Georgia will begin its 10 game conference-only schedule with a trip to Fayetteville to take on a familiar foe coached by a familiar face.
The Razorback File
Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Home Stadium: It’s complicated. Usually it’s Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on campus, which in normal times would hold 76,212 people. But on occasion due to state politics and sheer boredom the ‘Hawgs play in War Memorial Stadium in the state capitol of Little Rock. There’s not really a set schedule for when they do this. I think there’s a Facebook group or an email chain or something.
Representative Alumnus: Certainly we could go with any number of well-known athletes, oil tycoons, or combinations of the two such as former Razorback footballer and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Or practitioners of statecraft like Senator J. William Fulbright. But obviously the most representative of the University of Arkansas and its greatness-adjacent place in the SEC West firmament is prolific character actor Laurence Luckinbill (‘56), best known for playing Mr. Mooney in Cocktail and Spock’s half-brother Sybok in Star Treck V: The Final Frontier.
Sam Pittman takes over the Razorbacks from Chad Morris, who in two seasons was not able to transfer the magic he spun at SMU to turn around one of the SEC West’s most hard luck programs. In 22 games as the Boss of the Hawgs Morris cobbled together a record of 4-18. He was a disappointing 2-4 against Group of 5 conference opponents. And he failed to win a single, solitary SEC contest. Not one.
Enter the Pitt Boss, fresh off building an offensive line juggernaut during his four seasons in Athens. He brings infectious enthusiasm, attention to detail, and a winning pedigree to a team that lacked off of these in 2019. Pittman has never served as a head coach, but he has one key advantage, at least in 2020: he can’t possibly do worse than the last guy. Always remember, we succeed in life not by achieving perfection, for humanity is imperfection. We achieve greatness by consistently being a little less terrible than our coevals. That will buy you three years minimum in Fayetteville.
To coordinate his offense Pittman brings along Kendal Briles, last seen serving as Willie Taggart’s offensive coordinator at Florida State for the part of the 2019 season during which Taggart was not the former coach at Florida State. Briles’ offense averaged 27.2 points per game up through Taggart’s firing, which was actually better than they’d done in 2018.
Briles is of course the son of former Baylor coach Art Briles, and worked for his father in Waco from 2008 to 2016 until the entire Briles regime (and much of the university administration) was shown the door after reportedly covering up chronic sexual assault by the football team. He’ll likely employ many of the same spread concepts he previously used at Baylor and in his stints as Lane Kiffin’s OC at Florida Atlantic and at the University of Houston. Briles’ 2018 Houston unit scored 43.9 points per game, his 2017 FAU charges 40.6. So it’s not like the guy doesn’t know how to light up the scoreboard.
Defensively Pittman tapped former Missouri coach Barry Odom as his coordinator. Odom has a history of coaching some good defenses, and last year’s Mizzou unit (14th nationally in total yards allowed and 6th in passing yards) was no exception.
So the good news is that the Razorbacks have a staff in place that knows how to succeed. The bad news is that years of chronic underachievement and natural attrition have resulted in a roster that just may not have the horses to compete in 2020.
One player who could have a good year in Fayetteville is Florida transfer Feleipe Franks, the presumptive starter at quarterback. To be fair, we’ve made fun of Franks repeatedly in this space, most often when some talking head dropped his name on a preseason Heisman watch list in 2019. Feleipe Franks is not now, nor has he ever been a Heisman-caliber QB. That’s not a knock on the guy. There’s only one of those every year, at best.
What Franks is however is better than what the Razorbacks would have otherwise had at the position. Through the course of 2019 Arkansas started five different quarterbacks. Five. It’s impossible to gin up any consistency when you have that kind of turnover at the only position that touches the ball on every snap. Just having the same guy under center from game one to game, well, however many they manage should do wonders for the Hawg offense.
And while Franks’ 2019 was cut short by injury and not all that impressive to begin with, his 2018 season as the Gators’ starter was pretty tidy: 2457 passing yards, 24 touchdowns versus only 6 interceptions, and 350 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground. Sam Pittman would take those numbers right now, sight unseen. Because Arkansas hasn’t averaged more than 30 poinys per game since 2016.
Admittedly, Franks will not have Van Jefferson or Josh Hammond to throw to in 2020. He also will not have a solid Gator offensive line in front of him. He will however have four starters back up front who hopefully haven’t gotten smaller or worse at blocking in the past nine months. And he’ll have three of Arkansas’s top four receivers from 2019 (junior Mike Wood, sophomores Treylon Burks and Trey Knox) to throw to.
He will also have tailback Rakeem Boyd, who finished 6th in the SEC in rushing in 2019 with 1133 yards and 8 touchdowns. Boyd isn’t D’Andre Swift or Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But he is a very good, future NFL tailback who will keep Franks from getting teed off on every snap. Again, we’re not looking for perfection, we’re just looking to win an SEC game.
Defensively the cupboard isn’t as full, and therein may lie Arkansas’s biggest weakness. Arkansas was dead last in the SEC in scoring defense and rushing defense in 2019. They were 11th in passing defense, but lose 17.5 of their 21 sacks from that season, 14.5 of them from the loss of a quartet of graduated defensive linemen. Also gone is 2019’s leading tackler, linebacker De’Jon Harris.
Odom may find some players to step up, and he’d better. Because it’s statistically impossible to finish 15th in the SEC in scoring defense. He does get back the team’s second leading tackler, the exquisitely named Bumper Pool, who started all 12 games in 2019 and racked up 94 tackles, and 6.5 TFL.
On special teams Arkansas appears to have replaced the graduating Conner Limpert with Duke transfer place kicker A.J. Reed. Reed hit all 34 of his 2019 extra points and was 15 of 18 on field goals. He was also the only kicker in the ACC to hit three field goals from 49 yards plus, including a career long 51 yarder. That should be good for some points if he can transfer that energy to the Natural State.
The bottom line: Arkansas was terrible last year, and not much better the year before. This is truly a “year zero” situation for Pittman, in which a win in any of their ten SEC contests would be greeted as a sign of life. I don’t actually expect that to happen, but there are some possibilities. After opening with the ‘Dawgs Arkansas gets Mississippi State in Starkville. They also play their annual cross-divisional game with Missouri on the road on Thanksgiving weekend. If Pittman can keep the wheels on and pick off one of those, or maybe Ole Miss at home on October 17th, he’ll deserve some serious credit.
But again, i doubt it. I think Arkansas is going to go winless in the SEC for the third straight year before showing some signs of life in Pittman’s second season at the helm. While the Bulldog offense will almost certainly be going through some growing pains in week one and may not show all its cards, the Arkansas defense is going to be too thin to stop them. The Bulldog defense on the other hand has copious experience stifling Feleipe Franks.
Score prediction: Georgia 37, Arkansas 17.