The Razorbacks’ disappointing 38-31 loss to BYU Saturday night has put the Arkansas football program in a precarious position.
More than a month will pass before the Hogs once again take the field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Razorbacks now face the daunting task of trying to get the season back on track by going out of state and attempting to pull off what will likely be an upset against any of their next four opponents.
The offensive line wasn’t the only issue for Arkansas in the BYU game, but it certainly felt like the biggest problem. If you thought they looked bad against BYU, wait until SEC defensive lines get their turns.
Heat Turns Up on Arkansas Football
Hopefully, the Hogs can figure out enough to find a way to win some of these upcoming games. No one on Arkansas’ schedule is unbeatable, and the Razorbacks do have talent. The next four opponents — LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama — have all had disappointing Saturdays so far this season. However, in the immediate aftermath of the BYU debacle, it’s hard not to feel the worst-case scenario coming to pass. Check out the commentary on social media, message boards or call-in shows and you’ll get the sense that destitution looms.
Nothing turns a coaching tenure ugly faster than losing games you should win, especially at home when fans often invest a full day (or weekend) of traveling, tailgating, buying concessions and merchandise, navigating traffic and more just to see a disappointment. If the Hogs don’t manage to win at all in this upcoming stretch, how many fans will be willing to go through that routine again a month from now? (The Razorbacks’ attendance will also be competing with hunting season at that point, which, as we all know, can be tough to overcome even when the football team is winning.)
It’s not totally clear how hot Sam Pittman’s seat is right now. There are always those who are angry in the heat of a tough loss and call for changes, but it felt like there were more of those calls following the BYU loss than we’d seen previously. To be clear, Pittman has had enough success thus far at Arkansas to earn the right to try to get this season back on track, but the questions, concerns and much of the criticism is valid. This was, after all, probably the most disappointing performance of the Pittman era.
In last season’s Liberty defeat, it was well known that KJ Jefferson was playing hurt. Against BYU, Rocket Sanders was missed, but when the running back room is widely acknowledged as probably the deepest unit on the team, and they still averaged 4.5 yards per carry, it’s hard to feel like we could pin the loss on his absence.
Instead, fans were treated to sloppy play and questionable play calls. Arkansas outgained BYU by 143 yards, but lost 80 more yards in penalties than the Cougars did (and 5 of BYU’s penalty yards actually helped them by wiping away a failed fake goal and allowing them a chance to score 3 points). The poor performance coupled with the loss reflects badly on the coach. That the offensive line, the unit in which Pittman has earned his career, is struggling as it is in Pittman’s fourth year at the helm is baffling. That this could happen given the sudden infusion of talent available in the transfer portal era seems downright inexplicable.
The Impact of NIL
The transfer portal and NIL are now the name of the game in college sports. It’s long been known that a team’s success often correlates with how much donors are willing to provide to a program. While those donations have historically been associated with things like coaches’ salaries and facilities, donations are arguably more important than ever in college sports.
In fact, the head coach of Arkansas’ next opponent, LSU’s Brian Kelly, pledged $1 million toward the Tigers’ athletic facilities. Kelly has been a high-level head coach for several years and is among the highest-earning coaches in all of college sports, so not many coaches are in a position to make the same kinds of contributions out of pocket, but we could be heading that direction as salaries continue to increase.
Since NILs are not officially supported by the athletic departments per se*, donors are the ones funding those NIL opportunities for players, which is often what is attracting players to their schools. In the past, a decrease in donations might mean a delay in new facilities (remember Jeff Long bemoaning about finding the funds for the basketball practice facilities), but in today’s game, fewer donations could directly lead to fewer good players.
In fact, USA Today and the Knight Commission found that correlation in a study that showed “programs who receive the most from generous donors tend to have a heightened advantage against others through recruiting success, coaching prestige, facility enhancements and other upgrades,” as 247Sports’ Brad Crawford put it.
Since schools and booster organizations like the Razorback Foundation don’t manage NIL funds, we don’t know exactly how much people are contributing to Arkansas’ NIL efforts and how that compares to other schools. Arkansas has been able to lure high-level transfers in several sports, so it feels like the Razorbacks are doing well in that regard, possibly better than they’re doing in “traditional” donations.
In that latter realm, Arkansas athletics isn’t receiving as much help, relative to other programs, as many would expect.
NIL and Arkansas Football
According to the aforementioned study, Arkansas ranks 32nd nationally and 10th in the SEC in donations over the last 17 years (rankings do not include private schools). That’s below the likes of Missouri (No. 31), West Virginia (No. 27) and Illinois (No. 26). Arkansas’ No. 32 ranking in booster donations is out of line with its No. 20 ranking in total athletic revenue, which is well ahead of Mizzou (No. 28), West Virginia (No. 45) and Illinois (No. 24).
This disparity indicates that while fans of Arkansas football overall are passionate and punch well above their weight relative to the state’s population, the same can’t be said specifically for the program’s boosters – outside of NIL collectives like One Arkansas, at least.
The influx of wealth into Northwest Arkansas over those 17 years has not led to the competitive advantage many imagined, at least not in terms of traditional donations and on-field success in football. (It does appear to have helped in other sports.)
It’s easy for desperate fans to imagine the wealthy individuals and corporations of Northwest Arkansas could simply buy enough of the best players for the Razorbacks to compete at the highest level of the SEC. But pretty much every SEC fanbase has its own collection of wealthy supporters, and if the investments in the program don’t translate to results on the field, who could blame them if they decided to slow down those contributions (if not stop altogether) until a significant change is made in the program?
Sam Pittman has been a successful offensive line coach for a long time, and it’s earned him the chance to earn several millions of dollars in his current position. As long as there is another game to play, he and the team have an opportunity to win and change the mood around the Arkansas football program. There are several examples of teams overcoming bad losses in September and still having successful seasons. Everyone likes Pittman and wants him to succeed, but he needs quickly find that magic with the offensive line that landed him in his position in the first place.
*While the non profit-oriented One Arkansas NIL collective isn’t a part of the Razorbacks’ athletic department per se, it is associated with the Razorback Foundation, the athletic department’s essentially private fundraising arm. As Hunter Yurachek explained it in a Sept 18 interview with The Buzz 103.7 FM, “it enters into an ambassador agreement with our student-athletes, [who] are tied to a charitable organization.” They are in turn paid by the organization for promotion of the group’s cause (eg KJ Jefferson raising money for the United Way in Mississippi for flood relief).
The Razorback Foundation’s job is ensure that the student-athlete actually does the job required before the money is paid.
More coverage of Arkansas football and NIL from BoAS…