Tusk to Tail: Hoping for some sweet dessert after the Alabama throat punch
“They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues”
– “Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan
An Alabama ass whuppin’ is practically an evergreen story for Arkansas. Every Autumn, typically before the leaves have turned and it’s still warm enough for short sleeves, you can count on Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide crushing the Razorbacks to the tune of about fifty-something to 3.
There was a time as recently as the Bobby Petrino era when the Hogs were at least considered an “early season test” for Bama. But the result is always the same.
On a cold and dreary December morning less than two weeks before Christmas, top-ranked Alabama came to Fayetteville looking for its 14th straight win over Arkansas. They got it, 52-3.
The late season scheduling and corresponding weather may have cooled off excitement for the game. The 11 a.m. kickoff didn’t help. The stadium seemed more subdued than this year’s games against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and even LSU, which also had an early start.
Undefeated Alabama has already earned a spot in the SEC Championship, and is projected to receive the first seed in the college football playoffs. There was little incentive for the Tide to play their best players any longer than necessary Saturday. That became evident once Alabama’s leading tackler, linebacker Christian Harris, injured his shoulder on their first defensive play.
Bama fans, typically well represented at a visitor’s stadium in part because it is easier to find extra tickets there than in Tuscaloosa, appeared to be sitting this one out. Presumably their fans are saving their travel budget for Atlanta and the playoffs. They were outnumbered by their LSU and Tennessee counterparts earlier this season.
Alabama’s Number 1 ranking has come to be expected. This was the ninth time that Arkansas has played Alabama when they were ranked atop the polls, and the fifth year in a row. This year’s model features a remarkable trio of offensive playmakers each worthy of Heisman consideration. Quarterback Mac Jones leads the way, throwing for 3,321 yards, 27 touchdowns and only three interceptions, but he isn’t even the best player on his own team. That honor probably goes to freakshow receiver DeVonta Smith, who has 1,327 yards and 15 receiving touchdowns, as well as a rushing TD and now a punt returned for a score. Running back Najee Harris is a fantasy beast who has rushed for 22 touchdowns in this 10-game SEC season.
When a game’s outcome is essentially a foregone conclusion, getting a glimpse of the opponents’ star power becomes part of the draw. Whether getting gashed by Steve Walsh and Michael Irvin in Little Rock or smoked by Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in Los Angeles, if the Hogs are getting their asses handed to them, at least it’s by the best.
“We are in the presence of greatness,” I told Forrest in the afterglow of Smith’s 84-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Everyone on the field could feel it. DeVonta went completely untouched as he streaked down the middle of the field. The play was the perfect combination of Smith’s freakish athletic ability and special teams ineptitude that has plagued Arkansas all year.
Smith’s highlight broke open an otherwise competitive first quarter. Arkansas had tied the game 3-3 on Matthew Phillips’ 26 yard field goal, his first attempt for the Razorbacks. Phillips took over for AJ Reed, whose season had been marred by missed and blocked kicks. Arkansas improbably led Alabama in total yards and even time of possession before the dynamic return. The Hogs’ defense had forced a Crimson Tide turnover on downs.
Like the first half of the Georgia game that kicked off the season, that point in the Bama game felt like a microcosm of the rest of the year. Coach Sam Pittman and his overachieving Razorbacks have restored hope and pride in a program that had fallen on its darkest days in recent history. Being able to hang with football bluebloods like Georgia and Alabama is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it appears that Arkansas lacks the depth and talent to compete with the elite programs for four quarters. The Razorbacks were visibly outclassed in losses to Texas A&M, Florida, and now Alabama. The Hogs never gave up, but there was a clear talent disparity in those Top 10 losses.
The Arkansas defense performed admirably for much of the season with a cast of former walk-ons and other less heralded players. Linebacker Grant Morgan led the nation in tackles, but the dam burst once he went down with a knee injury last week against Missouri. The Tigers and Crimson Tide each scored over 50 points to beat the Hogs.
On the other side of the ball, center Ricky Stromberg appears to have been the glue that held the offensive line together before injury kept him from playing against Bama. Stromberg was replaced by Ty Clary. Hilarity did not ensue. The line committed multiple false start and illegal motion penalties. Quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and KJ Jefferson were sacked a total of 8 times. They combined for 9 completions. Arkansas finished with the fewest points and total yards of the season against Alabama.
It was a disappointing finish to an otherwise inspired season, but that’s what happens when you square off against the woodchipper known as the Alabama Crimson Tide. The timing could have been better.
“I greatly prefer getting the annual Bama beating out of the way by like week 4 or 5 at the latest,” our friend @Jerkwheatery tweeted.
Nearly every Bama player who appeared on Saturday, including the backups and underclassmen who only play in mop-up duty, has a legitimate chance to play professionally. Many will be picked in the first round. Arkansas has only a handful of players with that kind of potential. However, given the ability of Pittman’s staff to coach up and develop the players we’ve got, Tusk to Tail can’t help but feel hope and pride in the Razorbacks once again.
As our godfather of tailgating Craig said in our weekly predictions, “Somehow this staff managed to grab three wins, the SEC Officials and COVID-19 cost us two more and the Missouri game was a coin flip, all very winnable games.”
“Pittman gave our tired fan base some hope for the future and got the players to buy into his blue-collar mindset, something the last two coaches failed to do,” Craig continued. “There are plenty of problems to address on offense, defense, and special teams but the program is in good hands with Sam Pittman and this coaching staff.”
Arkansas is expected to receive and accept a bowl bid, so this season may not be quite finished. There could still be a sweet dessert to wash away the bitter aftertaste of the season finale.
Editor’s note: Now in its ninth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.