Cleaning Out the Stables May Buck Troubling 3-Year Trend for Arkansas

Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Arkansas will have one of the least experienced teams in the FBS next season.

Bill Connelly, a college football writer for ESPN and self-proclaimed “professional nerd,” released his annual returning production rankings Monday and the Razorbacks check in at No. 109 out of 134 teams.

They are at 46% in Connelly’s formula, which factors in returning yards (passing, rushing and receiving) and offensive line snaps on offense and returning tackles, passes defended, tackles for loss and sacks on defense. The formula also factors in transfers from the FBS level.

It’s not the end-all, be-all, but has proven to be a pretty reliable indicator for the upcoming season.

“High or low returning production percentages correlate well with improvement and regression,” Connelly wrote. “They might not guarantee a good or bad team, but they can still tell us a lot.”

In the SEC, only Alabama (No. 115) and Mississippi State (No. 122) are ranked behind the Razorbacks and both of them experienced head coaching changes. The Crimson Tide traditionally rank low in this stat because of their annual departures for the NFL Draft and have typically overcome them because of their elite recruiting.

The breakdown for Arkansas is 50% returning production on offense, which is 99th in the FBS, and just 41% on defense, which is No. 115.

What it Means for Arkansas Football

In his piece for ESPN, Connelly wrote that teams who fall below the 50% threshold in returning production have typically regressed in the upcoming season. In fact, they have dropped an average of 5.7 points in his SP+ rankings – which he describes as “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency,” similar to KenPom in basketball.

That would be bad news for Arkansas football, which finished the 2023 season at No. 54 in the SP+ rankings with a rating of 3.5 points. Subtract 5.7 from that and it dips into the negatives at minus-2.2. That would have ranked 75th in the country last season, which is in the bottom half of the FBS.

Over the last few years, this metric has done pretty well when it comes to foretelling what is to come for the Razorbacks.

When Sam Pittman took over the program, he inherited a team that just went 2-10 overall and winless in the SEC for a second straight season, resulting in a final ranking of No. 108 in the SP+. Despite the change in leadership, he managed to retain a decent chunk of the 2019 team’s key players and Arkansas ranked 58th in returning production at 65%. The result was a 3-7 season that ended with a vastly improved No. 57 ranking in the final SP+.

The Razorbacks then returned 78% of their production after that season, ranking 39th in the metric heading into 2021 — a season many fans will remember as Arkansas’ best in a decade, going 9-4 with a win in the Outback Bowl and finishing at No. 22 in the SP+ (and No. 21 in the AP Poll). Specifically, the returning production on defense was a whopping 85% and ranked 15th. Sure enough, that unit was one of the most improved in all of college football.

Prior to the 2022 season, Arkansas dropped to No. 79 in the returning production rankings, but were still at 62%. Despite losing two more games to go 7-6, the Razorbacks finished at No. 25 in the SP+. However, that year, the returning production on defense was just 60%, which ranked 93rd. Injuries of course played a role, but the defense severely regressed that season.

The returning production really took a hit going into last season. It remained above the 50% threshold, but Arkansas was at 54%, which was No. 109 in the FBS. That should have been a sign that the Razorbacks might be due for a step back — and could serve as a warning for this coming season.

From a record perspective, it’s hard to get much worse than 4-8, especially when the 2024 schedule includes non-conference games against UAPB (2-9 in the FCS in 2023), UAB (4-8 in 2023) and Louisiana Tech (3-9 in 2023). Of course, the Razorbacks did beat Florida last year, so going winless in conference play is one way it could be worse.

However, Arkansas was at least competitive in most of its losses, losing to BYU, LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State by a touchdown or less. That likely propped it up in the SP+ rankings, as it was easily the highest-ranked four-win team in the FBS last year, 27 spots ahead of Colorado at No. 81, and ranked ahead of 12 Power Five teams with better records.

It’s clear the SP+ doesn’t have an inherent bias against Arkansas football. So it would be folly to dismiss the numbers laid out above that don’t paint the prettiest of pictures for the Razorbacks in 2024.

Context Provides Potential Silver Lining

Of course, it’s also fair to point out that Connelly’s numbers are just that — numbers. They lack context that could give some reason for optimism, so let’s put our rose-colored glasses on for a moment.

The biggest change of the offseason came in the form of Arkansas bringing back Bobby Petrino as its offensive coordinator. Regardless of your opinion of him as a man or whether you believe he deserved a second chance, there’s no denying that Petrino is one of the best play callers in the country.

The Razorbacks do have some playmakers on offense and there’s reason to believe he’ll know how to scheme things up for them better than Dan Enos, who was apparently more concerned with emailing students after losses than running plays they practiced during the week.

After all, a coordinator change on the other side of the ball — bringing in Travis Williams to replace Barry Odom — helped Arkansas improve defensively last season despite returning only 51% of its defensive production (96th in the FBS).

Pittman also brought in Eric Mateos to coach the offensive line, which was perhaps the most disappointing position on the team last season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe he’s capable of making a quick impact on that unit considering his success at BYU and Baylor.

Continuity on the defensive staff will surely help, as well.

There’s also the possibility that some of the transfer portal departures could actually benefit the Razorbacks in an “addition by subtraction” kind of way given wide receiver Isaiah Sategna’s comments about locker room “cancers” last month.

It’s also worth noting that a few of Arkansas’ transfer portal additions were brought in because of their potential, rather than proven on-field production that’d be factored into Connelly’s calculations. 

For example, Keyshawn Blackstock and Addison Nichols didn’t play a ton at Michigan State and Tennessee, respectively, but are expected to fight for starting jobs on the Razorbacks’ offensive line. The same could be said about linebacker Xavian Sorey Jr., a former five-star recruit whose playing time was limited at Georgia.

There is a precedent already set for a nearly best-case scenario in this situation. Just look at Drew Sanders, who played some at Alabama but became an All-American at Arkansas.

If those things — the coaching changes, improved locker room chemistry and player evaluations — all come to fruition, it could be enough for the Razorbacks to at least maintain their position in the SP+ rankings. The key, of course, will be turning enough of those close losses into wins to save Pittman’s job.

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