Another Arkansas football season has come and gone, other than a to-be-determined, sub-tier bowl game played before New Year’s Day. And for the most part, the fan base is a tad restless and disappointed in the 6-6 finish after last season’s pretty remarkable nine-win campaign.
In 2021, the close games tended to go Arkansas’ way with narrow wins over Mississippi State and LSU. This season didn’t go as well, as the team couldn’t get over the hump in losses to Texas A&M, Liberty, LSU and Missouri. All of those games were settled by a field goal or less and all had some similar themes. Other than the doink off the NFL sized upright against A&M, those other games ended before getting the reliable Cam Little in position to put the Hogs ahead or tie the game.
Slow starts. Poor short-yardage performance. Swiss cheese pass defense. Struggles inside the red zone. Inability to get off the field on third down. Toss in some head-scratching, inconsistent decisions on what to do on fourth down and all the armchair coaches around the country are ramping up the criticism of Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman and his coordinators.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom seems to get a little less heat due to the abundance of injuries in the secondary. Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles is getting all the smoke, whether he wants it or not, despite having an offense that finished fifth in the SEC in total offense and managing a quarterback who finished in the top 10 nationally in Pro Football Focus’s highest graded Power Five signal callers.
All the trick plays and/or inability to finish drives inside the red zone were frustrating. The three-and-out epidemic to start games…remarkable and inexplicable. Trying to run over and over again against a defense known to be extremely stingy against the run (Missouri) was aggravating. All are valid points leading to displeasure and one would venture to guess Pittman and Briles are feeling the same vibe. Fans are allowed to be frustrated, but often lose sight of the fact that the coaches are actually trying to retain their jobs and not get fired, so it’s safe to say they are searching for answers to these glaring issues versus the opposite.
A play here or there and it’s likely we are talking about an eight- or nine-win season versus the mundane six. To the fanbase, Arkansas appeared better than A&M, Liberty and Missouri, but couldn’t find a way to win any of those. A sputtering offense was the scapegoat in all three of those losses. Go ahead and toss in that the underwhelming Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo., seems like a place the Razorbacks will never win.
Wins with a backup quarterback against that schedule would be tough for a majority of schools in the country. Would a healthy KJ Jefferson against Mississippi State, LSU and Liberty have led to different results? In two of those three, that answer is a resounding yes. The defense played awful well against Liberty and LSU, while the offense sputtered immensely in those two contests. Jefferson was obviously severely compromised against Liberty and didn’t play against LSU. Odds are Mississippi State wins that game in Starkville even if Jefferson had played.
The significant injuries in the defensive secondary, plus a key player who got arrested, suspended and eventually defected, led to the next-to-last worst pass defense in the SEC. Scheme and an effective pass rush play into pass defense, but the Hogs were unable to cover anyone effectively. Given two former walk-ons (Hudson Clark and Simeon Blair) were starters is a red flag in terms of recruiting and developing players.
Maybe Odom gets a pass due to all those injuries, but part of his job is evaluating talent and recruiting, and the Hogs’ depth and development in the secondary with SEC-caliber athletes is woeful.
Of course, he and Briles may not be on the staff next year as head coaching and coordinator positions open up around the country.
Reality Check for Arkansas Football
So let’s circle back to the six-win regular season being such a disappointment, especially in Year 3 of the Sam Pittman regime. There is no question the rebuild had been going faster than anyone anticipated after the significant disaster known as the Chad Morris era. The step back doesn’t invalidate the overall trajectory of the program.
Embarrassing losses to not very good, non-Power Five schools appear to be a thing of the past. Yes, the Hogs lost to Liberty, but it was a ranked one-loss team at the time. Nevermind that Hugh Freeze’s bunch didn’t win another game after they left Fayetteville, losing to UConn, Virginia Tech and being blown out by New Mexico State. The Freeze-to-Auburn rumors which became fact may have had something to do with that.
Respectable and competitive in the SEC has also come to be expected and, for the most part, has happened. Pittman has the program on the rebound, but fans are expecting more wins and believe the Arkansas football program should be rubbing elbows with the league’s elite.
But is that actually, truly doable?
I have for years and years and years, dating back to the Houston Dale Nutt days, said just give me a consistent eight-wins-a-season football program. Nutt’s stint at the U of A was like a roller coaster. Two good to even great seasons followed by two standard seasons then two good, two bad.
Then Bobby Petrino came along and once he righted the ship, with things seeming like Arkansas could resemble an upper crust SEC team as evidenced by his back-to-back double-digit win seasons in 2010 and 2011. We all know how that story ended with a fateful motorcycle ride and subsequent dishonesty.
Bret Bielema had his moments, too — mainly when he had a top-flight staff in Fayetteville including Pittman. But once they left, the program spiraled downward with poor recruiting and on-field struggles.
Former Arkansas QB Agrees
The eight-wins-a-season request doesn’t feel like too much to ask and doesn’t feel unreasonable. Clint Stoerner, one of the all-time greats under center for the Hogs, recently said on The Zone radio show that he sat in Sam Pittman’s office and told him that “fair expectations are you should win eight games. If you don’t win eight, they’re going to ride your ass. If you win more than that, you’ll probably get a raise.”
Based on the investment in the football program with salaries, facilities and such…eight wins is a fair expectation and benchmark. With the current state of the SEC, popping the schedule every once in a while for nine to 10 wins seems possible and probable. KJ Jefferson didn’t even throw out the proverbial “win a national championship and go undefeated” at SEC Media Days. Ten wins was a realistic high-end goal to him. Not exactly crazy talk given how close the Hogs were to 10 legitimate win opportunities this season with some glaring issues noted previously.
Yes, I know – if ‘ifs and buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.
One could easily argue that this may have been the weakest SEC West in recent memory, especially with Alabama not the normal Alabama. Everyone else had weaknesses all over the field. LSU somehow won the West, but was blown out by a very underwhelming, won’t-make-a-bowl Texas A&M squad. Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin look good on paper, but had a very, very favorable schedule and lost their final three games of the regular season.
I suspect LSU will continue to climb under Brian Kelley. The guy can coach and LSU can recruit with a strong national brand and the state of Louisiana produces scores of SEC level athletes. Everyone else in the current SEC West, other than the still-elite Crimson Tide, is jumbled up and capable of beating one another year to year.
Arkansas will surely be paired up with Texas and Oklahoma once they enter the SEC, but are those programs at a point to be feared like Georgia and Alabama? Absolutely not.
So eight wins doesn’t seem like too big of a hill to climb each season. And with the college football playoffs expanding to 12 teams next season, that could/should be an achievement a couple of times a decade. Since joining the SEC in 1992, Arkansas has finished in the top 12 of the AP Poll four times (1998, 2006, 2010, 2011). Those teams would have been in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs and every once in a while, a future team should, too. Not every year, not every few years, but a couple times a decade would tell me the football program is tracking in the right direction.
How Do the Razorbacks Get There
Chasing College Football Playoff spots and consistently winning eight games a season doesn’t happen by magic. Obviously, the transfer portal and recruiting are key components of a winning football team. Lane Kiffin built this year’s Rebel squad almost exclusively out of the portal, as his recruiting class ranked 27th according to Rivals. Only South Carolina and Vanderbilt were lower.
Pittman and crew will have to do the same. Cull out those on campus who cannot help (many have already announced their intentions) and hang onto the ones that can, like KJ Jefferson and Jordan Domineck. Then find the right fits for his program to fill in the gaps. The secondary seems to be a HUGE need, as well as linebacker on defense. Offensive linemen, wide receivers and a backup quarterback would be priorities on offense.
Beyond the Jimmies and Joes, there is some work to do on the Xs and Os. We’re admittedly on the outside looking in and not a college football coach, but the short-yardage packages and plays need some offseason attention. Personnel, plays and ultimately execution led to so many drives fizzling. The defensive side needs talent and depth to play the style that made Barry Odom competitive at Missouri. I’m confident he would prefer to play a different scheme than the current bendable, breakable version we’ve seen the last two seasons.
Pittman’s in-game decision making will continue to develop, as well. Punting the ball away to Missouri and relying on a three-and-out comes to mind. So does going for it on fourth-and-short near the goal line with Malik Hornsby at quarterback against LSU, but not going for it with Jefferson against Missouri is another.
Being a head coach is hard. Real hard. With the prospects of looking like a genius if a gamble works and a knucklehead if it doesn’t. But that is why they make the big bucks. Really big bucks.
The sluggish starts were obvious, as three-and-outs to start a game became routine. A majority of teams have a script to start a game or a half and move the ball with ease as things go according to plan. Bobby Petrino was a master at this. The 2022 Razorbacks were not, which is puzzling with proven, high performance talent on the offensive side of the ball. It makes no sense to the fanbase, but we aren’t in the meetings, the practices, the locker room or the sideline during a game.
The third quarter struggles became enough of an issue that Pittman ordered a pregame warmup coming out of the locker room at half against Alabama to try and right the ship. Some of that is on the coaching staff, some of that is on the players themselves. Same could be said for laying an egg at home with uninspired overall play against Liberty in 2022 and Auburn in 2021.
Pittman will step back and evaluate all of these things, if he hasn’t already. Strength coach Jamil Walker, the entire strength and conditioning staff and the team nutritionist have already been terminated. It’s hard to tell if any additional on-field staff changes will come by his choosing. He hasn’t been afraid to let someone go that wasn’t coaching and recruiting at the level he desires and demands.
Looking Ahead to 2023 and Beyond
So now we all get to wait to see what the Razorback roster will look like for next season. There is a lot of opportunity for the right players to come in and earn playing time. If the Hogs aren’t stung too badly by players exiting the program in search of greener pastures, there is enough talent on The Hill to be around that eight-win mark.
The schedule is much, much more favorable in 2023. The non-conference slate eases and the Hogs get Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri at home. Of course, none are guaranteed wins because it’s impossible to predict which opponents will be better, worse or the same given the impact of the transfer portal.
But eight wins doesn’t look like an insurmountable hill to climb.
And for a realistic Arkansas football fan, that should be the year in, year out expectation. Give me that consistently and I will be completely content with the football program. Until Arkansas, as a state, starts producing more SEC level players, the program will have a hard time ever increasing that benchmark.
Arkansas’ better football teams require some in-state stars (think Treylon Burks, Darren McFadden, Matt Jones, Marcus Monk, Madre Hill, Peyton Hillis) as well as quality depth from within the borders to supplement the out-of-state talent coming in from Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, etc. Arkansas isn’t getting the premier players from out of state as evidenced by the three- and four-stars littering the roster. If the state produced more four- and five-stars, then Arkansas would have a chance to ratchet the program up a bit.
Football is unique compared to other sports such as basketball, women’s soccer and baseball, where the rosters are primarily made up of out-of-state players. The numbers required to make a quality football program hum are totally different. Not only are there 11 on offense and 11 on defense, but there’s also special teams. Time will tell if some of the highly touted in-state players signed the last couple of years will be major contributors to the program.
The same could be said for some of the other highly successful sports on campus. Arkansas, as a state, isn’t producing top-end position players in baseball (Cayden Wallace is an exception), but is producing some SEC-caliber pitchers. Eric Musselman is getting the top talent in the state (and Arkansas produces high D1 basketball talent routinely) on the hardwood, but with a roster that small, a lone player like Nick Smith Jr. makes a huge difference. One five-star player in football, unless he’s a quarterback, doesn’t have the same impact (case in point: McTelvin Agim).
So when you add all those things up, the expectation that Arkansas football should routinely win 10-plus games is pretty far-fetched. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon to believe a disastrous Chad Morris-type season is possible with the kind of steadiness Pittman and athletic director Hunter Yurachek bring to the fore. That would take a lot going wrong. Like, a whole lot. But Petrino showed the Razorback nation anything is possible in terms of a program going off the rails quickly. The same goes for Bielema’s final seasons when he got lazy in recruiting and actual coaching.
The players themselves, of course, should keep up talk of 10-win seasons, breaking into the expanded College Football Playoffs and all that. But as far as fan expectations go, eight wins year in and year out sounds pretty good to me.
Sam Pittman on Arkansas Football in Liberty Bowl
In a recent press conference, the Hogs’ head coach discussed his familiarity with Kansas and Jayhawks coach Lance Leipold:
“I do not know Coach, but I know of his reputation, and what they did — not just only this year, but some of the things that they did last year — were outstanding. He certainly has won everywhere he’s been, including Kansas University. I coached at Kansas in 2001, I think, so 21 years ago. It’s a wonderful university, great academics. Certainly they have a fine, fine football program. That’s what I know about him. I went to Pittsburg State. I coached at Hutchinson Junior College. So I have a lot of ties in Kansas and certainly coached at KU as well.”
Pittman was also asked about how he felt regarding the number of Razorbacks who would be available for the Liberty Bowl.
“Obviously, the opt-out of bowls has been something now that’s been going on for quite a little while,” he said. “And we’ll certainly have our share of guys that do that as well. But, you know, KJ Jefferson’s gonna be in that bowl. Rocket Sanders is gonna be in that bowl. Majority of our offensive linemen, our D-linemen.”
“We’re gonna have a team that’s going to be there ready, excited and ready to compete against a fine KU team. But I feel very strong that we’ll have good representation, and we certainly need our older leadership. We’re going to use the next 10 or 12 practices to head start into next year as well.”
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