Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the last 10 years and run across an Arkansas football fan, you’ve probably been exposed to a slew of tired excuses that their most rabid fans say about their beloved ‘Hawgs. The best two, in my opinion, are:
- The past (insert number of years here) have been the worst in program history but now they have the coach to get them back to greatness.
- Missouri only beats Arkansas because, to Mizzou, playing the Razorbacks is their “Super Bowl”
Forget, for a minute, that every team that loses to our beloved Tigers claims that second point about Missouri (which is ludicrous but also very funny); since the turn of the century, Arkansas hasn’t had extended “great years” or even extended terrible years. In fact, they follow a very specific schedule: new coach builds, peaks, and then falls apart. Take a look:
Obviously SP+ isn’t indicative of the win/loss column but you can see the pattern right there. Houston Nutt took over in 1998 and slowly built the Razorbacks into a contender, peaking in ‘06 and ‘07 with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and one of the greatest backfields in college football history: Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis (all of whom went on to play in the NFL). Nutt left for Ole Miss in ‘08 and Arkansas brought on Bobby Petrino, who built Arkansas into an offensive howitzer that peaked in 2010 and then started to crumble, amplified by an unforced error on Petrino’s part involving a volleyball player and a motorcycle crash. After a disastrous interim year with John L. Smith in 2012, Arkansas hired Bret Bielema who brought his Wisconsin-style ground-and-pound attack to the SEC; after a stretch of two years of massive improvement it came crashing down until he was fired on the turf of Faurot Field after losing to Mizzou in 2017. Arkansas then hired Chad Morris who didn’t even get a chance to see any improvement, as he was such a disastrous head coach that he was fired 70% through his second year in 2019. And now Sam Pittman has improved the program for three straight years...which either means this upcoming year continues the trend and becomes the beginning of the end or he’s the coach that finally bucks the trend and continues the improvement.
But let’s look at what they did last year:
Obviously Arkansas has been cursed to play in the SEC West since they entered the league, so I would assume they are very happy that divisions are dissolving in 2024. And, yes, Arkansas played the 15th toughest schedule last year, including playing only three teams ranked 50th or worse in SP+ (and one of those was kansas in the bowl game). Despite some inspired play against elite competition, the problem was that the Razorbacks - a Top 25 team according to SP+ - insisted on losing some games that they absolutely should have won:
- Arkansas vs. Teams Ranked in the SP+ Top 30: 3-3
- Arkansas vs. Teams Ranked 31st and Worse in SP+: 3-3
Arkansas lost to teams that were ranked 35th, 2nd, 12th, 73rd, 13th, and 40th. Some of those are understandable! Others...not so much. To break it down to even simpler terms:
- Arkansas vs. Teams with a Winning Record: 4-4
- Arkansas vs. Teams with a Losing Record: 3-2
Having two losses to five teams that finished with losing records is a quick ticket to termination-land! It’s not that the Pigs can’t beat the good teams - they absolutely can! - it’s that they also sprinkle in uber-frustrating losses into the mix. And when your schedule is chock full of elite recruiting teams and excellent programs that win tons of games, you need to make sure that you take care of business against teams that are not at those levels and, so far, Pittman hasn’t shown an ability to do so consistently. For Coach Pittman’s sake, he needs to figure out how to eliminate those frustrations.
Sam Pittman - 4th Year - 19-17 (10-16)
I still like Sam Pittman a lot, and part of that might be the fact that he’s kind of like an older, folksier version of Eli Drinkwitz...and the two certainly share some parallels. For example, Pittman was a Missouri high school coach who’s now at Arkansas while Drinkwitz was an Arkansas high school coach who’s now at Missouri. They were both hired at their current jobs for the 2020 season. Both excel as pitchmen for their respective programs and have been pleasant surprises on the recruiting trail. They’re also both working at middle-of-the-pack programs in their respective divisions, each capable of jumping up for an out-of-nowhere division title but never consistently challenging for the crown. Pittman’s excellent connections and claimed eye for finding coaching talent is getting tested this year as he had to replace five of his assistant coaches, including both of his coordinators.
At 61 years old Pittman certainly isn’t being ushered out the door due to age, but if he doesn’t want to be looking for his next job as a card-carrying AARP member then he needs to hope that he nails his coordinator hires and fixes that pesky “lose to teams worse than you” issue.
Dan Enos - Offensive Coordinator: Dan Enos smacks of a “get the band back together” hire as he was the offensive coordinator for Bret Bielema’s two greatest offenses at Arkansas, and Sam Pittman was the offensive line coach at the same time. Since then Enos has left a trail of dismal offensive performances in his wake, and even had the fortitude to ghost Nick Saban by cleaning out his Alabama offices in the middle of the night and not telling anyone in Tuscaloosa that he took a job with the Miami Hurricanes back in 2019. His last two Maryland offenses were wholly mediocre so it’ll be interesting if he can find his magic back in Fayetteville.
Travis Williams - Defensive Coordinator: Coach Williams comes to Arkansas via UCF where he was the defensive coordinator for former Arkansas OC Gus Malzahn for the past two years. Working opposite a warp-speed offense that does nothing but score quickly can have a negative effect on a defense, and to be sure, Williams’ UCF defenses got blown up for big plays frequently. If Enos installs the type of offense I think he wants to install, Williams should have a little more breathing room to run a defense that isn’t constantly back on the field after three plays.
Marcus Woodson - Co-Defensive Coordinator: Woodson was a safety at Ole Miss in the early 2000s and has been a defensive secondary coach since 2005. He’s also known as a tenacious recruiter and while he’s been the recruiting coordinator at several previous stops, this is the first time that he’s had anything close to an official DC tag. How these titles and responsibilities actually shake out is hardly ever known to the outside world but I’m curious what he and Williams craft as a duo with a defense that loses a ton of production.
Scott Fountain - Special Teams Coordinator
Jimmy Smith - Running Backs
Kenny Guiton - Wide Receivers
Morgan Turner - Tight Ends
Cody Kennedy - Offensive Line
Deke Adams - Defensive Line
Deron Wilson - Secondary
With the departure of garbage-human-being Kendal Briles to TCU, Dan Enos makes his return to Fayetteville to continue the elite offensive production that has been omnipresent under Sam Pittman’s watch. But whereas Briles ran a version of the breakneck, no huddle, spread-and-shred offense that made Robert Griffin III a Heisman Trophy winner, Enos tends to run a slower, more traditional style offense that hasn’t been very effective over the past five years. With Taulia Tagovailoa at Maryland, Enos had some of the lowest run rates in the country and relied and Tua’s little brother to make the athletic play and keep the possession going. Of course most of that was quick passes to the inline receiver that went for 3-5 yards with very little big plays. And while the Terps weren’t great at running the ball, it was the sole source of the big play powers, ranking 20th. Given that Arkansas returns a baby rhino at quarterback, one of the more best (and criminally overlooked) running backs in the country, and almost no receivers from last year’s squad, you could see Enos coming up with some interesting running schemes that could work. However, Arkansas also loses two of last year’s five offensive linemen, and while they were lucky in that they only needed to play five all year, it’s unclear how the backups will fit in. This could be a reductive, uninspiring offense that chokes the life out of talented players...or the players could turn that same reductive style into a deadly efficient, throw-back offense that pounds defenses into powder. Who knows!
Quarterback - K.J. Jefferson - Redshirt Senior
Is K.J. Jefferson the best SEC quarterback in 2023? Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas A&M are all starting guys who were not the starters last year, utilizing either last year’s backups or a portal guy. Will Rogers (Mississippi State), Jaxson Dart, Spencer Rattler, A.J. Swann, and Brady Cook all had moments of greatness last year but, on the whole, were mediocre to underwhelming (or injured). So, unless the one-year surprise known as LSU’s Jayden Daniels is your answer then...yeah, K.J. Jefferson might have the pedigree, talent, experience, and production to claim the title as best SEC quarterback in 2023. As long as he isn’t overused and exhausted by seemingly being one of two talented dudes on the offense, he could become one of the greatest Arkansas quarterbacks of all time and launch himself into a 1st Round NFL Draft pick opportunity. But for now he needs to navigate yet another year in the SEC with a bunch of dudes he wasn’t playing with last year and a brand new coordinator.
Running Back - Raheim “Rocket” Sanders - Junior
I wish Rocket Sanders was on my team. Last year he ran for 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns over 222 carries; for context, K.J. Jefferson had 158 carries (counting sacks) and the next highest rusher had 87 so it was basically the Rocket and K.J. show on the ground. The 6.5 average yards per carry is damn impressive, as is his ability to convert a 1st down 27.5% of the time but the most impressive stat is that he averaged - AVERAGED - 6.7 yards per carry when facing a 7+ man box. Now, yes, an offensive line that only has two of the five guys who played last year return is part of that equation, but Rocket also managed 6.5 yards carrying both inside the box and outside. Oh, and he threw in 28 catches on 33 targets for 271 yards threw the air as well. This dude rocks and if he was on a title contending team he’d probably be a legitimate Heisman candidate.
Wide Receiver/Tight End - Bryce Stephens - Redshirt Sophomore
It’s a good thing K.J. and Rocket return because...well...there are a ton of dudes missing from the group that mostly catches the ball. How bad is it? Well, to start, Rocket Sanders is the returning leader in targets, earning 33 last year. But from the actual wide receiver and tight end corps, Arkansas loses five of their top six receivers with Bryce Stephens being the most experienced Razorback receiver coming back this year, with his 15 targets and 9 catches from last year. Now, Arkansas has 17 receivers and 9 tight ends listed on their roster but only two tight ends who had any targets last year (Nathan Bax and Ty Washington combined for 5 targets) while Stephens, Jaedon Wilson, and Isaiah Sategna combined for 25 targets last year. But that’s ok, they’ll just portal in a bunch of guys, right? Well...they portaled in receiver Tyrone Broden from Bowling Green and tight ends Francis Sherman from Louisville annnnnnnnnnd that’s it. But that’s ok, they probably have some blue chip recruits coming in, right? Well...they do have two 4-star tight ends incoming as well as a blue chip receiver but relying on incoming freshmen to step up and compete immediately is a stretch hope that only works, like 10% of the time. There’s plenty of options to catch a ball from K.J. Jefferson on his farewell tour but very few proven, relaible options.
Last year’s Arkansas defense was easily the worst defense that Barry Odom produced in his three years in Fayetteville. They couldn’t stop the run (89th) they were ok against the pass (65th) and let teams go off for big gains constantly (116th in explosive play rate). What’s worse is that they couldn’t even make a big play to counter all of the haymakers landing on them, ranking 67th in havoc rate. I think it’s great Barry Odom got the head coaching gig at UNLV because I’m not sure how much longer he was going to last. And his replacements are a guy who’s most recent defenses have the nasty habit of also getting burned for big plays and co-defensive coordinator who has never been a coordinator before. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but they’re going to have a ton of fresh faces to try and right a sinking defensive ship.
Defensive Line - Landon Jackson - Junior
Arkansas’ defensive line rotated a ton of dudes, so much so that there were eight defensive linemen who saw 300+ snaps and only Isaiah Nichols, Terry Hampton, and sack-master Jordan Domineck are gone. Landon Jackson saw the most snaps but didn’t generate a ton of tackles (27) or pressures (16) with a lowly 5.8% pressure rate. Zach Williams is the returning sack leader with 4.5 but the problem was that this defensive line was awful at generating pressure. In fact, the only guy who managed a pressure rate higher than 11% over 7+ pass rushing attempts was a linebacker who is no longer around. Arkansas utilized the portal to try and fix the pass rushing woes, once again taking Missouri’s leftover to try and make themselves better (Trajan Jeffcoat) as well as bringing in Pitt edge rusher John Morgan and two transfer interior linemen, Keivie Rose (Louisiana Tech) and Anthony Booker (Maryland). Arkansas didn’t recruit a single high school defensive lineman in this past class so it’s wide open for the existing roster (plus transfers) to impress the new coordinators.
Linebacker - Chris Paul, Jr. - Redshirt Sophomore
Former five-star wrecking ball Drew Sanders led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and was third in passes defensed and is now a Denver Bronco; All-Name Team All-Star Bumper Pool is finally out of eligibility and is now a Carolina Panther; Chris Paul finished the year with 389 snaps and 64 tackles with 9 tackles for loss. Thus concludes the list of linebackers who played more than 100 snaps for Arkansas last year. Jaheim Thomas portaled in from Cincinnati while Arkansas brings in three 3-star recruits from the high school ranks but that’s it for reinforcements. Last year’s linebackers were the Alfa Romero V6 engine that made the Ford Pinto Arkansas defense actually work and they’re getting a hard reset. We’ll see if the backups, transfers, and/or high schoolers can make an immediate impact.
Defensive Back - Dwight McGlothern - Senior
While the overall theme of the 2023 Arkansas defense is “IT’S NEW!”, the defensive backfield only loses stalwarts Simeon Blair and Latavious Brini from the rotation, returning five of the eight defensive backs who finished with more than 250 snaps last year. Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark pulled off a great KAD/Rakestraw impression, combining for 22 passes defensed (11 each) and 5 interceptions. They also brought in three corners - Keeyon Stewart (TCU), Jaheim Singletary (Georgia), and Lorando Johnson (Baylor) - to beef up their ranks. It might be the only proven good unit on defense which is a great start if Arkansas find literally anybody to step up in the front seven.
So what does it all mean?
If nothing else the schedule is much more forgiving for Arkansas this year. Western Carolina, Kent State, BYU, and FIU should all be slam-dunk wins, no question. Plus, they get a rebuilding Florida from the East which should get them to five wins (and a 3-0 start) with no sweat.
Then again, Arkansas can’t help but have a surprising loss when they should absolutely get a win. And if they lose to Ole Miss, or Mississippi State, or rebuilding Auburn, and then...say...once again lose to Missouri...then what? Arkansas is a middle class program that thinks it’s a blue blood; does that mean Pittman gets yanked despite all of the improvement? Or does he get a pass since divisions go away next year and Arkansas won’t have to spend their seasons banging their head against the SEC West wall?
The problem, of course, is that even with an easier schedule Arkansas is getting a hard reset, both in the coaching ranks and the roster. And while there’s a good runway for three easy wins to start the year, it could very well fall apart when LSU, Texas A&M, and Alabama show up.
I like Missouri’s chance here but its the offseason. With the twists and turns of an entire season it’s hard to tell what these teams will be when Black Friday rolls around.
Missouri is 6-1 in the last 7 matchups, though. That’s cool and good.