Some folks just can’t stop living in the past.
Especially some folks who work for ESPN.
It’s no secret that the Arkansas football program was the worst in the SEC at the end of the Bret Bielema era and through the abominable 2018 and 2019 seasons under Chad Morris.
However, in the nearly two years since Sam Pittman came aboard, there has been considerable improvement in every last facet of the program. The Hogs return 19 starters from the 2020 team and 23 seniors and “super seniors” — the most of any team in major college football.
Combine that with the fact that each of Arkansas’ returning starting offensive linemen has gained an average of 30 pounds of muscle, plus the expected schematic improvement on both sides of the ball after a full off-season under coordinators Kendal Briles and Barry Odom, and it’s little wonder most prognosticators think Arkansas will win 5 or 6 games.
That should place it in the middle of the SEC West, top-heavy with lines.com national title contenders and once again the hardest division in the game.
None of this is news to Arkansas football fans and those who following SEC football in general.
Apparently, however, it’s all news to one of the main analysts at ESPN’s College Football Gameday Live.
Arkansas Football: New SEC Cellar Dweller?
Historically, Vanderbilt takes the crown for the SEC’s worst SEC program.
Despite some good seasons under James Franklin, the Commodores have never come close to winning even an SEC East title.
When talking about the pecking order in the expanded SEC in a few years, when Oklahoma and Texas join the league, it’s a safe bet that Vanderbilt will still be at the bottom.
But Harry Lyles Jr., analyst for College Football Gameday Live, has decided that Arkansas is going to stay down there with the Commodores.
That came across in a recent episode, when Lyles went into detail about why Oklahoma will not be able to win as much in the new SEC than it has in the Big 12.
“I think the one thing that’s going to be really different for Texas and Oklahoma is you don’t have those bottom feeder games that are going to be the insane blow outs,” he said.
“Obviously the bottom of the Big 12 is a much easier ride than even the bottom of the SEC — like Arkansas, Vanderbilt. They can keep you in a game for a half or three quarters.”
That’s a backhanded, quarter of a compliment if I’ve ever heard one.
Arkansas is a bottom feeder, but at least it’s a lot better than Kansas?
“There’s no Kansas here, I can promise you that, there will be no Kansas for us to play in football.”
Thinking the Arkansas football program will remain a cellar dweller (which it obviously was for a few years) once Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC is simply short-sighted.
It doesn’t take into account the major improvement that the Hogs have already shown under Pittman, and what another couple years of improvement would do.
Fortunately, not all talking heads are in the dark about this.
Looks Who Ranks Arkansas Football at No. 28
ESPN and the SEC Network have become infamous for slighting Razorback sports — just look what the SEC Network did with the basketball Hogs last season — but other national and regional outlets actually show the Razorbacks as much love as fans do.
D1baseball’s Aaron Fitt is a perfect example of this.
Mike Bratton, who runs the SEC Mike podcast, is another example.
In his SEC West preview episode, he brought on a guest — Brett Ciancia — who lays out the case for why Arkansas will finish ahead of Auburn and Mississippi State in 2021.
Ciania points out Arkansas should have been 5-5 last year, if not for a hosing at Auburn and ejection call vs LSU, and that the Razorbacks are good enough to come in at No. 28 overall nationally in his preseason poll.
Hear him break down Arkansas football starting at 7:18 here:
In other episodes, Mike Bratton makes the case that Arkansas will beat Texas in the teams’ big September matchup in Fayetteville:
He brought on Anwar Richardson, a Texas analyst for Orangebloods.com, to get the Longhorns’ perspective on the second game of the season for each team.
Richardson starts out with a bang when talking about Texas’ first opponent of the season, Louisiana: “Most Texas fans think Louisiana is tougher than Arkansas. I mean, look, Arkansas was a three-win team last season. Texas was a seven-win team. That’s just a logic, right? [Not really, Anwar]”
“And then, Louisiana is a team that beat Iowa State last year in the season opener. So that’s a team that’s posted, I think, 10 wins or more the last two years.”
Richardson does give Arkansas a chance in Arkansas vs Texas, considering the Texans’ new head coach, new quarterback and new scheme.
“The game’s on the road, and when you got a new team on the road and new offense, new defense, new everything, new on special teams. And then you’ve got a new quarterback in his first road start in a hostile environment, strange things happen.”
“Geoff Ketchum, who’s the owner and publisher of Orangebloods, he used to tell me, he’s like, “Look, Alamar, Arkansas is a crazy place to go into, and if you’ve never been there,” he’s like, “It’s a crazy place. Strange things happen there. Arkansas people, that rivalry goes back for years.”
“They don’t like Texas.”
Still, unlike Bratton, Richardson predicts a Longhorns win in Arkansas vs Texas.
“The thing working in Texas’ favor is they got a hell of a hard running back by the name of Bijan Robinson. Former five-star. He’s going to be the bell cow for the University of Texas.”
“There’s some Heisman odds on him. But he’s a guy that within three out of his last four games rushed for over 400 yards, 100 yards each…. He’s going to be a problem. Your guys got to get used to him, and he’s only a sophomore. Everyone on your podcast needs to get used to that name. He’s going to be a problem… I think Arkansas has that to contend with.
He also thinks new Texas football coach Steve Sarkisian could give Texas an edge at quarterback, whether they go with Casey Thompson or Hudson Card. “Sarkisian has a good track record of dealing with quarterbacks, way back to the USC years, Washington years” and of course with Mac Jones at Alabama.
“Texas, also from a talent standpoint, probably has a little more talent than Arkansas. But Texas’s biggest issues has just been the coaching aspect of it, coaching up the talent. But can look at composite rankings, guys on this team, Texas had two top-five recruiting classes under Tom Herman in back-to-back seasons.”
More on Texas vs Arkansas here:
Oklahoma, Texas and the New SEC
And below is more insight from the folks at ESPN on Texas and Oklahoma entering the SEC. Yes, Lyles missed the ball on projecting Arkansas football, but overall this is on point:
On Oklahoma Recruiting in new SEC:
“If you look at Oklahoma and why they’ve improved, particularly last year and why they’re a big favorite this year, it’s because of the improvement on defense. Where? Within the defensive front seven.”
“Well the SEC, it is a front seven league. You’ve got to have defensive lineman and you got to have a lot of them. Well, where do they reside? Georgia, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi.”
“If you’re Oklahoma, you’ve now opened the doors to cast a much wider net. You’ve already got a national brand. You’ve been to the college football playoff. You’re going to walk into that door with some cache, but you better have success because you’re not going to be able to build your roster out of Midwestern states to compete with an Alabama and a LSU.”
“With Texas, they might have a slight advantage going forward at least initially, because Steve Sarkisian is fresh off of a SEC run. He knows exactly what he’s getting into. They know exactly what they have to have roster wise to compete or beat a Alabama, a Georgia, a LSU, and Auburn each and every year to have a chance to go to Atlanta.”
Such was the case, too, with supposed QB whisperer Chad Morris, who had been the offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and helped build that dynasty.