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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Hogs have come long way to get to Tampa

by Wally Hall | December 7, 2021 at 2:15 a.m.

It would prove to be a long, winding road from Fayetteville to Tampa, but Sunday the University of Arkansas became the first team west of the Mississippi River ever to be invited to play in the Outback Bowl.

The LSU Tigers have been to the Outback Bowl twice, and they are close to Big Muddy but are a little east of it.

No one would have been connecting Arkansas to the New Year's Day game after easing by Rice or even after manhandling Texas, which gave instant joy to the Razorbacks and their fans, but the Longhorns are not the 'Horns of days gone by.

The once physical force of college football has become a finesse team, and they finished 5-7 under first-year Coach Steve Sarkisian.

The shellacking of Georgia Southern and beating Texas A&M to go 4-0 on the season brought bowl season into conversations, but most were thinking Liberty or Music City.

Those bowls seem to become more into focus after the Razorbacks lost to Georgia, Ole Miss and Auburn, although there was some concern about getting to six wins.

After a week off, the Razorbacks beat the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and playing a bowl in Tennessee was seeming like a reality again.

The Hogs, though, won three of their next four, beating Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri with the traditional loss to Alabama.

An 8-4 regular-season record sent the dream machine into overdrive.

The Citrus Bowl, which gets the first pick after the College Football Playoff selection committee appoints its bowls, considered the Razorbacks, but decided Kentucky's 9-3 record was more appealing.

Guess going 1-1 against teams in the West didn't matter. Arkansas was 3-3 and played the toughest overall schedule in the country.

Yet, Arkansas has been to Orlando, and while it is a fun city for many, most of the football players weren't all that interested in riding rides at Disney World.

It does appear that the Razorbacks and Texas A&M were on the wish lists of both the Outback and Gator bowls, and the Hogs' win over the Aggies pushed them into the better bowl.

They will play Penn State, a program that became legendary on the field under Joe "Pa" Paterno, who coached the Nittany Lions from 1966 to 2011.

He left under a dark cloud. A former assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was found guilty of molesting young men.

Sandusky went to prison and Paterno retired, and the statue of him in front of the stadium was removed.

Bill O'Brien tried to keep the program going but left two years later to be a head coach in the NFL.

Enter James Franklin, who had just completed three masterful years at Vanderbilt, taking the Commodores to three consecutive bowls and amassing a 24-15 record.

Vanderbilt hasn't had a winning season since, while Franklin has rebuilt the Nittany Lions, although the past two years have not been up to expected standards.

Penn State was 4-5 during last year's covid-19 season and 7-5 this season, which included a win over Auburn in a close but not great game.

However, four of Penn State's losses were by four points or less, and the worst was a 33-24 loss at Ohio State.

The Nittany Lions, like most Big Ten teams, feel they have something to prove against SEC teams, and their fans travel well, which probably helped them get the invite to the Outback Bowl.

There will be some pressure on the Hogs of facing a Big Ten team, but not when it comes to fans. When Arkansas played Michigan in the now Citrus Bowl (it was Capital One then), they had more than half the stadium in Razorback red, which was double what bowl officials expected.

Print Headline: Hogs have come long way to get to Tampa


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