While Arkansas football still has work to do to climb back into the AP Poll, there are some familiar faces in the top 25.
For the second straight week, Illinois — led by head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. — is ranked. The Fighting Illini jumped up six spots to No. 18 after beating Minnesota 26-14 over the weekend.
The win improved Illinois football to 6-1, which is already more wins than it had last year, its first season under the former Arkansas head coach. Bielema has the Illini ranked for the first time since 2011 and in good position to finish the year ranked for the first time since 2007.
As you might expect in the Big Ten, Illinois has done it mostly with defense. In fact, the Illini have the top scoring and total defense in the FBS — ahead of the likes of Georgia and Iowa. However, a key to the strong start has been a much-improved offense under the guidance of Lunney, the former Arkansas quarterback and assistant coach.
Barry Lunney Jr. & Illinois football
Lunney spent the previous two years as the offensive coordinator at UTSA under fellow former Arkansas assistant Jeff Traylor before being hired by his former boss at Arkansas to inject some life into Illinois’ offense heading into Year 2 of the Bielema era. He has done exactly that.
Last season, the Illini averaged just 20.2 points on 329.8 yards, which ranked 116th and 112th in the country, respectively. Their numbers still aren’t great in 2022, but they are up significantly from that, as they are putting up 26.0 points and 415.9 yards per game. Those marks rank 87th and 62nd nationally.
The offense is led by the country’s top rusher, Chase Brown, who already has 1,059 yards through seven games. Illinois is riding him hard, as his 192 carries not only lead the country, but are 24 more than anyone else in the FBS.
Assuming he stays healthy and the defense continues playing at a high level, Illinois very well could end up representing its division in the Big Ten Championship. A road trip to No. 4 Michigan looms on Nov. 19, but the rest of its schedule appears very manageable.
The biggest challenger in the West — by far the weaker division in the Big Ten — appears to be Purdue. The Illini and Boilermakers are tied at 3-1 and no one else in the division is above .500 in conference play. Those two teams meet on Nov. 12 in Champaign, Ill. Other than that, Illinois travels to Nebraska (3-4) and Northwestern (1-5) and hosts Michigan State (3-4).
There’s better than a 2 in 3 chance that Bielema’s squad wins at least nine games this year and they have a pretty good shot at reaching double-digit wins, according to the SP+.
Michigan and Ohio State appear to be on a collision course once again for a spot in the College Football Playoff, with the loser likely still in position to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. Bielema and Lunney could play spoiler, but it’s more likely that Illinois will end up in one of the other bowls with Big Ten tie-ins.
Why is that notable for Arkansas football fans? There are three bowls that pit the SEC against the Big Ten: the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, ReliaQuest (formerly Outback) Bowl in Tampa and Music City Bowl in Nashville.
It would likely require a strong finish by the Razorbacks and/or a slip-up or two by Illinois down the stretch, but it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that Arkansas meets its former coach in the postseason. Indeed, the hardest stretch of Arkansas’ season is over, and it has four very winnable games remaining on the schedule with Auburn, Liberty, LSU and Missouri. Ole Miss, currently in the top 10, projects as the toughest opponent left, but Arkansas should have a fighter’s chance in that one because it’s in Fayetteville.
Not only is such a matchup possible, it is actually currently predicted by at least one major outlet. In The Athletic’s midseason bowl projections, Stewart Mandel and Scott Dochterman actually have Arkansas and Illinois meeting in the Music City Bowl.
That would be the Razorbacks’ first trip back to Nashville for a bowl game in two decades. Following the 2002 season, they lost to Minnesota 29-14.
Chad Morris’ Dark Magic
It’s unclear exactly what his role is as a senior offensive analyst, but Chad Morris has brought his bad mojo to South Florida.
The same man who was arguably the worst head coach in SEC history at Arkansas, contributed to Gus Malzahn being fired at Auburn and oversaw a pair of lengthy streaks come to an end at Texas powerhouse Allen High School is now on staff of one of the worst teams in college football.
After a somewhat respectable home loss to Tulane, the Bulls are now 1-6 and check in at No. 110 — out of 131 FBS teams — in ESPN’s Football Power Index.
The side of the ball Morris is presumably helping with has performed about as you’d expect. South Florida is tied for 92nd in scoring offense (25.3 ppg) and ranks 102nd in total offense (351.1 ypg).
He’s also worked his magic, if that’s what you want to call it, on USF quarterback Gerry Bohanon. A starter for a top-10 Baylor team last season, the Earle native has seen his numbers drop across the board.
Bohanon is completing just 56.9 percent of his passes for 6.7 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and six interceptions. His quarterback rating had dipped from 146.6 last year to 117.9 and he ranks ninth out of 11 qualified quarterbacks in the AAC with a 55.9 Total QBR on ESPN. That’s worse than the drop former Auburn quarterback Bo Nix experienced between his freshman year, before Morris arrived as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, and his sophomore season in 2020, the year Morris cast his spell on the Tigers.
There’s a good chance it is a one-year stop in Tampa for Morris, as South Florida head coach Jeff Scott is on the hot seat and could be fired before the end of the season. He is in his third season and has a Morris-like 4-24 record that includes a 1-17 mark in conference play
Gus Malzahn’s Resurgence
Speaking of Gus Malzahn, the Fort Smith native and former Arkansas offensive coordinator is enjoying a great Year 2 at UCF.
Although the Knights had a disappointing six-point loss against Louisville earlier in the season, they are sitting at 5-1 and are one of three teams who are unbeaten in conference play with one loss overall in the American Athletic Conference.
While Cincinnati and Tulane are ranked, UCF is just outside of the top 25 and could find its way into the AP Poll over the next few weeks because those two teams remain on the schedule. First, the Knights host the Bearcats on Oct. 29 and then they travel to Tulane on Nov. 12.
Malzahn is known as an offensive guru and UCF has certainly been very good on that side of the ball, averaging 41.3 points (13th in the FBS) and 525.2 yards (5th in the FBS) with former Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee running the show, but it is also exceptional on defense.
The Knights haven’t allowed more than 20 points in any game this season and are top 10 nationally in scoring defense, ranking seventh at 14.3 points allowed per game.
Second Chance for Joe Craddock
It may be fair to place most of the blame for Arkansas’ struggles in 2018 and 2019 on Chad Morris, but it’s also worth noting that he didn’t help himself by hiring a young, inexperienced offensive coordinator.
Joe Craddock was just 32 years old and four years removed from being a graduate assistant at Clemson when Morris brought him from SMU to Fayetteville to run the Razorbacks’ offense.
When Arkansas pulled the plug on that staff, Craddock landed at UAB as a tight ends coach — quite the fall from being a coordinator in the SEC. However, he is now getting another shot at being an offensive coordinator, as first-year Troy head coach Jon Sumrall hired him for that role this offseason.
Although the Trojans are having a hard time converting it to points, they are moving the ball much better this year under Craddock than the previous staff. He has helped them improve their yardage output from 336.4 yards per game (111th in the FBS) to 399.4 (70th).
Troy is still 98th in scoring offense at 24.3 points per game, but that is a step up from last year, when it ranked 102nd nationally at 22.8 points per game.
Craddock has also already experienced more wins through barely half a season at Troy than he did in two years at Arkansas, as the Trojans are 5-2 with a respectable 18-point loss at Ole Miss and four-point loss at Appalachian State being the only blemishes.
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