts giving this series much-needed glitz.
Arkansas’ rally to take a 48-47 lead behind freshman quarterback KJ Jefferson, capped by Mike Woods’ miracle two-point conversion catch, should have been a game winner. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom earned much-deserved acclaim in 2020, but the last 43 seconds against his alma mater was not his finest work.
Steve Sarkisian gets a huge comeback opportunity after creating some of the best offensive schemes with premier talent the past couple of seasons at Alabama.
However, the Longhorns are losing a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. This is a decent year for the Razorbacks to get that long-awaited home game in this rivalry.
Guess we’ll just write about this every time Auburn comes up between now and next Oct. 16. The Razorbacks were robbed in the closing seconds last year, with the result of the erroneous officiating decision on Bo Nix’s backward spike directly affecting the outcome of the game.
Can Bryan Harsin push the right buttons to return Auburn into contender status? It’s hard to imagine Arkansas being more motivated to notch a victory than in this home game after road dates at Georgia and Ole Miss.
The unbeaten 2019 SEC and CFP champion stumbled out of the gate in 2020 while probably undergoing the highest rate of preseason and in-season personnel losses.
Coach Ed Orgeron’s major staff changes, including a fruitless pursuit of Arkansas’ Odom, added a bizarre layer after the strange 2020 season. To the Tigers’ credit, their 27-24 win in Fayetteville with TJ Finley at quarterback was probably their second-best performance of the season behind a 37-34 upset at Florida engineered by lefty QB Max Johnson. The quarterback battle between those two, Myles Brennan and early enrollee Garrett Nussmeier should be fun.
3 Texas A&M
Four-year starting quarterback Kellen Mond is gone, but Jimbo Fisher has installed a strong foundation on both fronts.
Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane, Ainias Smith, Jalen Wydermyer, Chase Lane and Hezekiah Jones stand out in a loaded cupboard of skill talent for the next quarterback to lean on.
The Razorbacks have played a load of close games against the Aggies during their nine-game losing streak, but the 2020 game really wasn’t one of them.
The presumptive favorite in the SEC East, the Bulldogs will be at home in their second battle Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks.
Arkansas had a strong game plan for last year’s opener in Fayetteville, setting a tone for the season, but the Bulldogs played almost a complete half with ineffective D’Wan Mathis at quarterback before taking off in the third quarter.
Watch Pittman get a big, warm greeting from the Sanford Stadium faithful in his return to Athens, Ga.
The defending SEC and CFP champions get barrels of ink and sky-high amounts of online data devoted to their greatness, so we’ll keep the superlatives short here.
Nick Saban’s crew isn’t going anywhere after running the gauntlet of 11 consecutive SEC games and making short work of Notre Dame and Ohio State in the playoffs. The 2020 season will be considered a crowning achievement for a proud Crimson Tide program.
Alabama has won 14 in a row over Arkansas, with only a few of them being close, neatly overlapping Saban’s arrival in 2007.