Catch up on previous 2022 opponent previews!
I have a secret to share...
I’ll admit it.
...I really like this Arkansas team.
And, yes, they are our “most hated rivals” and such but...man, Sam Pittman is just such a likeable dude. And they employ my favorite DC. And one of my favorite Missouri linebackers. And they have an awesome quarterback with a lot of fun skill position guys and a creative defense.
I despise their OC which, admittedly, is a gigantic knock on their likeability factor but, outside of that, if you swapped out the red pig helmets for a black Block M you’d love the crap out of this team, too.
And that’s before mentioning what an incredible turn around the Pittman staff has achieved in such short order. They went from one of the worst SEC teams of all time to Dark Horse SEC contenders in three years. Now, they have incredible financial support from the state and booster corps but it’s also just good program management and Pittman has been an excellent hire.
Here’s what Arkansas’ SP+ performance looks like since 2005:
Whew, that -10.6 in 2019 was rough. As a throw back to last week’s preview team, that would be the same quality of team as the second-best New Mexico State team since 2005.
There is just no longevity in Fayetteville, good or bad. Peak with a high caliber team that gets a ton of wins and then crumble back to earth. Then hire a new coach, peak, and then fall apart once again. But you can see just how dynamic of a turn around the Pittman hire has been, taking one of the worst SEC teams of all time and immediately making them competent, then leaping to Top 25 territory in the span of two years.
Here’s what Arkansas did last year:
Do I need to do it? Ok, I’ll do it:
- Arkansas vs. Teams Ranked in the SP+ Top 30: 2-4
- Arkansas vs. Teams Ranked 31st and Worse in SP+: 7-0
- Arkansas vs. Teams with a Winning Record: 3-3
- Arkansas vs. Teams with a Losing Record: 6-1
The Hogs had a brutal schedule last year and went 9-4 against it, including a 95% win expectancy against 6th-ranked A&M and a 92% win expectancy against 20th-ranked Penn State. They almost beat Ole Miss in a shoot out and scared the crap out of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That should pretty much tell you exactly how good they were and they kept most of their staff intact and bring back their playmaking quarterback. Yikes.
Sam Pittman - 3rd Year - 12-11 (7-11)
I think the main reason that I like Arkansas is that it’s really easy to buy into the Sam Pittman story. And, apparently, the former career offensive line coach can coach a team pretty well, too! Pittman was the architect of those bruising offensive lines of Bret Bielema’s early (and best) Arkansas squads before he went to Georgia and made the ‘Dawgs a bruising powerhouse offensive line school as well. Pittman walks the walk of blue-collar, lunch-pail football guy and his players respond incredibly well to it. There’s no doubt about his care of his team and the appreciation he has for the gig but, as likeable and supported as he is, there are a lot of questions about how much of his success is him versus the assistant staff - namely the coordinators. But that’s not a problem if said assistants don’t leave and, last I checked, the coordinators are still the same! Pittman has improved recruiting, given the Hogs an identity, and brought in a bunch of wins while finally getting the Missouri monkey off their back. It’s hard to see this train derailing anytime soon.
Kendal Briles - Offensive Coordinator: Folks, he’s still a piece of s***. But he’s good at managing a game so he stays employed. This is also the longest tenure he’s had at any school outside of Baylor, meaning either a.) he really likes it there, or b.) others schools and staffs are not willing to risk hiring him. For whatever reason he’s still calling plays this year and still has a damn good quarterback so expect more positive offensive returns.
Barry Odom - Defensive Coordinator: We all know this guy. He’ll get another shot at being a head coach sometime soon, most likely in the G5 ranks, and then it’ll be ok to feel good about his success again.
Scott Fountain - Special Teams Coordinator
Jimmy Smith - Running Backs
Kenny Guiton - Wide Receivers
Dowell Loggains - Tight Ends
Cody Kennedy - Offensive Line
Deke Adams - Defensive Line
Michael Scherer - Linebackers: Scherer was Mizzou’s starting inside linebacker up until 2016 when he suffered a season-ending injury and was replaced by Cale Garrett. Mike had long wanted to get into coaching and the only place that would take him was Barry Odom’s defensive staff at Arkansas. In one year he has proven himself as a quality assistant as Arkansas linebackers were competent volume tacklers and effective pass defenders. I hope he does really well only so that he gets a job that’s not at Arkansas.
Dominique Bowman - Cornerbacks
The secret to Arkansas’ 32nd-ranked offense last year was that they really weren’t bad at anything. They were good to great in most categories while only struggling in passing downs situations (81st), sack rate (96th), and 3-and-out percentage (86th). Other than that, they were top 40 in everything else, excelling at opportunity rate (16th) and passing explosiveness (17th). Sometimes being good at everything is better than being elite at a few things and the Razorback offense was the epitome of that philosophy.
Quarterback - K.J. Jefferson - Redshirt Junior
Did you like James Franklin at Missouri? I know I did! When he wasn’t injured he was completing 62% of his passes with a 7.5 ANY/A (very good!), a 2:1 TD:INT ratio, and averaged 5 yards per carry while getting sacked 4.7% of the time. Tanklin was an excellent college quarterback and continued the sterling reputation of the Missouri lineage at the position.
K.J. Jefferson is a beefier version of Frank the Tank. He’s slightly more accurate, boasts a nearly 5:1 TD:INT ratio, and averages 6.1 yards per carry (while, yes, getting sacked 9% of the time). While the sacks are problematic he was also blitzed at a near-nation-leading clip of 33% while managing to be just as effective in passing against man coverage (10.3 YPA) versus zone coverage (10.4). The dude was a revelation for the Hogs attack and returns to improve upon a stellar sophomore season.
Running Back - Raheim Sanders - Sophomore
Thanks to Briles’ unique style of spread, the Razorbacks had four gentlemen finish with 500+ yards on the ground for the first time 1975. K.J. Jefferson was Arkansas’ leading rusher last year (825 yards, 6.9 ypc, 6 TDs) and Trelon Smith (598 yards, 5.0 ypc, 6 TDs) transferred to UTSA so the next running back up is big Raheim Sanders. The 6’2”, 221 pound blue chip freshman was mostly used as a battering ram, averaging 5.4 ypc running inside but only 4.4 while running to the outside with the added bonus of average 2.8 yards after first contact. In addition to Sanders, Dominique Johnson and A.J. Green return as do four of the top five offensive linemen that are everything that a Pittman offensive line should be. There’s no question the running game should be just as good as previous years, it’s just a matter of how much they can improve from where they finished in ‘21.
Wide Receiver - Warren Thompson - Redshirt Senior
Remember in my Kentucky preview where I pointed out that the Wildcats lost 45% of their total receiving yardage when Wan’Dale Robinson went to the NFL? It’s a similar story in Fayetteville as current Tennessee Titan Treylon Burks and his 66 catches on 90 targets and 1,104 yards represents 40% of the total Razorback receiving yardage and no other receiver on the last year’s roster returns with more than 36 targets, 24 catches, or 337 yards. Pittman and his staff addressed this issue via transfer portal, bringing in two former Oklahoma receivers: lanky Jadon Haselwood and speedy Jaqualyn Crawford, the former of which was the 4th-best prospect in the 2019 recruiting class and the latter being a highly-ranked 4-star. While Haselwood has seen a lot of game action (and Crawford has not), neither were able to make the type of impact you’d expect and, now, get a fresh start. Receiver-turned-tight end Trey Knox suffered a concussion in a car wreck during spring practice which leaves the position at a slight disadvantage from an experience standpoint but, assuming Knox is recovered and well, should be an impact player in both the run and pass games.
Our boy Barry might not be the best head coach in the world but he can coach the crap out of a defensive unit. The Hogs finished just outside the SP+ Top 25 (27th) and did so while being ok against the run (52nd), elite against the pass (2nd!)...and an absolute disaster against stopping explosive plays through the air (112th). Despite that massive weakness, they did keep the number of total explosive plays low (22nd), was one of the best at not giving up touchdowns in the red zone (14th) and helped out the offense by providing a +6 turnover margin. They lose their top interior defensive lineman, pass rusher, top two linebackers, and a slew of defensive backs but...c’mon, it’s a Barry Odom defense! As long as he’s not the head coach at Mizzou he can field elite defenses reliably.
Defensive Line - Eric Gregory - Redshirt Junior
Playing behind a resurgent Tre Williams didn’t give Gregory much of a shot at playing time but he did manage to get 405 snaps under his belt along with 28 total tackles, 5 TFLs, and 1 sack. Spring practices saw the interior line have former backups Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter make big strides to replace the departed John Ridgeway while Pittman brought in 4-star edge-rusher Landon Jackson (LSU) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) to add some depth and experience.
Linebacker - Bumper Pool - Graduate Student
After seemingly being around for every loss in the streak, linebackers Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry are finally gone, leaving the exquisitely named Bumper Pool to be the alpha of the linebacking corps. Arkansas saw fit to pair Bumper with a boy named Pooh Paul (yesssssss) who had an emergent spring session, as well as bringing on former 5-star Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders for depth. Incoming 3-star freshman Jordan Crook and Kaden Henley are also expected to push the starters for snaps this year.
Defensive Back - Simeon Blair - Redshirt Senior
A defensive backfield who played tight coverage and got burned over the top loses three of their top four defensive backs but does return a ton of depth pieces as well as all-world safety Jalen Catalon, who was lost with an injury six games into the season. There’s a lot of young talent in the secondary which means a lot of unknowns. If enough of the pieces click and can replicate last year’s quality then this defense should be fine; if there are inefficiencies or unforeseen breakdowns that can’t be corrected it could be an Achilles’ Heel that gets exploited all year.
So what does it all mean?
Arkansas plays in the SEC West (for the last time, probably!) so they’re always going to have a tough slate of opponents. This year, however, they decided to make it even harder on themselves by bringing in FBS Playoff participant Cincinnati, FCS Playoff participant Missouri State (with their old head coach, Bobby Petrino!), perennial Top 25 BYU in Provo, and the despicable Hugh Freeze squad that puts up points and hangs with P5s consistently. Why? Why would you give a coach doing a great job on a rebuild and accumulating good will/wins one of the most difficult schedules possible? Blows my freaking mind, man.
Anyway, Arkansas won 9-games against the 6th-toughest schedule in ‘21 and will have to try to do so again with what will most likely be an even tougher schedule. No doubt the Hogs will be battle tested by the time Black Friday rolls around but what will they be playing for? And how many close losses have they had? Are they the most talented 5-win team at that point or are they Top 10 in the country while scraping by each W in the column? Missouri will have just completed feasting on New Mexico State and should be ready (and rested) to serve up some vengeance for last year. All I ask for is a good game but it’ll be tough to figure out how much motivation is active for both sides until we get further into the season.