We’re about to find out if Sam Pittman will keep calling the Hogs or if it’s time to call the lake house.
After Saturday’s loss to Alabama, the Razorbacks sit at 2-5, which isn’t at all what anyone wanted and few expected of the team this season. Traditionally, an experienced quarterback and an adequate defense are basic ingredients for a successful season in Fayetteville. This year, the Razorbacks have a quarterback rewriting the Arkansas football record books, one of the best defenses in years, and even a running back room that was thought to be the deepest unit on the team.
But then kickoff happened.
The team’s struggles are well-documented. Questionable coaching decisions, especially on 4th-and-short situations. Way too many penalties. Excessive three-and-outs. Various other mistakes and often sloppy play. Maybe the worst offensive line in recent memory at Arkansas, and when the head coach is supposed to be an offensive line guru, it’s especially dumbfounding.
The craziest thing is that the season may still be somewhat salvageable, at least from a bowl eligibility perspective.
The Road Ahead for Arkansas Football
At long last, the Razorbacks are coming back home to Fayetteville, and the toughest stretch of the season is in the rear-view mirror. If the Hogs can continue playing like the team that went to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge and played both Alabama and LSU to within a field goal, and went to Oxford and scored to take a 4th quarter lead over Ole Miss, they can win many of the remaining games on their schedule.
In fact, given the quality of competition and margin of defeat, Arkansas checks in at No. 31 in the latest ESPN FPI rankings, one spot up from last week. Consider that you have to drop all the way to No. 90 to find another team (San Jose State) for another team with a 2-5 record.
One respected college football analyst has the Hogs even higher. Josh Pate of CBS/247Sports has Arkansas at No. 30 in his poll, which heavily weights strength of schedule. “Would you believe the JP poll has Arkansas rated higher than Iowa and Wisconsin, which means means we would have Arkansas favored to win the Big Ten West,” Pate says on his latest Late Kick Live show.
Arkansas still has a decent shot at making the postseason but of course that home loss to BYU continues to loom over the season and is all the evidence skeptics need to have little faith. The Razorbacks playing up to their talent level is far from guaranteed.
That’s really why it feels like Pittman’s tenure is hanging in the balance. I’m hesitant to use the term “must-win” for any game that’s not a potential season-ender, and the Hogs can still lose again before making a bowl, but it feels like the coming game against Mississippi State is a must-win game for Pittman and the team. They’re back at home and playing against a team that has looked worse than Arkansas has so far. The Bulldogs got both LSU and Alabama in Starkville and were blown out by both. Even if you believe moral victories exist, there will be none available in this game.
All that being said, simply going 6-6 and making a lower-level bowl game is not the expectation nor the goal for Arkansas – especially not this season.
A Tidal Wave of Moral Victory-ism
Arkansas may not have the recruiting base to routinely compete for SEC and national championships in football the way teams like Alabama, Georgia, and LSU do, but the Razorbacks do recruit well enough to be competitive in most of their games and win their fair share of them. Despite Arkansas’ overall record at this point, they have absolutely been competitive. Four of the five losses have been one-score games and two have been by a field goal. Considering the level of competition, those aren’t inexplicable results on the surface.
The problem is that when you get to contests that are so close that a single play may determine the outcome, the team should win some of those games. You should expect to win a coin flip about half the time. Indeed, dating back to the start of the Frank Broyles era in 1958, every Arkansas football coach before Pittman combined to post a .549 winning percentage in games decided by a field goal or less, as our own Andrew Hutchinson pointed out.
Pittman’s program has now lost six of their last seven games decided within a field goal, and the lone win was the triple-overtime Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas, but that only came after Arkansas blew a 25-point second half lead to send the game to overtime.
That’s one downward trend over the course of the last three years which is especially troubling. The Hogs have continued to lose more and more close games. In SEC football, to have sustained success, you have to be able to win your share of close games. That means playing clean football. Fewer penalties, fewer mental mistakes. A dropped pass or a single lapse in coverage could be the difference between a win or a loss. Something like having too many players on the field for a punt return that gives the opponent a first down could determine whether several people keep their jobs after the season.
Cam Little (I like to call him ‘Ham Little’) can get the Hogs three points pretty much anytime they cross the 40-yard line. They generally just need a few first downs to get into his range. His four 50-plus-yard field goals so far this season lead the SEC, but when the Razorbacks go three-and-out as they often do, he stays on the sideline.
Why Arkansas Recruiting in Football Is Different
It can be especially frustrating when many of the other sports at Arkansas are seeing so much success. Of course, a recruiting class of 25-ish people is much different than, say, a basketball class with just a couple of high school players and a few transfers. There are very few schools able to sustain regular success in football without a high number of 4- and 5-star players nearby. The most glaring exception to this was Nebraska pre 2004, but those dynastic Cornshuskers had plenty of other advantages working in their favor that these Razorbacks lack. Recruiting proximity is an advantage sometimes every other SEC West school has over the Razorbacks, and is possibly the most challenging aspect of coaching this program.
The problem with bringing that up is that it’s often seen as an excuse for losing. It’s not. Arkansas’ recruiting classes are often ranked within the top 25, which is good enough that fans should expect to be competitive and to win many games.
Pittman has accomplished the first part. Arkansas is almost always competitive. There have not been many games the Razorbacks didn’t have a chance to win in the 4th quarter over the past few years. However, you have to win some of them, and that’s been happening less and less.
Everyone likes Sam Pittman. It seems like you have to say that whenever you’re critical of him or the program. If he and the coaching staff can get the team to make fewer mistakes and win enough of these games down the stretch, they can change the trajectory of the program pretty quickly. But that has to start right now.
More from Josh Pate on Alabama vs Arkansas at 58:20 below: