ESPN’s Loss of Faith in Hogs is a Blessing in Disguise

Simeon Blair, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

After last week’s disappointing loss to Texas A&M, the Arkansas football team understandably tumbled in the polls. The Razorbacks’ two-week stint in the top 10 ended and they fell all the way to No. 20 in the AP Poll, while checking in at No. 19 in the Coaches Poll.

The drop in the human polls was nothing compared to the computers. Arkansas fell significantly in ESPN’s Football Power Index, landing at No. 42 – just two spots in front of Western Kentucky. In the SEC, the Razorbacks are ranked ninth out of 14 teams, with Auburn the only SEC West team behind them.

It seems as though the FPI has written off Arkansas, anticipating it to have a tough remainder of the season. However, that isn’t the end-all, be-all. Despite what big sports media says, Arkansas could still potentially have a very good season, even improving on last year’s 9-4 record. This could be right where head coach Sam Pittman wants his team’s mindset.

What ESPN’s Algorithm Says 

The Football Power Index is ESPN’s predictive power rating algorithm that takes a team’s strengths and weaknesses and uses that to predict matchups played on a neutral field. This allows the system to simulate a team’s entire season, then rank them and set odds on specific records based on their performance in the simulation.

At the moment, Arkansas is projected to win only 6 games by the FPI. That’s just three more wins the rest of the season. On top of that, the FPI gives the Razorbacks a minuscule 0.3% chance to win the SEC West and a 0% chance to win the overall conference title.

The reason for Arkansas’ significant drop in the FPI isn’t just the loss to Texas A&M, but is also likely aided by its defensive woes this season. The Razorbacks have one of the worst pass defenses in the country, allowing 302.3 yards per game through the air. Only five FBS teams are giving up more, which is actually better than where they were entering last week – dead last. That is because of a better showing against the Aggies, but Arkansas still gave up large yardage plays in critical situations.

Regardless of those defensive woes, the FPI and AP drops feel like an insult to many Arkansas football fans. Throughout the offseason and during the first few weeks of the season, the hype around the program was real.

Arkansas was considered by some as the third-best team in the SEC. There were hopes and talks about how this could be the year that Arkansas snaps its 15-game losing streak against Alabama. Now it seems – after only one loss – the script has flipped for Pittman’s team. Many major sports outlets have lost faith in the Razorbacks, considering their season all but over.

Arkansas Football Brings the “Chips” 

According to the FPI, Arkansas has just a 6.9% chance to beat Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Despite the fact that the game will be played in front of a packed Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Vegas has installed the Razorbacks as a 17.5-point underdog.

Especially with the game being in Fayetteville, those are tough odds for an Arkansas team that was so highly praised by everyone going into the season. But this is where Arkansas shines the most – with its backs against the wall, written off and forgotten.

Although it’s tough to no longer be in the top 10, and the loss to Texas A&M still stings, this could be right where Pittman wants his team mentally. Arkansas has thrived under his leadership, and part of that is because of the underdog mentality that he instills in his players.

For the last two seasons, the Razorbacks have played with a chip on their shoulder. In 2020, that chip led them to their first SEC wins in 2 years. The chip also led Arkansas to a 9-4 season in 2021, resulting in Arkansas playing in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, beating Penn State.

This year things looked a little different. Arkansas was expected to win games and was expected to contend in the West. It was hard for Arkansas to have that underdog mentality when there was so much hype and expectations around the team. The “chip” may have been there, but it was not the same chip from the last two years.

Combine the team’s emotions from last week with the loss of faith in the Hogs nationally, and Pittman has the recipe for the largest “chip” he’s ever cooked up. It’s almost a guarantee that he’ll have his team ready to go this weekend, re-instilling that underdog mentality, and certainly bringing the chips to the game.

Looking Past the FPI

ESPN’s FPI is a very complex and intricate system. It’s capable of running tens of thousands of simulations of a single game or season, calculating every player, play call and almost every possible on-field variable.

However, this has always been deceptive because there is one thing the FPI does not consider. The FPI doesn’t take into account the human factor of the game. It is impossible for any algorithm to effectively calculate the effects of human emotions – the wild momentum swings, the emotions and passion of the fans, the motivation and heart of the players on the field. These things are impossible to quantify on a computer. Only living, breathing people can truly understand that.

The FPI plays games with 1s and 0s, Xs and Os. Arkansas plays games with living people, who have a drive and emotions, and a willingness to win. In college football, wild things can happen any given Saturday. Even if Arkansas loses this weekend, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Arkansas to finish the year 9-3 or even 10-2.

Pittman won’t let his team’s morale collapse. Arkansas will fight in every game they’re in. As we progress forward in the season, do not let the FPI and the big-time analysts scare you. Look past it all and remember that games are sometimes decided by the emotion and heart of the players, not ESPN’s million-dollar football algorithm.

Regardless of the results of this weekend’s game, assume a big bounce back from the Hogs.  Expect Pittman to have his players fired up and ready to roll against the Tide. As game day approaches, any Razorback fan should be excited, as we look past the FPI and bring the chips. Arkansas should hold on to its underdog mentality and prove to the nation that the Hogs should not have been written off. Look for the Razorbacks to keep this mindset not just for this game, but for the remainder of the season.


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