FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks’ rebound in Year 2 under Coach Sam Pittman led to a hot finish and a sunny finale.
The Razorbacks, winners of four of their last five games, were selected on Sunday to play in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., for the University of Arkansas’ first bowl in the Sunshine State in 15 years.
Arkansas (8-4) will take on Penn State (7-5) of the Big Ten Conference for the first time on Jan. 1 at 11 a.m. Central at Raymond James Stadium.
“I think it’s something the kids have accomplished, the assistant coaches have accomplished,” Pittman said “I’m happy for the state of Arkansas, happy to get down there and get us some nice weather. I heard it’s 82 or something today. Get down there, have a little fun.”
Arkansas will play in a Florida-based bowl for the eighth time and the first time since a 17-14 loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl (now the Citrus Bowl) following the 2006 season.
The Razorbacks and Nittany Lions both peaked in the polls early this season. Arkansas was No. 8 after a 4-0 start, but then lost three in a row at Georgia, at Ole Miss and at home to Auburn. Penn State reached No. 4 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll after its 5-0 start, but the Nittany Lions also lost three in a row at that point and fell out of the polls.
While Penn State lost five of its last seven games and struggled to get back in the rankings, the Razorbacks managed to get back in the College Football Playoff rankings the last five weeks.
Arkansas was No. 21 in the final CFP rankings released on Sunday, and No. 22 in the final regular season AP poll.
Outback Bowl officials informed the Razorbacks of their invitation in an early afternoon telephone call to Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, who was in Pittman’s office.
“You guys deserve it,” Outback Bowl President and CEO Jim McVay told Pittman in a video shared by UA Athletics on its social media accounts. “You’ve had a tremendous year. Great job coaching. You should be named coach of the year.”
Pittman said he thinks the Razorbacks will be motivated for the postseason, particularly since only recent transfers on the roster have ever played in a bowl game.
“I think it’s going to be very, very easy to get our kids excited about going to Tampa and playing on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl. So we’re really happy about that. It’s a nationally known bowl.”
Penn State Coach James Franklin, the former Vanderbilt head coach, said he hasn’t been able to “dive in” on the Razorbacks yet, but he’s noted from afar the significant turnaround Pittman has lead.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for that conference,” Franklin said. “Obviously I know it well. I’ve got a ton of respect for what Sam’s been able to do in a short period of time.
“I know he’s done a really good job of embracing what Arkansas is and what Arkansas stands for. It seems like the community and university have done the same thing with him.”
Franklin added he thought Pittman had “brought a hard-nosed, tough, positive energy. I know he’s doing some really nice things, so I’m happy for Sam and I’m happy for the University of Arkansas.”
Pittman briefly addressed his recent change to super agent Jimmy Sexton after signing on at Arkansas with Little Rock-based agent Judy Henry. He was asked by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette if he and his staff were in line for a significant bump in pay.
“When I came here it was about getting the head coaching job at Arkansas,” Pittman said. “It’s still not money based. When you go out and get an agent, one that understands the whole landscape of the building, you want help to keep your assistant coaches. You want help to keep your support staff. You want help personally. And I don’t look at that as being greedy or anything. I look at that as being represented.
“Then the last thing I’ll say is I don’t want my loyalty to the university to be tested. I’ve said that I would never leave the University of Arkansas and I’m not going to. Getting an agent doesn’t mean that I’m leaving. Getting a new agent has nothing to do with that. I’ve said this is my last job and it’s damn sure going to be that.”
Pittman triggered some incentives in his contract that raised his base pay from $3 million to $3.75 million per year for the Razorbacks winning their sixth, seventh and eighth games. That still leaves his salary 12th among the 13 SEC coaches at public institutions.
The Razorbacks and Penn State have never met in football. The Razorbacks are 2-8 against the current membership in the Big Ten, including 0-2 marks against both Wisconsin and Rutgers. Their biggest win came against Nebraska, then a member of the Big 8, in a 10-7 victory in the Cotton Bowl after the 1964 season, which clinched a share of the national championship for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas is 0-4 in bowl games against teams that were in the Big Ten at the time, including a 31-26 setback to Ohio State in the last such meeting in the Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season. The game was later vacated by the NCAA after an investigation that revealed the use of ineligible players.
The Razorbacks will get in multiple practices on campus, starting Friday, before giving the players a few days off at Christmas. The players will return for a team photo on Dec. 26 with all three of the trophies they won this year for beating Texas A&M 20-10 in the Southwest Classic, LSU 16-13 in overtime in the battle for the Golden Boot and Missouri 34-17 in the Battle Line Rivalry.