Through four games in his first season as Head Hog, Sam Pittman has impressed Arkansas football fans and national media members alike with the quick turnaround. After going winless in the SEC in two seasons under Chad Morris, Pittman has the Hogs 2-2 (3-1 if you throw out the botched replay review at Auburn). Arkansas’ success has garnered national attention, with the Hogs receiving 15 votes in this weeks’ AP Top 25 Poll and 17 votes in the Amway Coaches’ Poll.
This has some Razorback fans and media members making the claim that, behind Alabama, Arkansas is the second-best team in the SEC West. Could a team that just broke a 20-game league losing streak really be a threat this quickly, in possibly the toughest division in college football? To answer this question you must look at a myriad of factors like statistics, injuries, momentum, recent performance and more.
First, consider where the Arkansas football program was only a year ago compared to now. This time last season, the Hogs were 2-6, including an embarrassing loss to San Jose State and severe beatings at the hands of Auburn (51-10) and Alabama (48-7). Many were over the Chad Morris experiment, and expectations were at an all-time low on a week-to-week basis. Most fans had to gotten to the point where the most they could wish for was simply seeing the players show some fight or passion, no matter the score of the actual game.
It’s easy to see that the biggest issue for Morris at Arkansas was that players didn’t buy in to his system and believe in him as a coach. This 2020 squad is virtually the same team from a year ago after replacing six senior starters total, and the difference to the naked eye is clear. The players truly believe in Sam Pittman and his staff, and they show it with effort and fight in practices and in games.
However, it’s one thing to have players who believe in Sam Pittman, Barry Odom, Kendal Briles and the rest of the staff. It’s another thing altogether to become a threat in the SEC right now. Let’s keep this in mind when looking at other factors.
The Arkansas offense has gotten better as the season has progressed, with its best performance coming last week against Ole Miss. But they still rank in the bottom half of the SEC in almost every offensive statistical category. Even the offensive line, a position that was expected to improve given Pittman’s background, has somewhat struggled, with the Razorbacks 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC in rushing offense (Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense is the worst). Star running back Rakeem Boyd hasn’t been 100% healthy since the opener, but the inability to run the ball is going to plague the offense if it continues this trend.
“Our backs have to be better, our line has to be better, our tight end has to be better, wide outs have to get to safeties better,” Pittman said this week. “To have a running game, you have to have all 10 guys in there getting after it. Everybody on our team has to get better.”
Arkansas ranks No. 9 in passing offense, No. 6 in completion percentage and No. 11 in total offense in the SEC so far this season. If the Hogs could run the ball more effectively, the offense would open up more, helping quarterback Feleipe Franks settle into a rhythm earlier in games.
The most celebrated aspect of Arkansas football so far has easily been the defense. The defense has been plagued with injuries; however, it hasn’t hurt their production quite like it has hurt the offense’s. Walk-on redshirt freshman Hudson Clark became an immediate fan favorite after his three-interception game against Ole Miss, and when you look across the defense it isn’t easy to question how they are staying successful despite injuries across the board.
Starting defensive lineman Dorian Gerald hasn’t played since the season opener against Georgia. Starting linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool have both been nursing injuries since Mississippi State. On top of that, both cornerback Montaric Brown and Jerry Jacobs have been sidelined with knee injuries, with Jacobs announcing he’d left the team just today:
Thank You!❤️ pic.twitter.com/g9Y9E2V7kH— Jerry Jacobs (@_luhjerry) October 27, 2020
Despite so many injuries (and now a defection), defensive coordinator Barry Odom has done a phenomenal job of putting second or third string players into position to be successful. Arkansas’ scoring defense was dead last in the SEC in 2019, but this year they are No. 4 and ahead of Alabama. Rushing and passing defense rank No. 11 and No. 5 respectively, with the Arkansas football ranking No. 9 in scoring defense. They also lead the league in turnover margin. It’s a remarkable improvement from last season, and one that will earn Barry Odom yet another bump in pay, up from his current annual salary of $1.3 million.
If the Hogs can stay healthy, continue to play at the same level on defense, improve a bit on offense and fix all of the special teams’ issues, they have a legitimate chance to win every game left on their schedule. Alabama is still Alabama, but after losing star wideout Jaylen Waddle due to injury, it remains to be seen how dominant they can still be. LSU looks like a shell of their defending national champion selves, although the Tigers did bounce back nicely against South Carolina last week.
Texas A&M (3-1) is the only team that looks a more definite No. 2 in the SEC West at this point. The Aggies’ win in Week 3 over then-4th-ranked Florida impressed the football world and has temporarily halted any further Jimbo Fisher criticism. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond has finally found some consistency in his game that was lacking in years prior. Arkansas football will have the chance to prove itself as the outright No. 2 team in the SEC West when they play the 8th-ranked Aggies this Saturday. Until then, Arkansas is nothing more than America’s favorite underdog in America’s toughest division.
Below, Sam Pittman talks about changing the loser mentality of the Razorback football team and his plan to keep Barry Odom on staff (at 4:45) despite what are sure to be big-money opportunities:
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