Despite Recent Progress, Two Significant Challenges Keep Arkansas Football from “Elite” Status

Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Can Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman build his program to an elite level?

Due to the elusiveness of a definition of “elite” that satisfies everybody, and in an attempt to remain positive, let’s get more specific: Can Sam Pittman land the Razorbacks in the top 10 of the final AP Poll at least once in the next five years?  

Considering that Pittman himself rescued the Razorbacks from the abyss of irrelevance just three short years ago, and the fact the Hogs haven’t finished in the top 10 since 2011 and before that 1982, it will probably be closer to five years than next season.  

However, it does matter that Pittman has already gotten the Hogs into the Top 10 about a third of the way through the last two seasons. Sure, things changed once the thick of the SEC schedule hit, but those in-season Top 10 rankings testify to the job Pittman has already done and what he could do in the next five years.

So let’s dive into the not-so-secret recipe of how to finish seasons strong enough to stay in the top 10, which would land Arkansas football a spot in the College Football Playoffs come 2024, when the field expands to 12.

Improved Recruiting by Arkansas Football

A common counter-argument is that Arkansas can’t recruit enough elite talent because of location, but the naysayers must be asked why they think, say, Norman, or Stillwater, Oklahoma are better places for football than Fayetteville?  

Anyone who’s ever been to Stillwater could easily wonder why that geographic area is not named “Backwater” and Norman’s got nothing on Northwest Arkansas in 2023. Yet, the Backwater Cowboys ended up in the Top 10 as recently as 2021. Further, they did it living in the shadow of the Oklahoma Sooners, who had seven straight top-10 finishes before this past season.

Whether your program is in the Big 12 or SEC, you must annually recruit good players from high school and figure out how to keep enough of your good players and coaches on board year in and year out when other programs want to pluck them away.

During Pittman’s tenure, Arkansas has recruited classes ranked No. 30 (2020), No. 24 (2021) and No. 25 (2022), according to the 247Sports Composite. His 2023 recruiting class, which was officially put into the books Wednesday, ranks No. 22. Considering the mass exodus of players and coaches from the Hill at the end of the season, Pittman could be viewed as a miracle worker for landing his best class with the Razorbacks.  

It’s a trend in the right direction, but is it enough? Kinda…….not really.

The Challenge of the SEC West

It’s not too heavy of a lift for college football fans to agree that “theoretically speaking” a program that consistently recruits top 25 classes should end seasons ranked in the top 25, eventually. Seems fair to me.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way.  

There are a host of changes that can occur along the way, but we’ll start with one thing we can reasonably be assured will remain the same. That is the major challenge of racking up wins playing in the SEC West, annual winner of the “toughest division in the toughest conference in college football” crown.

In other words, Arkansas may put a team on the field that can beat all but 19 of the other 130 teams in the FBS, but that may not be reflected in the polls as a No. 20 ranking.  Winning is what matters, and the benefit of the doubt received from playing ridiculously tough opponents every week only extends so far.

What can change is signing higher-rated recruiting classes. Even considering the SEC West schedule gauntlet, the closer those classes get to No. 10, the greater chance the Hogs have at ending seasons in the top 10.  

However, in the two-plus decades of the modern recruiting rankings era, Arkansas football has never sniffed the top 10. What can make up for that, though, are coaches who consistently coach players up to play better than their star rating.

Developing Talent on Offense

That brings us to the Razorbacks’ new offensive coordinator, Dan Enos. He’s been called a “Quarterback Whisperer” and has coached a number of quarterbacks who are now doing extremely well in the NFL.

In particular, he coached quarterbacks at Alabama for one year when Jalen Hurts, who will start in the upcoming Super Bowl, was there. He also coached Tua Tagavailoa, who starts for the Miami Dolphins, as well as Mac Jones, who starts for the New England Patriots. He also coached Brandon Allen at Arkansas in 2015, who backs up Joe Burrow for the Cincinnati Bengals. The only thing that separates them from the Super Bowl is four points.  

You can make your own assessment as to whether those four would have made it to the NFL without being coached by Enos for a year.

Whatever your conclusion, he does bring some star power with him when it comes to NFL quarterbacks. This alone should help the Hogs continue to recruit good quarterbacks. That should inevitably lure more quality wide receivers and tight ends the caliber of Luke Hasz and Shamar Easter, the latter of whom signed his National Letter of Intent on Wednesday.

However, Enos also carries with him, regardless of the players he’s coached during his six years as an offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Miami and Maryland, an offense that averages about 28.5 points per game.

Now, to be clear, the return of KJ Jefferson, Rocket Sanders and others in addition to what appears to be a tall and talented group of transfer wide receivers should help him do better than his average.

Hog fans better hope so.

In 2022, six SEC teams averaged less than 30 points per game. That list includes Auburn (5-7), Florida (6-7), Missouri (6-7), Texas A&M (5-7), Vanderbilt (5-7) and Kentucky, which was the only one of the six to eke out a winning record at 7-6.

Now, I’ve only lived in Arkansas for 47 of my nearly 58 years on this planet, but I get the feeling from some of the locals that Hog fans aren’t satisfied when their team is in a constant struggle to become bowl eligible. Additionally, an offensive showing like any of these teams had last year renders the central question of this column moot without a rock-solid defense.

Arkansas Football Defensive Woes

Regarding the Razorbacks, “rock,” “solid” and “defense” are not words that have appeared in the same sentence for a long time. In fact, a “good” defense has been about as elusive as the aforementioned definition of “elite.”

In 2022, the Razorbacks ranked 124th out of 131 in total defense and was dead last in the FBS in passing defense. To turn that nothing burger into a hockey puck, they produced 0 defensive touchdowns.

How did Pittman respond? After hiring defensive coordinator Travis Williams, he brought on Marcus Woodson as a co-defensive coordinator who coached Florida State’s defensive backfield to No. 4 in the FBS in passing yards allowed. That’s a 127-ranking swing in the right direction. It’s a major upgrade.

To be certain, Woodson and Williams (stolen from the Gus Malzahn coaching tree) were solid hires for the defense. They’ve proven they can get the kind of performance needed out of their respective position rooms to be competitive.

Plus, for the Razorbacks to have a hope of staying near the Top 10 late in November, they will need significantly better depth on defense to prevent the kinds of drop offs that happened when important defensive backs like Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher went down the last two years. Those kind of injuries are, unfortunately, more common than not in a grinding schedule that may just get tougher once Texas and Oklahoma arrive in the SEC.

Building good, quality depth at all three levels of the defense has been an ongoing challenge for the Arkansas football program for decades, but these new coaches provide hope that it can finally be achieved.

Aside from a Robb Smith season here, or a Ken Burns “Code Red” breakout there, the number of “great” years from Arkansas defensive coordinators in the SEC era has been in short supply.

Still, none of this means Pittman can’t land the Hogs in the final AP Top 10 in the next five years. However, Razorback Nation should manage its expectations and understand that it probably won’t happen in 2023.

Yes, even Rome wasn’t built in a day. While this particular Rome has been under construction since Arkansas joined the SEC more than 30 years ago, the trend, at least recently, has happily been away from a return to the Dark Ages.


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