Sam Pittman knew, even way back when he was hired in December 2019, that some of the challenges ahead as Arkansas football coach would be the seemingly ageless ones.
In the SEC West, recruiting is tough as hell, and winning consistently is even harder. Chad Morris’ 22-game run soured fans and made a quick rebound very difficult to envision.
COVID-19 dealt an unpredictable added blow to Pittman. Here’s a 10-game, all-conference slate for you to reckon with, Coach. And we’ll throw in Georgia and Florida from the East, too. Pittman never stopped effusing confidence and hope. Two years later, he somehow has a winning record as the Razorbacks’ head coach and a preseason top-25 team.
It leads to Arkansas football suddenly having swagger. Pittman’s smile is no longer that of career assistant who finally got a chance, but one that’s reflective of a program-building badass.
One of the columnists over at Outkick characterized it recently as “juice.” It’s an apologetically ambiguous metric in which Arkansas surpasses even Alabama and Georgia to take the top spot in the SEC. The Hogs are even with Tennessee according to the malleable standards put forth, which seems fair given the Vols’ quick progress under Josh Heupel. It’s by no means an official gauge of anything, but the analysis of every program’s relative health is fairly on point.
Arkansas seems to have it in spades right now, for any number of reasons.
The Weight of Expectations for Arkansas Football
Historically, if Arkansas is on the receiving end of much preseason fawning, you’d best be cautious.
Houston Nutt could whip up quick excitement in fits and starts, but disappointment oft followed. Bobby Petrino’s self-sabotage after 2011 battered him physically and the program internally.
Bret Bielema sparked, but combusted, and Morris failed spectacularly to make his “brand” anything but a punchline.
That’s why it’s hard for a jaded Hog fan to have a comfortable relationship with hype.
Pittman’s “juice” tastes different, though, and to carry this expression to the extreme, that’s because Pittman squeezes it masterfully. When the aftermath of the Outback Bowl brought a few unexpected departures, Pittman and the staff filled any and every vacancy with aplomb.
Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. made the decision to leave for LSU; Malik Hornsby flirted with leaving, too. But Jadon Haselwood arrived from Oklahoma to compete for Treylon Burks’ lead receiver spot. Drew Sanders, Dwight McGlothern, Latavious Brini, Landon Jackson and a few others also entered the fold.
As a result, not only does Arkansas enter 2022 with personnel stability, but also with staff cohesiveness. Pittman’s coordinators remain entrenched and respected, and even if Kendal Briles and Barry Odom do depart, he’s deftly hired position coaches who could be elevated.
Here’s a Razorback team that went 9-4, has its most critical offensive asset returning and a top-shelf coaching staff on board. It’s no wonder the “juice” factor is so high.
But…Above Georgia and Alabama Football?
Outkick’s juice rating is, obviously, imminently arguable. In the below rankings, I personally thought the columnist undersold Kentucky and Ole Miss, and maybe gave LSU a more favorable nod than deserved.
SEC JUICE METER RANKINGS
- Arkansas- 9
- Tennessee- 9
- Alabama- 8.5
- Georgia- 8
- LSU- 8
- South Carolina- 7.5
- Ole Miss- 6.5
- Texas A&M- 6.5
- Florida- 5
- Kentucky- 5
- Vanderbilt- 5
- Mississipi State- 4.5
- Missouri- 4.5
- Auburn- 2
It’s hard to contest the basic premise, though, which is that Arkansas’ “groove” here is very real. Certainly, KJ Jefferson must stay healthy as the Hogs face a damned difficult dozen this fall. The absence of Burks, and losses of John Ridgeway and Tre Williams on the defensive line, do have consequence.
But this could be the best overall preseason feeling about the program in, for many Arkansas fans, a literal lifetime. It helps that Pittman’s recruiting acumen keeps paying off in exactly the manner Hunter Yuracheck believed it would.
Whereas his ill-fated predecessors talked of “championships under construction” or tried to force #uncommon and #hammerdown on us, Pittman is bereft of such platitudes. In fact, as he livened up SEC Media Days this week, he tempered the gusto perfectly:
Simply put, Arkansas isn’t a patsy anymore, and that pithy “Go Hogs!” is the coach’s polite way of asserting it.
While he says that the work isn’t remotely complete, Sam Pittman also recognizes the cache his program carries nowadays. At SEC Media Days, he acknowledged it and perhaps most refreshingly of all, bore accountability proudly.
“Whatever people may say, everybody has a mouth, everybody has an opinion,” Pittman said. “Some of ’em, the opinions are worthy and some aren’t. I’m going to let our football team, myself, drive what we need to accomplish. If we do, the kids and the coaching staff did a great job. If we don’t, I screwed it up.”
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