FAYETTEVILLE — When Sam Pittman was hired to replace Chad Morris as the head football coach expectations for the football program weren’t very high.

Arkansas had won one SEC game in three seasons and that was on a last-second field goal. In Pittman’s first two seasons the Hogs went 3-7 against an all-SEC schedule and 9-4 winning the Outback Bowl. But even more than that they beat the teams they were expected to defeat and some they weren’t.

In his third season, Arkansas sits at 5-5 after being No. 10 earlier in the season. But the Razorbacks have lost two games most expected them to win. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead early on over Texas A&M before losing 23-21. Then Liberty became the first non-conference team to defeat the Hogs 21-19 on Nov. 5. Pittman talked about the higher expectations that has led to criticism on Monday.

“It’s a great thing,” Pittman said. “I mean I’m the head coach at Arkansas. I’m going to take … If we were 10-0 and people wouldn’t like me or like what I’m doing or the decisions I make, that comes with the job. That’s just what it is.  Is it right? Is it not? I don’t have time to talk about that. But you’re going to get criticized. And we’re 5-5 and we’ve been … we lost to A&M by two. Last year if you go back, we beat Miss. State at the end of the game. We beat LSU in overtime. Or we’re 7-5 last year, or 7 and whatever it is. 7-6 I guess.

“We haven’t been able to win the close games, you know. Two of them weren’t close, really, but Alabama was a five-point game going into the fourth quarter. We’ve got to figure out how to win close games and you’re going to have to do that every year. If you don’t your record is going to be from 9-10 wins to 6 or 5. That’s just how it is and I think if you look over most all the teams in the SEC it’s that way as well.”

The other three losses this season were to Alabama 49-26, Mississippi State without KJ Jefferson 40-17 and LSU once again without their quarterback 13-10.

“With being 5-5 and all the expectations, I’d rather have the expectations be high and take what I, take the criticism than they go, ‘Oh well, you played LSU to 13-10 and they’re West Division champs,” Pittman said. “We don’t want any of that. We want to win. It doesn’t matter who we play.

“So, did we go faster than even what I thought we would last year? Probably. But I was happy with it. We’re disappointed with where we are. But we can wallow in or we can get bowl eligible. I think you saw Saturday that our team wants to go to postseason play. And I think you’ll see it again Saturday.”

One reason for some of Arkansas’ struggles this season compared to last year has been injuries. Yes, all teams have injuries, but not all of them are the same. Arkansas lost maybe its best defensive player safety Jalen Catalon in the season opening win over Cincinnati. As note, Jefferson has missed two games and been beat up in others after playing in all 13 games last fall. Right tackle Dalton Wagner didn’t play on Saturday. Pittman injuries have been one of the reasons for some of the struggles.

“I think it is,” Pittman said. “I think it’s a big thing. Obviously they’re Ones for a reason. Then if you have a special guy like KJ, a special guy like Catalon, you know those guys are special. They could play for anybody in our league and hopefully will have a pro career and things of that nature. When you lose your key guys like that, who also … You know it’s ironic. And everybody is going to say I’m making excuses. You’re the one who asked the question, I didn’t. So you asked the question and I’m answering it. But we had four captains walk out there the other night and I’m going, ‘Well, KJ’s one of them, Wagner’s one of them.’ You know, so two of your four leaders out there are not playing. So yeah, we did learn a lesson from COVID.”

It wasn’t just Jefferson and Wagner among the captains though. Catalon was originally a captain, but was replaced by Simeon Blair when he was ruled out for the season. Linebacker Bumper Pool has struggled with nagging injuries all season.

“We did learn a lesson from COVID that if you cross-train and different things of that nature, then you can go out and win games,” Pittman said. “Now we didn’t win a lot of them, I understand that, but you can go out and win games if you’re prepared. This year, it’s just been a rash of injuries in the secondary, and we never quite got on target or got comfortable with each other until the last game and a half. probably.

“Then when you lose–Anybody, you go out in the conference and you lose your best player, your quarterback, it’s going to affect your football team. And it’s not only about affecting your team, it’s affecting how people play against you. If you notice the box numbers, the amount of blitzes we’re getting on run-downs now vs. what we did before with KJ running, it’s different. It’s a different number count, it’s different schematics that people are using against us. It’s gonna take away some of your rushing yards because they’re not afraid of you. They’re not afraid of that slant anymore. They’re not afraid of that go-route off of a play-action read. They’re not afraid of it. Part of that is having, we need to have the confidence in whoever’s there as a 2 that we can still do that, because we’ve got to back people off of us.”

Arkansas will host Ole Miss on Saturday night with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. and televised on the SEC Network. At 5-5 on the season, Arkansas needs another win to become bowl eligible. They finish up the regular season at Missouri on Nov. 25.