Two years ago, Arkansas hired a widely unknown position coach named Sam Pittman to be the head coach of its floundering program, and let’s be honest, we all had a big laugh over it.
Not to single Mandel out (ok, maybe a little bit), but this reaction was a pretty standard take at the time:
The SEC West is now six highly established head coaches (Saban, Malzahn, Orgeron, Jimbo, Kiffin, Leach) and Sam Pittman.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 9, 2020
Best of luck Arkansas.
That take has not aged well. Taking over a team coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, Pittman struggled in his first year, but did get the Hogs to three wins, which hides their actual improvement. Arkansas was 1-23 in the SEC the three years prior, and he went 3-7 in conference play in his first season.
Last year, he guided Arkansas to their best season in a decade. Now, it says a lot about the fall of Arkansas football that 9-4 (4-4) counts as their best season in a decade, but it also speaks highly of the job Pittman has done.
Arkansas is managing to compete in the most stacked division in the nation. Now, they are being helped by the fact LSU took the last two seasons off from being one of the best programs in the nation and whatever the heck is going on at Auburn, but that’s what Arkansas has to do. Take advantage when the door opens a crack.
This is still a team suffering from a massive talent gap. Last year’s Team Talent Composite from 247 rated the Hogs as the tenth most talented roster in the SEC, and ahead of only Mississippi St in the West (and barely at that). They were the only SEC West team without a five-star recruit on the roster.
Though the Team Talent calculator also demonstrates how tough it is to play in the SEC West. Arkansas is 6th in the West and 10th in the SEC by the talent ratings, yet it ranks as the 28th most talented roster in the nation. This is a talented roster, just not relative to its neighbors.
Arkansas was hit relatively hard by graduation and transfers, but they have done an admirable job of plugging the holes through the transfer portal. Their portal activity gives you an idea of just how much the new rules are helping Arkansas stay afloat.
According to the 247 composite, Arkansas had seven 4-star recruits and only two rated above .900. In the portal, they added five more 4-stars, two of whom were 5-stars as high school seniors. And all five rated as .900 or better. That’s a stellar job of preventing talent drain at a place that can barely afford it.
Despite the gap in raw talent, Arkansas produced last year. The Razorbacks boasted the SEC’s top rushing attack, averaging 227.8 yards a game and 5.04 yards per carry. They return four starts on the line and while they lose nominal starter Trelon Smith, Raheim Sanders only had 5 less carries. The rest of the backfield returns.
And that includes the guy who makes this team go, KJ Jefferson. Jefferson was actually the team’s leading rusher last year, but he was a true double threat. Jefferson completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 9.1 yards per attempt. He has a good case to be the best quarterback in the SEC not named Bryce Young.
However, Jefferson is the exception on a team that does not specialize in star power. A largely no-name defense ranked fifth in the SEC in yards/play, and likely will repeat that performance. Barry Odom has a long track in the SEC of turning lightly recruited players into, well maybe not elite, but definitely very good defenses.
Arkansas is a program which is a testament to the value of good coaching. They aren’t going to out talent anyone, but they are going to beat a lot of someone’s. Arkansas and A&M both went 4-4 in SEC play last year, but Arkansas beat the Aggies straight up. What evidence is there that the gap between those programs has narrowed?
Arkansas is going to look just like they did last year. They will have a solid defense full of guys you have never heard of. They will have an elite power running game behind a terrific offensive line. And they will have a dynamic playmaker under center who has the ability to make big plays happen.
If Arkansas is ever going to make a run at the SEC title, this is the year. LSU is reloading, A&M’s spectacular class is still green, and Ole Miss is likely to take a step back without Matt Corral. The door is open just a crack.
You can’t stop progress, but maybe Arkansas can slow it down for a season. They have the staff to do it.