There will be only one team called the “Sooners” in the SEC this upcoming football season, but most of the conference’s programs should temporarily share that nickname in the wake of the news that Nick Saban will retire.
This time, however, it’s not pistol-toting settlers hopping on horses to lay claim to parcels of land but rather opposing coaches going after Alabama football recruits and portal departures.
As Arkansas recruiting analyst Otis Kirk sees it, the Razorbacks need to join the coming fray as soon as possible. With the chance to take advantage of prospects who could transfer away from the Crimson Tide in the next 30 days, Kirk posted “The Hogs need to go Hog hunting on that roster.”
The 72-year-old Nick Saban exits stage right as the greatest college football coach in at least modern times, having racked up 11 SEC championships, 7 national titles and a 20-2 record against the Arkansas football program. While leading Alabama, he never lost to the Razorbacks.
In recent seasons, though, he faltered some – at least compared to his own high standards.
The Crimson Tide haven’t won a national championship in the last three years and Saban had begun losing to former assistant coaches. In 2023, Alabama failed to get ranked No. 1 in the AP poll at any point in the season since Saban’s first in Tuscaloosa in 2007. (The Crimson Tide finished this season ranked No. 5.)
Arkansas Recruiting and Nick Saban
As the wheels began to wobble every so slightly, Arkansas has been able to take advantage of more talent coming out of the state of Alabama in the last couple years, making significant recruiting inroads in Tide and Tigers country. It seems like the program had been winning more recruiting battles against Saban lately. That was the case when it came to high school sophomore Bear McWhorter.
In August, McWhorter committed to the Razorbacks over the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and many more. Given McWhorter, a west Georgia native, had been petitioning Sam Pittman to be a Razorback since he was 13 years old, this decision seems far more like a resounding vote of approval for Pittman’s program than about what he disliked in other programs.
In a nice gesture of sportsmanship, McWhorter posted this soon after the Nick Saban retirement reports emerged:
Pittman, as a former assistant under Saban disciple Kirby Smart, has helped make Georgia and especially Alabama into fertile grounds for recruiting for the Razorbacks. They may become even more the case with Nick Saban’s departure. In the era of the NIL and the transfer portal, too, if Arkansas Edge wants to flex its muscles, the Yellowhammer State might not be a bad investment. Arkansas’ freshly minted NIL collective will eventually have to figure out how to spend its money.
Things started back in 2022 when Arkansas, inexplicably, landed linebacker Drew Sanders from the portal. This was, mind you, the year the transfer portal exploded into what we now know. All the usual suspects proclaimed Sanders as a big-time transfer – like they do for literally everyone who played at a power-conference school or had good numbers at even a lesser-tier school – but in this case, they were right. Sanders played just one season with Arkansas, but it was enough to turn him into a first-round NFL pick.
Arkansas then went out in 2023 and landed two potential rotational defensive backs in TJ Metcalf and Dallas Young, and a potential No. 1 wide receiver in Davion Dozier. Most recently, just a couple weeks back, on early signing day, four-star quarterback KJ Jackson signed, three-star defensive end Kavion Henderson signed and Metcalf’s brother, three-star defensive back Tevis Metcalf, signed. About a week later, four-star linebacker Bradley Shaw out of Hoover, Ala. joined. Considering the Razorbacks lost their top four linebackers from the fall, Shaw’s addition was a godsend of sorts.
And the Razorbacks still have a hard commitment from three-star safety Jeremy Cook. In the entire decade before, Arkansas had a total five players from Alabama. Only two – defensive end JaMichael Winston and defensive tackle Darius Philon – really panned out, though Myles Mason had some playing time in the secondary.
Arkansas Football Waits on J’Marion Burnette
Of course, it remains to be seen what will come of any of the seven players from Alabama on the roster (or soon-to-be on the roster). Players leave through the portal even faster than they enter through it, so it’s possible none of them even stick around for a majority of their theoretical four eligible seasons of college football. Early signs from the Class of 2023 are at least promising for Arkansas fans, anyway.
Toss in that the Hogs are one of two potential destinations for four-star running back J’Marion Burnette – who is set to visit Fayetteville this weekend. 247Sports has put out a crystal ball prediction for the Andalusia, Ala. native favoring Arkansas slightly over Auburn.
Does any of this ensure Arkansas’ future? Heavens no. Auburn remains mercurial and Arkansas’ monied donors have done little to suggest they’re actually going to get things turned around, instead entering Doc Brown’s DeLorean for 2024 and likely the next few years after that.
But if you’re heading back in time as a program, you could find worse eras than the pre-Saban one. From 1995 through 2006, the Hogs owned a 7-5 record against Alabama. As it’s said in Ecclesiastes 3:1, for everything there is a season.
That includes Arkansas beating Alabama, which will suffer a downgrade in coaching no matter what non-GOAT replacement they get for Nick Saban.
Sure, beating Saban again would have felt nice. Aside from that, though, nothing would feel sweeter than beating the Crimson Tide with a windfall of Alabama’s own native sons.
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Evin Demirel contributed to the above article.
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