Tusk to Tail: Looking forward to a year that will be better than the last

“A long December and there’s reason to believe Maybe this year will be better than the last.”
– “Long December” by Counting Crows

For many, 2020 could not end soon enough. Marred by global pandemic and a bitterly contested presidential election, the year is best viewed in the rearview mirror, when hindsight is literally 2020.

The tumultuous year remained on-brand until the bitter end to deal one final blow to the Razorbacks. While the Hogs were loading up for Houston to play TCU in the Texas Bowl, the Horned Frogs called to cancel. TCU had decided to spend New Year’s Eve at home like most everyone else.

TCU’s athletic director cited an increase in positive COVID-19 tests, injuries, and athletes using COVID protocol to opt out of playing that left their roster short of the required threshold for player availability. Arkansas joined Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee as SEC teams that accepted a bowl invitation but were not able to play because of issues related to the coronavirus. Hog fans and presumably the rest of the world were left without a game to watch on New Year’s Eve.

The bowl game would have given the Razorbacks an opportunity to close the season on a winning note. The Hogs were healthy and carrying some momentum from a season where first year head coach Sam Pittman exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations. Several notable seniors, including wide receiver De’Vion Warren, linebacker Grant Morgan, and offensive linemen Myron Cunningham and Ty Clary have declared that they will take advantage of the COVID exception to return for another season. Still, a victory would have been a fitting sendoff for unsung heroes like Jonathan Marshall and Hayden Henry. Before Pittman assumed the post, these seniors had suffered an awful lot of oysters, but no pearls.

Once the Arkansas football finale fizzled, Tusk to Tail awoke Jan. 2 with a renewed passion for basketball. The 9-0 Hoops Hogs faced #12 Missouri, fresh off a 20-point drubbing at home by Tennessee. Bill Raftery was calling the national broadcast live from Bud Walton Arena, just as he did so many times during the Razorbacks’ championship era in the 90s.

Arkansas was without Indiana graduate transfer forward Justin Smith, who is recovering from ankle surgery for the next 3-6 weeks. Smith’s injury may have affected the gameplan against the Tigers. Tusk to Tailgater Sean Casey noted that Mizzou looked good getting off the bus due to the size of their frontcourt. Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon scored a career high 25 points in the Tigers’ 81-68 win over the Razorbacks. Six of Tilmon’s 9 baskets were dunks.

The Hogs’ immediate dropoff following a key starter’s injury is reminiscent of Arkansas going 0-5 last season while Isaiah Joe recovered from knee surgery. Joe is now a rookie guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. Though Smith could have possibly reduced Missouri’s 51-36 rebounding
advantage or perhaps made some of the layups missed by other Razorbacks, this loss can not be solely pinned on one man’s absence.

“I’ll be honest. I didn’t think anybody played very good today. I didn’t think I coached good,” Coach Musselmanan said after the game. Muss was ejected late in the game for the first time in his career after arguing with officials. “I didn’t think the assistant coaches coached good”, the head Hog continued. “I didn’t think anyone on our team did very well. We’ve got to across the board do better.”

At one point in his press conference, Musselman laid his head down, clearly exasperated.

“You can’t make this up. You can’t make up that you lose a game by double digits and cause 21 turnovers,” Muss concluded.

How could the Hogs let us down so soon after flipping the calendar page? A new year is supposed to ring in hope and promise for the future. Is it time to start pining for 2022?

TTT still sees plenty of hope and promise for the future. Pittman has improved football team culture so dramatically that his graduating players don’t even want to leave. By beating Tennessee and the Mississippi schools, Arkansas finds itself atop the SEC’s bottom of the barrel, and that’s not even counting games against Auburn and LSU that were stolen by the officials and COVID-19, respectively.

Graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks stabilized the quarterback room for the first time in years. Franks will be hard to replace, but KJ Jefferson’s performance against Missouri was an encouraging sign that the Hogs are heading in the right direction.

Saturday’s basketball loss to Mizzou was humbling despite the Tigers’ ranking. The Hogs were downright dreadful at shooting the ball, but Muss will continue tinkering under the hood until he’s got that fixed. Assuming the team continues to gel, an NCAA tournament run is expected.
We haven’t even begun to discuss baseball, where Dave Van Horn’s squad is almost always expected to contend for another trip to the College World Series in Omaha. Hog fans have a lot to look forward to in 2021.

Personally, I look forward to the time we can fill a stadium without masks or social distancing required again. I look forward to morning tailgates and nighttime kickoffs where friends and strangers share high fives and hugs. Things we took for granted just one year ago practically seem reckless and irresponsible now. Maybe this year will be better than the last.

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.

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