FAYETTEVILLE — To see just how much the Arkansas football program has improved in two-plus years under Sam Pittman, look no further than the postgame locker room last Saturday.
The Razorbacks had just finished off a 31-24 win over No. 23 Cincinnati to open the 2022 season when the third-year coach rejoined his team. It was just the second win in a season-opening top-25 matchup in school history, but you wouldn’t have known it by the reaction of the players.
“Normally you beat a top-25 team here at Arkansas and go in a locker room that’s really celebrating and things of that nature,” Pittman said. “Our kids weren’t. I thought there was a problem with that.
“I addressed it with them. When we beat anybody, it doesn’t matter, let alone a top-25 team, you’ve got to celebrate with it. It shows a little bit about where the program is today versus where it was before.”
That last comment by Pittman is quite the understatement. Before he arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas was the laughingstock of the SEC and mentioned alongside the likes of Kansas, Rutgers and Vanderbilt as one of the worst teams in the Power Five conferences.
Wins over ranked opponents barely qualified as pipe dreams because the Razorbacks were just trying to beat mediocre Group of Five and FCS teams. It got so bad under former head coach Chad Morris that, during his second season, players knew they stunk and pretty much gave up hope — a stark contrast to the feeling amongst the team now.
“I remember freshman year, in 2019, going into a lot of games and a lot of guys were like, ‘Bro, we’re about to get blown out,’” tight end Trey Knox said on a recent episode of the Hog Pod. “We don’t feel like that any more. We feel like we can go beat anybody in the country. That’s how you gotta feel to play in this conference.”
How Arkansas Football Players Feel
After the game, safety Simeon Blair described the win over Cincinnati — a team that was in last year’s College Football Playoff — as an “energy booster” and confirmed their feelings that Arkansas “can play with anybody in this conference, anybody in the world.”
Quarterback KJ Jefferson said the win shows the Razorbacks are still a program on the rise, while linebacker Bumper Pool acknowledged the difference in hokey, catchphrase-filled culture and “Club Dub” mentality of the early part of his career and where they are now.
“It’s kind of a different feeling because, you know, we got to win today,” Pool said. “In the past, a win would have been meant the world, but for us, it’s like, we’ve got so much to work on. And we’re building for something greater.”
Perhaps even more telling of how far Arkansas has come since the Chad Morris era, though, was the fact that the win was expected. The Razorbacks were favored by 6.5 points in most sports books, so they covered the spread.
Even ESPN’s Football Power Index — the computer-generated power ratings that consistently draw the ire of Arkansas fans — gave Arkansas the edge going into the game, giving it a nearly 60% chance to win, and most national experts picked the Razorbacks.
“It’s a good feeling not to really ‘upset’ people any more,” Knox said. “We’re in games and we can play with everybody. There is no ‘upsets.’ We expect to win every game and our fans expect us to win every game. That’s what we like to see.”
By the Numbers: Sam Pittman vs. Chad Morris
It’s easy to talk about changing the culture and having a different feeling amongst the team, but the only thing that truly matters is the result on the field. Luckily for Arkansas football, it’s been dramatic.
The Razorbacks’ win over Cincinnati was their 24th game coached by Sam Pittman. That equals the number of games during the Chad Morris era from 2018-19 if you include the two games led by interim coach Barry Lunney Jr.
The sheer difference in the win-loss record — 13-11 under Pittman vs. 4-20 under Morris/Lunney — is plenty when it comes to showing how much better the program is now, but this side-by-side comparison does an even better job of painting the picture:
|Chad Morris||Statistic||Sam Pittman|
|4-20 (4-18 under Morris)||W/L Record||13-11|
|0-16 (0-14 under Morris)||SEC Record||7-11|
|9-14-1 (7-14-1 under Morris)||ATS||16-7-1|
|2 games||Never Trailed||8 games|
|14 games||Never Led||4 games|
|21.5 points/game||Scoring Offense||28.8 points/game|
|35.8 points allowed/game||Scoring Defense||28.0 points allowed/game|
|337.9 yards/game||Total Offense||421.0 yards/game|
|431.9 yards allowed/game||Total Defense||405.0 yards allowed/game|
Here are a few other tidbits to further drive home the point:
- Chad Morris had the same number of total wins as he had losses to Group of Five teams. That number was four. Sam Pittman now has as many wins over top-25 teams (four) as Morris had total wins, which included two against FCS foes. (He has more if you include last year’s win over Mississippi State, when the Bulldogs were unranked by the AP, but No. 17 in the CFP poll.)
- That fact is even more incredible considering 21 of Pittman’s games have been against SEC, Power Five or ranked opponents, compared to only 16 such games for Morris/Lunney.
- In 12 games against ranked opponents under Pittman, Arkansas is 4-8 with an average margin of minus-9.9. In eight games against ranked opponents under Morris/Lunney, Arkansas was 0-8 with an average margin of minus-30.
- Of Pittman’s eight losses to top-25 teams, three were by one possession. Another was by 11 points, while the other four were by 27, 28, 37 and 49 — with the latter two against eventual national champs Alabama and Georgia. Under Morris/Lunney, two of Arkansas’ eight losses to ranked teams were by one possession. The other six were by at least 31.
- Under Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the Razorbacks have shut out an opponent for an entire half seven times, including in the first half against Cincinnati. Under Morris and defensive coordinator John Chavis (who was coaching middle school a couple years later), they did it just twice — and both times were in the 2018 shutout win over Tulsa, which went 3-9 that year.
What’s Next for Arkansas Football
While the Chad Morris era was — rightfully so — cut short after only 22 games, with Barry Lunney Jr. finishing out the two-year span by coaching the last two games, Sam Pittman’s tenure will last much longer.
He’ll coach his 25th game Saturday when South Carolina comes to town for the Razorbacks’ SEC opener. If they beat the Gamecocks, which they’re favored to do, Pittman will have twice as many conference wins as Morris had total wins.
Arkansas is coming off its best season in a decade, but fans and players alike have their sights set on an even better year in 2022. With Pittman at the helm, it certainly seems possible, even against what’s arguably shaping up to be the toughest schedule in college football once again.
“We’re not the best Razorback team we’re going to be right now, and we know that and we’re trying to get better every day,” Knox said after the Cincinnati win. “If you get better every day, you never know what could happen.”
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