Arkansas football 2020 season in review: Plenty of positives in difficult year

The Arkansas football season was abruptly finished after the Texas Bowl was canceled, but fans should still be thankful for this season.

Just like that, the Arkansas football season is over.

In just a few minutes from the time that rumors started to suggest that Arkansas’ bowl game vs TCU was in jeopardy on Tuesday afternoon, it was quickly announced that the Texas Bowl was canceled after the Horned Frogs cited “a combination of COVID-19 related issues, injuries and other circumstances.” 

Similar to the fates of other sides so far in this bowl season like UAB and Iowa, it was a sucker punch to those on both sides who had prepared for the game.

The players already had multiple practices and were only a couple of hours away from traveling to the game. Media members who were already down in Houston had to pack up their stuff and head back home. Fans who had already bought their tickets would need to be reimbursed. What was supposed to be the late game on New Year’s Eve to give fans something else to watch at home other than the world’s saddest NYE celebration this year instead became the appropriate coda to the year as 2020 delivered one last kick to the groin.

While the truth is that, outside of the College Football Playoff, bowl games are essentially glorified exhibitions, they are also a reward for a good season. Even though Arkansas was allowed to get in with only a 3-7 record, they were more than deserving.

In a normal year, it is safe to assume that this team would have gone 6-6 when counting non-conference games with likely the only loss outside of the SEC to Notre Dame who the Razorbacks were originally scheduled to play in September.

Just as important is considering how they got here.

The football program was left for dead following the departure of Chad Morris who was arguably the least successful coach in Arkansas football history while his successor would be tasked with the biggest rebuilding project ever in Fayetteville. Thus, when former Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman was announced as the next head coach, the reaction was lukewarm. While he was well respected and clearly really wanted the job, his lack of head coaching experience was an issue.

Morale was perhaps never lower when the announcement of the conference-only schedule came prior to the season as the Hogs were seemingly disrespected by the SEC by drawing Georgia and Florida as the two extra opponents to their schedule. Several national publications actually had Arkansas going 0-10 including CBS and College Football News.

Even Razorback AD Hunter Yurachek released a statement afterward calling the revised slate “the most challenging schedule in the history of college football.”  

All this is worth remembering now because these low expectations were quickly surpassed to the point that fans were disappointed when Arkansas lost games that they felt like they should win.

Following the opening loss against Georgia, few could have predicted that the Razorbacks would go on to beat Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee while almost beating Auburn and LSU.

While some late-season struggles have soured a fast start, Sam Pittman and his staff have set the standard going forward by bringing fight and an identity that was a return to the principles that Arkansas football was founded upon. The program might not have the most money or the best players, but they could at least compete with most teams for every yard on every snap of the ball.

Perhaps the quote of the year came after the infamous controversial finish early in the season versus Auburn. When pressed about the Bo Nix fumble, Pittman did not spend much time discussing the referee decision but instead chose to tell his team after the game:

“That I was proud of them, that they fought their butt off, that we’ve got a good football team, and that times of us going some place and embarrassing our fans and our football team are over.”  

For a small state whose identity is intricately tied to the Arkansas football program, fans could not be prouder of Sam Pittman at that moment either.

Apathy and cynicism were replaced by the one thing that had been missing up to this point- hope. People cared once again, and that mattered.

In a year in which our country really felt as if it was more culturally divided than ever and people could not even leave their houses, at least there was a feeling that fans could come together for three to four hours every Saturday to support the Hogs even if they could not be at the game in person. College football is ultimately a communal experience whose pageantry and traditions are a means of strengthening social bonds, and this team gave fans in the state something to look forward to when the sport itself looked as if it might not be played this Fall.

Going forward, fans should also be excited for next year as the Hogs will be one of the most experienced teams in the SEC.

Everybody appears to be coming back on offense with the likely exception of Feleipe Franks, and most players will also be returning on defense. The core group whose talent was realized such as wide receivers Treylon Burks and Mike Woods along with linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool and future star safety Jalen Catalon remain the foundation for this team’s future success.

So while the cancellation of the bowl game is disappointing, let us keep in mind the bigger picture. On Tuesday, the U.S. set the record for daily Covid-19 deaths with around 3,700 deaths.

As college football continues to battle its way towards the finish line as many teams have simply chosen not to play in bowl games this year, questions remain whether the season should have been played in the first place. Many are still unsure whether the games have been sources of transmission during this season, but what is clear is that despite just being a game, college football has still given fans plenty of reasons to be thankful during this year.