So, there will be college football in the fall. The auxiliary verb ‘will’ these pandemic days entailing the phrases ‘hope to’ and ‘are planning on it.’ Officially, college football plans to move forward, with a COVID twist, in 2020. With the Southeastern Conference finally announcing its intentions, the Razorbacks now are scheduled — as Arkansas Money & Politics went to press in early August — to open the season on Sept. 26. Fall camp, complete with socially distanced drills and more, commences on Aug. 17.
The SEC, like the Big 10, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 conferences before it, plans to play a 10-game schedule of conference games only, the idea being to limit travel and thus, exposure. (With the addition of Notre Dame as a full, football-playing member for 2020, the ACC footprint now stretches from Coral Gables to South Bend to Chestnut Hill. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Miami-Chicago-Boston scalene triangle. So much for limiting travel.)
The Big 12 announced a 9-plus-1 scheduling format wherein members will play nine league games and can schedule one home non-conference game. The ACC had planned to allow member schools the option of playing one non-conference game, as long as it was played in an ACC footprint state, thus accommodating traditional non-conference rivalries such as South Carolina-Clemson, Florida-Florida State and Kentucky-Louisville. The SEC’s move guarantees at least a one-year hiccup in those series. And the Hogs will miss out on the program’s first trip to South Bend to play the Fighting Irish as well as lose home non-conference games with Nevada, Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern. (The status of the home-and-home with Notre Dame is up in the air; the Irish were scheduled to visit Fayetteville in 2024.)
As with other Power 5 leagues, the SEC model is expected to entail an 11-week regular season of five divisional games, a bye week and then five cross-divisional games. This model was constructed to allow schools to get in as many divisional games as possible, allowing for an easier road to determining participants in conference championship games, in case a COVID spike interrupts the season. The SEC pushed back its league title game to Dec. 19, creating a 12-week window to get in the 10 games.
With the season a-go, fans will be able to watch their teams on TV at least. (If college football had been canceled this fall, industry experts estimated a collective loss of $40 billion for Power 5 schools. Through TV alone, SEC schools annually take in revenue approaching $50 million.)
As for fans in the stands? It’ll differ state-to-state, but Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek expects Razorback home games to be limited to roughly 25 percent capacity to accommodate the state’s social distancing requirements. That’s probably similar to what will be seen across the board (with the possible exception of the Pac-12), with access limited to students and select season-ticket holders. And tailgating? Not as we know it. 2020 is going to be a different animal entirely, all around.
Meanwhile, Trey Biddy, publisher of HawgSports.com and the state’s digital Orville Henry (he’s even got the hair style to match), published a purely hypothetical Hogs schedule for 2020 that looks like this:
Sept. 26 — LSU
Oct. 3 — at Auburn
Oct. 10 — at Mississippi State
Oct. 17 — at Texas A&M
Oct. 24 — Ole Miss
Oct. 31 — Alabama
Nov. 7 — BYE WEEK
Nov. 14 — SEC East opponent
to be determined
Nov. 21 — Tennessee
Nov. 28 — at Missouri
Dec. 5 — SEC East opponent to be determined.
Based on who the Hogs have played from the SEC East lately and who was rotating in on the schedule, don’t be surprised to see Georgia and Florida in those TBD spots. First-year head Hog Sam Pittman already had his work cut out for him with the rebuilding Razorbacks, but the 2020 schedule is shaping up to be a doozy. And only “Arkansas luck” would see a potential home slate of LSU, Ole Miss, Bama, Tennessee and Georgia/Florida played in a season when only socially distanced crowds of roughly 19,000 can call the Hogs in person.
But such is the life of a Hog fan. At least, however, it appears there will be football in the fall.
Assuming the virus doesn’t throw an August curve ball, the Hogs look to improve under Pittman. We have to, right? Nowhere to go but up and all. The general consensus among those who follow football is that Arkansas has better than 4-and-20 talent. Based on talent alone, there’s no excuse for winning just two games in each of the last two seasons. Once a proud program, Arkansas football remains top 25 in all-time wins despite the historic valley in which it finds itself. And it has no business going 4-8, even in the vaunted SEC West, much less 2-10. The resources, the statewide support … No excuse. Consistently, Arkansas should be no worse than fourth in the West.
Unfortunately, we’re looking at another year likely in the cellar. Granted, the cellar of the best division in college football. But the climb back up from Bret Bielema’s fade and Chad Morris is steep. Morris is an adept recruiter — as promised, he re-emphasized Texas and delivered respectable classes, and he sure could talk a good game notwithstanding post-game pressers. But once on campus, players too often neither developed nor seemed willing to fight for their coach. “All hat, no cattle” comes to mind, to borrow a Texas phrase.
To be sure, Morris and his staff didn’t inherit a great situation. Those blown big leads in the 2016 regular-season finale at Missouri and in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech were red flags; cracks were visible by Bielema’s next-to-last season. Indeed, after Pittman left to coach the offensive line at Georgia, Bielema had lost his foundation, literally and figuratively. (Some insist cracks were showing before Pittman left, helping motivate him to join his buddy Jim Chaney at Georgia.) Thus, a program being properly rebuilt from the inside out was showing signs of post-Pittman rot by the time Morris took over, and regression soon became a freefall.
Now Pittman inherits a program that doesn’t even slightly resemble the legendary Fighting Razorback spirit on which it was built. The Morris blueprint of mobile 280-pound offensive linemen anchoring a hurry-up offense never materialized. Instead, Razorback O-lineman got bullied, defenders looked lost and the Hogs’ two-year cascade of quarterbacks … Well, it wasn’t pretty.
To their final day on the Hill, Morris and his staff of neophytes tasked with installing the “Deshaun Watson/Clemson offense” claimed that just 30 percent of the playbook was installed. Feels about right. Under the Morris regime, after all, the Hogs seemingly were responsible for only about 30 percent of the total points scored in a given game.
The new Head Hog has much to prove. A successful and respected career assistant who is considered an elite recruiter, Pittman is launching his first head coaching gig. But based on endorsements from former players and reactions from current Hogs, he appears more than able to motivate. Heck, he’s already motivated a moribund fan base to step away from the ledge and dare to hope, at least. And Razorback players who appeared to let go of the rope throughout the four-win Morris tenure and even back into the Bielema days now seem willing to run through a wall for Pittman and the impressive staff he’s compiled.
Which brings us to the main reason why the Hogs should improve. (Or look better anyway, even if the record doesn’t reflect it.) The coaching staff. Former Missouri head coach Barry Odom will lead the defense, and the Hogs need him. Odom reportedly turned down a deal to coordinate LSU’s defense so he could coach with Pittman. Kendal Briles will direct the offense. His recent past includes installing and running explosive offenses at Baylor, Houston and Florida State. And with Pittman at the helm and veteran Pittman protégé Brad Davis — who also moved over from Missouri — coaching the O-line, look for the Hogs to commence a return to respectability up front. Numbers finally are back to levels allowing a full scholarship two-deep, and the Hogs have some promising, if so far underperforming, underclassmen.
Aside from defense (more on it in a minute), the greatest improvement from a unit perspective should come from the OL; which will help the Hogs transition, of course, into Briles’ high octane offense. And don’t expect a case of same song, different verse. Though Morris energized the Clemson program as offensive coordinator, his promised “left lane, hammer down” never alighted in Fayetteville or even appeared to come close to doing so.
All-SEC running back Rakeem Boyd returns after rushing for north of 1,000 yards in 2019. His No. 5 jersey reminds Hog fans of Darren McFadden, and Boyd has the chops to back up such comparisons, or at least place himself in the conversation. And following the QB carousel of the last two seasons, the Hogs have a new likely starter in Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks.
The 6-foot-6-inch, pro-style QB started 25 games before an ankle injury ended an up-and-down Gator career in 2019. Franks threw for more than 2,400 yards in 2018 with 24 touchdowns (he ran for seven more) and just six picks in leading the Gators to a 10-3 season in 2018, capped by a Peach Bowl win over Michigan. Assuming he has any time in the pocket, a Razorback bugaboo of late, Franks will find available a good corps of receivers that includes Treylon Burks, Mike Woods and Trey Knox. They’re not Wrights/Adams/Childs just yet, but could get there.
And big things are expected of 5-star redshirt freshman Hudson Henry (yes, one of those Henrys), who headlines a rebuilding tight end room. The Hogs have playmakers; they just need the ball.
Odom has nowhere to go but up on the defensive side. The Hogs’ defensive woes now are recited by schoolchildren across Arkansas like oral histories of generational tragedies. The first step to fixing what ails us? New staff. Check. Odom is a decorated DC whose Missouri squads never lacked for defense. As in Columbia, he is expected to run multiple fronts at Arkansas.
Odom inherits some talent, including Dorian Gerald, the heralded defensive end poised for a breakout season in 2019 before an artery issue in his neck, of all things (I mean, where else but here, right?), ended his season after one game. Youngsters Mataio Soli and Bumper Pool return on the D-line and at linebacker, respectively, looking the part of future stars, while Clemson grad transfer Xavier Kelly and juco transfer Julius Coates should add quality depth if not make immediate impacts on the DL.
Speed kills, they say. It’s an SEC thing. Well, lack of speed is fatal as well. The Hogs haven’t fielded speedy linebackers since Martrell Spaight roamed sideline to sideline on his way to the NFL. For several years now, the LB corps has lacked speed, size and even depth. Odom is an LB man, but a process awaits him. The additions to the rotation of redshirt freshman Zach Zimos and Oklahoma transfer Levi Draper should help.
The secondary … Where to begin? Last season, the Hogs didn’t give up as many plays over the top. We can begin there. But the matador virus continues to occasionally plague backline defenders in Fayetteville. Talent is there, though, and three starters return in the secondary. And top 2020 signee and early enrollee Myles Slusher at safety may one day have Hog fans thinking Atwater/Kennedy/Hamlin. And there’s a lot of young talent coming in. The secondary may soon be fairly stacked.
The kicking game will miss Connor Limpert, the UA’s all-time leader in field goal percentage. And returners Burks and De’Vion Warren are legitimate threats. But special teams overall have not been special for several years and likely will continue the trend in 2020 (or whenever). Duke transfer A.J. Reed is the probable kicker, and two punters coming off subpar seasons are back.
It all boils down to this. For various reasons, Arkansas football has sunk to historic lows. And the SEC, the English Premier League of college football, is not an ideal setting to rebuild. Pittman just needs to take baby steps, such as winning a conference game for the first time in two-plus seasons. The fanbase has accepted reality; it just wants to see effort and a little progress.
The Hogs own a decent run game and have playmakers on offense. The defense, plagued by inept offense at bad times, has withered late after respectable starts and suffered from non-inspired if not non-existent coaching. The Hogs aren’t ready to contend, but 2-10? The program may have fallen on hard times, but it’s hard to believe recruiting classes consistently ranked in the top 30 left us with less talent than programs such as North Texas and San Jose State.
Unfortunately, the redemption tour begins with a 10-game, all-SEC schedule. Conference-only schedules, well, they aren’t equitable. But this is Arkansas — it doesn’t come easy. Heading into 2020, we were facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules as it was with an SEC slate of Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss in Fayetteville and Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri (in Kansas City) on the road. Then there’s the annual (but doubtful for long) tilt with Texas A&M in Dallas.
Whether all these games are played remains up in the air, as does how many fans will get to see them in person. Before the virus threatened to derail all fall sports, most Hog fans would’ve accepted 4-8 as something of a success in Pittman’s first year. Win three of four in non-conference and then for Pete’s sake, win a league game.
We’ll see what happens. With “hammer down” now a memory (and a punchline), there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Hog fans are ready to run through a wall to begin that climb.
Photos courtesy of the University of Arkansas