In Week 5 of the college football season, Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin each learned where their respective squads fall in the national pecking order.
Their teams’ blowout losses to Georgia and Alabama were a stark reminder that the feel-goodism of the last few weeks, when Arkansas and Ole Miss ascended the national polls, could do nothing in the face of the years and years of elite recruiting coups that Georgia and Alabama have amassed.
The wake-up call brought to mind a stark reminder sent out by another physical dominant national powerhouse years ago in college basketball.
In 1991, the biggest, baddest and most talented team in all the land was the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels coached by the late Jerry Tarkanian.
Led by future NBA players Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Larry Johnson (the No. 1 pick in the 1991 NBA Draft), UNLV won the 1990 NCAA championship and then proceeded to tear through the first 19 games of the 1990-91 season with the same level of dominance that we are now seeing from Alabama and Georgia in football.
Their 20th game, however, set up to be the stiffest test of their abilities so far that season.
On February 10, 1991, Larry Johnson led the the mighty No. 1-ranked Runnin’ Rebels into a raucous, ear-splitting environs of Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville for a showdown with the No. 2 Razorbacks.
Much like was the case in the Georgia-Arkansas football game in Fayetteville last year, the Hogs hung tough in the first half, even leading by 4 points at intermission. But then UNLV pressed onto the accelerator to open the second half, went on a 29-11 run in just seven minutes and eventually built a 23-point lead.
That was pretty much all she wrote.
Larry Johnson’s Famous Advice
By the time the dust cleared, UNLV walked away with a 112-105 win that felt much larger given the meaningless points Arkansas tacked on at the end. Arkansas, which itself had three future first-round NBA picks, had seen enough of that UNLV juggernaut. “They need to go to the NBA,” Razorback big man Oliver Miller said afterward.
No doubt, Ole Miss and Arkansas football players are ready for Alabama and Georgia counterparts to head to the NFL, too.
In the midst of that early second half onslaught, however, Larry Johnson gave Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson some pointed words of advice.
He sauntered over to the Arkansas bench and told Richardson: “Coach, you got to get some men, man.”
“That’s the first thing I told my assistants,” Richardson said, laughing as he told the story to the Washington Post’s Steve Berkowitz. “I said, ‘Hey, Larry says we got to get some MEN.”
At the time, it was not as if Arkansas had chopped liver in its front court. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound Oliver Miller, 6-8, 224-pound Isaiah Morris and 6-7, 255-pound Roosevelt Wallace were good, and Miller was an all-time Rgreat, but they simply lacked the necessary depth and overall size to hang with UNLV. (See that Arkansas-UNLV game here.)
Similarly, the 2021 football versions of Arkansas and Ole Miss (and most other programs) lack the necessary size, skill and depth up front on the offensive and defensive lines to beat Georgia and Alabama.
Nolan Richardson’s charge, after that defeat, was simple — go recruit bigger, stronger dudes who can punish even the best of the best. He succeeded, landing the following big men who would eventually bring a national title to the Hogs in 1994: the 6-7, 245-pound Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, 6-9, 260-pound Dwight Stewart, 6-11, 250-pound Lee Wilson and 6-11, 260-pound freshman Darnell Robinson.
In college basketball, just a handful of players can turn the fortunes of an entire program. In college football, much more than a handful is needed. But the spirit of Larry Johnson’s directive still applies to those teams that want to knock off Alabama and Georgia.
Can Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin go get the “men” they need?
Long Road Ahead for Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin
In Week 5 of the 2021 season, Pittman’s Arkansas squad and Kiffin’s Ole Miss team both got the best shots from heavyweights Georgia and Alabama. Both had crumpled to the mat by the end of the first quarter.
In fact, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Wally Hall went so far as to say that even if Arkansas had played a mistake-free game, it still couldn’t have beaten Georgia. The same can be said of Ole Miss, which went down 0-35 to Alabama.
The beatdowns were so thorough that SEC shorts parodied Georgia and Alabama being sent to the principal’s office for bullying. The part where an anemic-looking Kentucky tries to butt in at 2:26 is priceless:
The rationale behind Arkansas and Ole Miss giving their juggernaut opponents a good game was sound enough heading into Saturday.
Last year, Arkansas fought toe-to-toe with Georgia for a half at home while Ole Miss hung 48 points on the Crimson Tide in Oxford, Miss.
Since then, Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin have vastly improved their programs. The thinking was that improvement would be enough to offset the fact that these 2021 games would be played at Georgia and Alabama.
But the 2020 versions of Arkansas-Georgia and Ole Miss-Alabama were not Top 15 marquee showdowns. They were in 2021. As a result, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs came out with a level of focus and intensity they didn’t have last year.
Still, that’s not the most disturbing factor at play here: As much as Arkansas and Ole Miss (and most other SEC teams) have improved recently, it appears that Georgia and Alabama are improving even more. At least from a talent standpoint (which is horrifying).
Like a Slasher Flick for the Rest of the SEC
In the early to mid 2010s, Georgia and Alabama were really tough outs for the rest of the SEC. But at least it was possible.
Gus Malzahn was able to beat Nick Saban a few times with his Auburn teams. And former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was able to do the same, even if needed to revert to cheating to do it.
Going forward, any SEC coach pulling off multiple defeats of Saban or Smart is looking less and less likely.
That’s because, in the last last seven years, Georgia and Alabama have been progressively hoarding more four and five star recruits.
Consider that in 2014, no college football team has a roster with more than 75 percent of its players having rated as a blue chip in high school. In 2015-2017, Alabama was the only such team, as 247Sports’ Bud Elliott reports.
Georgia and Ohio State have since joined them with record-breaking ratios of blue-chip recruits. Here’s the latest breakdown:
So, the rich are getting richer.
This is bad news for Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin, despite the great work both are doing on the recruiting front.
In all, Georgia has signed 23 5-star players and 74 4-star players in the last five years. Compare that to the 0 five-star players and 24 4-star players that Arkansas has on its roster.
Historically, Arkansas and Ole Miss have been in the high teens and 20s when it comes to blue-chip ratio. Currently, the class of 2022 recruiting hauls of Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin are nationally ranked at No. 21 and No. 29 respectively.
At their current levels, Pittman and Kiffin are coaching their teams up to the point where they can knock off more talented teams (Arkansas’ thrashing of Texas and Texas A&M is case in point), but no level of coaching up is going to knock off Georgia and Alabama so long as Kirby Smart and Nick Saban are around and of sound mind.
Such upsets, however, are possible in the coming years if Pittman and Kiffin can significantly up their recruiting games.
What Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin Must Do
247Sports’ Bud Elliott pointed out that all the national title winners of the last fives years have had blue-chip ratios of at least 50 percent. In 2016, Clemson won it all with a blue-chip ratio of “just” 52%. LSU did the same in 2019 with a 64% ratio.
It’s fair to say that Arkansas and Ole Miss are going to need to get two to three times the number of blue-chip recruits they are getting now to get the necessary firepower to beat Alabama under Saban or Georgia under Kirby Smart.
This isn’t meant to imply that the Hogs and Rebels don’t currently have real “men” who were ranked as two and three-stars. They do, and guys like Grant Morgan are a perfect example. It’s just that there isn’t enough of those under-recruited guys who develop to the point of playing like five-stars.
And the reason some blue-chip recruits get such high ratings isn’t because they are more talented or skilled than the the lower-rated guys, but because they are bigger, stronger and faster. So there is a correlation with blue-chip ratios and overall size.
A realistic path forward for both programs is to continue to up their recruiting games, retain/hire great coordinators and hope they strike gold with a future star quarterback, as Clemson did with Deshaun Watson and LSU with Joe Burrow.
Perhaps Sam Pittman or Lane Kiffin can be the statistical exception that Bud Elliott references when he talks about a future team winning a national title that has a blue-chip ratio in the upper 40s but overcomes that with “a transcendent QB” and “and great injury luck.”
In the meantime, there’s always No. 3 in the SEC for Arkansas and Ole Miss to fight over.
Hear from Sam Pittman on Arkansas vs Ole Miss here:
And here’s Lane Kiffin on Alabama and Arkansas: