FAYETTEVILLE – For most football programs a 3-7 record, even if justifiably 4-6 considering an egregious SEC officiating error gifting an Auburn victory, would be deemed disastrous.
For Arkansas last year it marked a watershed.
Things recently had plummeted that badly for a formerly proud Razorbacks program wallowed to 1-7 in the SEC for Bret Bielema’s 2017 swan song and the worse 2-10, 2-10 overall and 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC black eyes marking the bygone Chad Morris era.
Given because of the worldwide 2020 conditions the schedule was entirely and brutally SEC adding SEC East champion Florida and SEC East runner-up Georgia, and that only national champion/SEC West/SEC champion Alabama thoroughly dominated the Razorbacks start to finish, Sam Pittman’s first Arkansas head coaching year grades an A.
Of course it’s the type of A that fans expect adding plusses to expected 2021 improvement.
Pittman expects improvement, too, but an improved record is no given.
Other than lower division Arkansas-Pine Bluff of the SWAC on Oct. 23 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, the nonconference schedule opens Sept. 4 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville vs. the Rice Owls, an old Arkansas Southwest Conference rival now in Conference USA and the team that last year upset a then 7-0 Marshall squad.
Sept. 11 to Fayetteville comes the Hogs biggest old SWC rival, the 2021 Coaches poll 19th-ranked Texas Longhorns that 2025 or earlier will join the SEC and leave the Big 12.
Always dangerous Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference marks Arkansas’ third nonconference game Sept. 18 in Fayetteville.
As for the SEC schedule, it’s typically brutal. The annual play all the West slate includes Coaches poll No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 13 LSU and No. 25 Ole Miss, plus Auburn and Mississippi State teams that were in the 2020 early-season Top 25.
Of that group only Auburn and Mississippi State come to Fayetteville.
For the two SEC East crossover games the Razorbacks draw Coaches poll No. 5 East favorite Georgia in Georgia and in Fayetteville the Missouri Tigers that have annually beaten Arkansas since 2016.
Another brutal SEC schedule but one that longtime former SEC offensive line coach Pittman (at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia) belongs to an Arkansas belonging in the SEC.
Confidence in Arkansas so deteriorated during the Chad Morris years that some fans even suggested what would have been a disastrous, financial decision to leave the SEC for what now appears a moribund Big 12 about to be minus the SEC bound Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners.
“ I’ve certainly never one day thought we didn’t belong in the SEC and in the SEC West,” Pittman said. “It’s a challenging, challenging deal but at the same time we’re Arkansas and we should be right where we are each and every week.”
Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State have Arkansas 2020 losses showing the Razorbacks belong.
Though victorious, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida, and Missouri can testify playing Pittman’s Hogs was no cakewalk.
And with 19 starters back, including 11 “super seniors” taking advantage of the 2020 covid era rules restoring 2020 eligibility to 2021 seniors, the Hogs have the makings to improve.
“We feel a lot better about our football team,” Pittman said. “We know them better and they know us better probably is as important, either one. Feel good about it.”
Offensively they will feel good so long as quarterback KJ Jefferson stays healthy.
Last year’s backup to turned pro quarterback Feleipe Franks, Jefferson starred subbing for an injured Franks starting the 50-48 shootout at Mizzou.
Jefferson immediately grabbed the offseason reins and established himself the run-pass conduit to Preseason All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks and leading returning rushing running back Trelon Smith.
Potential appears sky high if Jefferson stays healthy but the Hogs are Pigs in a poke for a backup quarterback should Jefferson go down.
None had for sure seized the top backup quarterback spot heading into the first preseason scrimmage.
Even with senior Mike Woods transferred to Oklahoma, the Hogs have plenty of proven receivers like De’Vion Warren, Tyson Morris and Trey Knox plus an influx of talented to complement Burks.
A track sprinter, Josh Oglesby, and a freshman, Rocket Sanders originally recruited as a receiver, are the top backup running backs.
The Hogs have two proven tight ends, Blake Kern and Hudson Henry, and then an off the cliff in experience drop-off behind them.
The offensive line suffered an early preseason blow with its most touted player, center Ricky Stromberg, missing time injured.
Fortunately bonus senior right guard Ty Clary slid over to center, his 2018 and 2019 Arkansas starting position.
Tackles Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner and starting left guard Brady Latham practice as incumbents. In Stromberg’s absence, Beaux Limmer has worked at right guard while Clary backed by Shane Clenin plays center.
Arkansas’ defense obviously starts with bonus senior middle linebacker Grant Morgan, second-team All-America in 2020, and 2020 All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon plus proven senior linebackers Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry and secondary vet safeties Joe Foucha and Simeon Blair and Penn State transfer Trent Gordon, incumbent nickel back Greg Brooks and cornerback Montaric “Busta” Brown.
The big key will be if the defensive line adding transfers Tre Williams and Markell Utsey from Missouri and John Ridgeway of Illinois State to 2020 in and out holdovers Isaiah Nichols, Dorian Gerald, Eric Gregory, Zach Williams, Jashaud Stewart, Mateo Soli and Taurean Carter provides the prowess for defensive coordinator Barry Odom to intersperse more 4-man fronts changing pace from his his base 3-2-6 defense.
The Hogs count on acclaimed freshman Cam Little stepping right in to be the place-kicker while opening drills searching at punter and for punt returners and kick returners.