When Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek released a statement in August proclaiming the Razorbacks' 2020 schedule to be the "the most challenging schedule in the history of college football," there was also a message of resiliency included that was overlooked amid the hilarity of him defining the schedule's difficulty in such grand terms.
"As Razorbacks, we have never backed down from a challenge," he said. "This year will be no different."
Arkansas lived up to those words by putting up a fight against Georgia last week. But they wore them on their sleeve on Saturday when they shocked No. 16 Mississippi State 21-14 on the road for the program's first conference win since 2017.
No one needed help interpreting the rigors of Arkansas' 2020 schedule. It included the usual six opponents from the SEC West, which is widely regarded as the most-treacherous conference in college football, plus games against Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Missouri.
Arkansas didn't even draw fellow cellar-dweller Vanderbilt, for crying out loud. But Yurachek made sure everyone knew what his football program was up against anyway. His statement made it clear.
Not the most challenging schedule in school history, or SEC history. But college football history. If anyone were still around from the 1899 Sewanee Tigers, who won five games in six days, they might have scoffed at Yurachek's assertion.
But the point came through. This was going to be a slog for Arkansas. It was assumed by some that this Razorbacks team would surpass Vanderbilt's record for league futility in the 21st century. The Commodores lost 23 straight conference games from 2000 to 2003. This slate could have easily started with the Razorbacks surpassing that mark as they began with games against Georgia, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. If this season ended with the Razorbacks winless in the league again, no one would have been surprised.
But if they were going to avoid surpassing Vanderbilt's 23-game mark, the game against Mississippi State was always going to be their best chance.
At least that's what it seemed like until last week, when Mississippi State began the Mike Leach era by going on the road and beating defending national champion LSU. The Bulldogs rose into the top-25 and quickly became 17.5-point favorites against Arkansas.
No one gave the Razorbacks a chance. In fact, the game took such an undercard status on Saturday that it was only available on the SEC Network's alternate channel.
But as the nation watched Georgia thrash Auburn with a relentless defense, there was an equally impressive defensive effort taking place in Starkville. Former Missouri coach and first-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom orchestrated a masterful gameplan against Leach's Air Raid system and quarterback K.J. Costello.
Instead of playing press coverage and trying to pressure Costello as LSU had done, the Razorbacks regularly dropped eight men into coverage and tested his mastery of a system he only began learning a few months ago. The Stanford graduate transfer failed the test. Costello completed 43-of-59 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown. But his three interceptions proved crushing for an offense playing without its top playmaker in Kylin Hill, who left the game in the first half with an injury and did not return.
Hill's injury constituted a stroke of luck for Arkansas. He's regarded as one of the top running backs in the SEC, and he caught eight passes for 158 yards and a touchdown last week. His absence was glaring.
But these Razorbacks deserved some good luck after two years of wandering winless through the SEC under Chad Morris. Make no mistake, though, the players who stuck around to play for Pittman also earned their victory on Saturday.
They followed through on Yurachek's pledge that they would not back down from a challenge. By doing so, they managed to pluck a victory from what is clearly one of the nation's most challenging schedules. Even the 1899 Sewanee Tigers could respect that.