Arkansas tries to maintain its new place in the SEC: a respectable one

Treylon Burks
FAYETTEVILLE, AR - SEPTEMBER 14: Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver Treylon Burks (16) runs with the football during the game between the Colorado State Rams and Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on September 14, 2019 in Fayetteville, AR. (Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire)

Sam Pittman, when hired by Arkansas to replace Chad Morris, was greeted with a reaction which causes concern and worry among a fan base: not anger, but confusion and bewilderment.

By Matt Zemek

Who?

Sam Who?

In the world of political or literary criticism, it is often more devastating to ignore a person or minimize that person’s presence than to emotionally critique what a person says. Conveying the idea that a person is small or irrelevant, as opposed to making that person a target or an object of intense focus, can often be more effective as a tactic. This is why the lack of a reaction to the Sam Pittman hire was so striking. Arkansas took the less conventional path, hiring an offensive line coach as opposed to a coordinator or head coach.

Steve Spurrier is known for saying that if opposing fans don’t know you or care about what you do and say, you’re not relevant. When opposing fans are riled up and are obsessed with everything you say and do, you’re probably doing something right. You’re probably inspiring fear and loathing, which means your program matters.

When Sam Pittman came to Fayetteville, Arkansas football certainly didn’t matter. Morris drove the program into a ditch and a 2-10 record. The Hogs were genuinely non-competitive in SEC games. They had hit rock bottom. It was virtually impossible to fall any further than they had.

An offensive line coach was going to fix this?

Sam Who?

In 2020, we all saw Arkansas play with more toughness, more physicality, more dedication and passion. The Razorbacks were on the short end of a brutal call in the final minutes which caused them to lose at Auburn. They should have won that game, and they would have won it if a correct call (an Auburn fumble) had been made. Nevertheless, even though the win-loss record didn’t show it, everyone could see that Arkansas was competitive again. As the 2021 season arrived, the big question was if Arkansas could retain its competitive quality but have the wins to show for it.

That question was answered clearly, convincingly, and quickly.

Pittman had Arkansas ready to play in a Week 2 showdown against old Southwest Conference rival Texas. The Razorbacks hammered Steve Sarkisian by 19 points and set the tone for Texas’s ruined season. Two weeks later, another old SWC rival from the state of Texas was on the schedule. Arkansas faced Texas A&M in the annual neutral-site game in JerryWorld. Whereas the Arkansas offense exploded for 40 points against Texas, the A&M game was defined by Arkansas’ defense. The Hogs allowed one very long touchdown play for the Aggies and completely smothered Jimbo Fisher’s offense the rest of the day in suburban Dallas. In 60 minutes, A&M managed only 10 points against an Arkansas defense which gigged the Aggies and put them in a straitjacket.

Arkansas had quickly shown in 2021 that it could not only fight, but win, against opponents of significance.

The remainder of the 2021 season was not free of speed bumps and tough moments. Arkansas lost three games in a row after its 4-0 start. One of those losses was a reality check blowout against eventual national champion Georgia – no shame in getting hammered by the national champions – but the other two losses really did sting.

A winnable game at Ole Miss slipped away by one point in a 103-point shootout, 52-51. Arkansas failed on a game-deciding 2-point conversion. The defense got smoked on a day when merely giving up 40 points would have led to a victory. That’s a tough reality to absorb.

Then came Arkansas’ worst and most disappointing performance of the season, a 15-point home-field loss to an Auburn team which struggled throughout the 2021 season.

Arkansas fans and people who have closely followed this program know that on a few instances in recent years (dating back to the Bret Bielema era), Arkansas has played Auburn in the middle of the season (mid-October) without having had an off week in several weeks. The Razorbacks played tired, ragged football and got burned. Indeed, Arkansas’ first off week in the 2021 season didn’t come until October 30. That’s way too late in a season. The details of the schedule did not line up in the program’s favor.

Arkansas CheerleaderThis sets the scene for the 2022 season by presenting this particular question: Can Arkansas sustain what it has built under Sam Pittman? This notion of sustaining is obvious and important in the larger sense that the Hogs, having won nine games in 2021, will try to make sure they reach the same standard in 2022. Naturally, that is a central point of focus in Fayetteville. Yet, “sustaining” is important in a more specific sense: Can Arkansas sustain its level of play over the course of three months, instead of hitting a three-game losing streak and losing fuel in the tank in mid-October, which clearly happened last season in those two games against Ole Miss and Auburn.

Does Arkansas have the added depth to rotate bodies in and out of the lineup and provide a level of resilience which will guard against a midseason dive? Arkansas was spectacular in September of last season, and once it got a week of rest, it played well in November, especially on defense. October was the problematic month in which the Hogs failed to stitch together 12 games as a whole cloth. Can this year’s team figure out October? New recruits E’Marion Harris (defensive line) and Isaiah Sategna (receiver) will try to improve that equation and ensure that Arkansas doesn’t regress when the grind – the slog – of the season gets tougher and the Saturday opponents include fatigue and exhaustion, not just the other SEC school on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Sam Pittman is no longer an obscure coach. If he can enable Arkansas to sustain a nine-win level of quality, his star in the profession will continue to rise.

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