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Nate Olson

Arkansas program in a better place than defending national champs LSU

NATE OLSON: Sam Pittman has Hogs back on track faster than anyone expected and probably even ahead of LSU, which nobody would have predicted.

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First, let me say there is a qualifier on this column.

We know Arkansas will be short-handed for the LSU game Saturday. We don’t know if that means a handful of bench players or if key starters will be out.

We do know that starting quarterback Feleipe Franks will play because questions of his hand injury he suffered last week against Florida were met with confirmation from coach Sam Pittman that he practiced all week.

So, there’s a lot of uncertainty swirling around this matchup. There is also a possibility that LSU may be missing players after a recent round of Covid-19 struck its program and caused the cancelation of the Tigers game with Alabama last week.

However, LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he expects to be at full-strength.

I’ll take Saturday’s result with a bit of a grain of salt because of the pandemic, but I will stand by what I had planned to write last week.

And that is, Arkansas’ program is in a better place currently than the defending champion Tigers.

You would have thought I was crazy if I told you last year I would pen that phrase. It is indeed nuts how thing can change in a year.

Last year, LSU welcomed Arkansas as nearly a 50-point favorite. They had QB Joe Burrow, the eventual Heisman winner, and they were rolling. Arkansas was at the depths of despair — the darkest moment in program history.

This week, before the pandemic news broke, Arkansas was a slim favorite playing at home. The odds makers called it correctly.

The Hogs have performed better.

The Tigers lost to Mississippi State in the opener, and gave up the most single-game passing yards in SEC history in the loss to the Bulldogs. A week later, Arkansas marches into Starkville and contains the Bulldogs passing attack and wins.

The Tigers also lost at Missouri and were drummed 48-11 by Auburn. The same Auburn team that needed a little help from the officials late in the game to narrowly beat Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Not much has gone right for LSU following the title-game win over Clemson. Orgeron lost offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who took the same position with the Carolina Panthers and Dave Aranda, who became the head coach at Baylor, and had 14 Tigers selected in the NFL Draft.

The staff changes coupled with an extreme loss of talent has the Tigers rebuilding instead of reloading.

Orgeron has proven he’s not Nick Saban and his program isn’t and talent rich as the Crimson Tide and Clemson with their knack for restocking players annually and finding freshmen who are ready to be plugged in.

Hopefully, LSU fans enjoyed the national championship run because this year has been a major dud in so many respects, including some off-the-field incidents that didn’t reflect well on Orgeron or the program.

What I will argue is, it will be too much to overcome, and the Tigers will sink to the lower echelon of the league for a period of time, and Arkansas will replace them.

While the Hogs haven’t been able to pull a shocking upset, they have been more than respectable playing one of the tougher schedules in college football history.

With a game at Missouri next week and a regular-season finale against Alabama to play, the Hogs could finish .500, which not many would have predicted.

Pittman has cemented himself as an SEC Coach of the Year candidate. The turnaround Arkansas has made defensively as a whole and on the offensive line is improbable.

Barry Odom has breathed new life in to the Hogs defensive unit which leads the nation in interceptions. The offensive line has protected grad transfer Franks, and the entire offense is improved.

Even though the season isn’t over, I would expect Arkansas to be picked further up the ladder in the SEC West next year with at least some votes in the Top 25 polls.

I’m not as confident with LSU.

Orgeron’s career as a head coach seemed to be over after a failed attempt at Ole Miss even though he did serve as interim head coach at USC in 2013. He received a second chance at LSU after serving as the interim head coach when Les Miles was fired.

He parlayed that into a permanent gig, and led LSU to its greatest seasons in school history. Now, as things start to unravel a bit, it’s valid to question if Orgeron can right the ship.

Programs have dipped a bit after successful seasons, but Oregeron (48-12 at LSU and 58-39 overall) may have hit his peak.

It appears with everything that has surrounded the program that he has lost the momentum a title provides, and he may not be a strong enough CEO to patch all of the holes that were left following the historic season.

His place in history is etched, but expectations rose, too, and he may not be able to meet those.

Maybe he can get LSU back to contending for an SEC West title, but if he has another subpar season next year, boosters will be less eager to see what happens in 2022.

The two teams are experiencing reversals of fortunes, and if I am betting on the long run, I am taking Pittman and the resurgence he’s leading at Arkansas that could turn into a consistent run of success.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Porter

    November 20, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    My brain tells me that it’s an optimist who loves Arkansas writing. My heart says, “I sure hope he’s right!”

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Nate Olson

Regardless of bad call, Arkansas has a competitive football team

If someone had told you this year the Hogs would beat a ranked team and be within a bad call of beating another in back-to-back weeks, you’d have taken that, right?

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While you were enduring the worst era in Arkansas football last season, if someone had told you this year the Hogs would beat a ranked team and be within a bad call of beating another in back-to-back weeks, you’d have taken that, right?

While it is extremely difficult to see the big picture when your team is hosed, the proper prospective should help. It was just a year ago, Auburn smoked the Hogs.

It would have seemed impossible that a year later, Arkansas would erase a 17-point deficit and hold the lead on the Tigers with less than a minute to play.

For the record, the call was atrocious. Various officiating experts agree the officiating crew botched the call on Bo Nix’s fumbled spike attempt which was really a backward pass and fumble recovered by Arkansas.

Anyway, the call can’t be overturned and the win is officially a loss. But, what can’t be argued is Arkansas is much, much better than anyone dreamed they could be.

It’s clear that first-year coach Sam Pittman and his staff have taken Morris’ players that seemed uninspired and less-than-athletic as a whole and have pushed them to improvement and to play beyond their capabilities.

Most were optimistic, Pittman, a career offensive line coach, could recruit the talent needed to rebuild the Hogs. Those hunches were confirmed when Pittman scored several big-time recruits early on.

However, fans braced for the worst because it appeared it would take a miracle to transform last year’s team into a winner, even with an infusion of some talent.

The process would be a long haul. That fact seemed to be confirmed when the SEC gave Arkansas the most difficult schedule in college football history.

All Pittman and Co. has done is lead Georgia at halftime, upset Mississippi State at Starkville and take Auburn the distance on its home field. All ranked teams with no spring practice, no tune-ups.

Forget the 1-2 record, Arkansas has a chance to be competitive most every week with a schedule that I figured could cause the Hogs to go winless without little shame.

So, while the Auburn loss was a tough pill to swallow, it isn’t near as bad as watching a clueless Morris direct Arkansas in a home loss to mid-major San Jose State. There is a tremendous amount of hope and not just the future – immediate hope.

The Hogs will face another winnable foe this week in a home tilt against Ole Miss and first-year Coach Lane Kiffin.

The Rebels are racking up points in Kiffin’s trademark fast-paced, high-octane but have also felt the pain of a difficult schedule with losses to SEC heavyweights Florida and Georgia sandwiched between a slim win against Kentucky.

Kiffin insists the schedule isn’t easier this week.

“Well, we’re playing a really good team. I wish they were like last year, but they’ve done an awesome job,” Kiffin told the media this week. “Completely different on defense. Physical, run to the ball, play as hard as can be, giving people problems.

“Offensively, very explosive with the tempo. Sam’s done a great job. We’re gonna have our hands full.”

Defensive coordinator Barry Odom has done a fantastic job turning a lifeless Hogs defense into a force at times.

His understanding of defending schemes and communicating that to his troops has been evident in slowing down Mike Leach’s prolific offense at Mississippi State, which set the SEC all-time passing record in his first game.

Arkansas also did a respectable job against a tough Tigers offense. It’s a prospect that seemed improbable this season.

Kiffin’s scheme alone is hard to defend and tougher when you have an athlete such as Matt Corral running it. In three games, Corral has racked up 1,080 yards passing converting on 67 of 88 passes with nine touchdowns and a long pass of 68 yards.

“The guy is playing incredible. He’s such a gifted athlete and he can throw any pass. He can throw a dart” Pittman said during a media session this week. “He can throw a touch pass. He certainly can get away from pressure. That guy is a winner. He’s a really good football player and he’s got some really good weapons.

“The thing about Ole Miss is they can run the ball and they can throw it. But you can’t do any of that without a great quarterback, and that guy is a really, really good quarterback.”

If Arkansas can slow down Ole Miss, its offense can be effective against the Rebels. The unit could be aided by the potential return of senior star running back Rakeem Boyd.

The other major factor in the game is how COVID-19 is affecting the Rebels roster. Kiffin acknowledged the virus has taken a toll, and it appeared earlier in the week the game may be in doubt.

If testing goes well Friday, the game will be played, but it is unclear how many Ole Miss players may be absent.

“We are dealing with our first COVID issues of the season, unfortunately,” Kififn said. “We did in camp but had been great through three games. So that’s been a big challenge this week. We were already banged up from a physical, high play count versus a great team in ‘Bama. This is going to be very challenging.

“If we were to play today we could play. Hopefully it stays that way.”

With LSU’s struggles, including last week’s loss to Missouri, the upper echelon of the SEC West doesn’t seem to be a stretch for either team. Of course, both need to win this game.

For whichever team that wins, a possible third place West finish would be well within reach even considering tough games that remain for both teams.

However, based on what has occurred with Arkansas in three games, it seems that Arkansas has more winnable games on its schedule, including Ole Miss.

While last Saturday’s turn of events at Auburn were frustrating but not hopeless as the past two years have been and 2020 seemed.

This Arkansas team will win more games and it has a good chance of happening Saturday.

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Nate Olson

New SEC football schedule could equal zero wins for Razorbacks

Nate Olson takes a look at Arkansas’ new opponents and really can’t find many opportunities for Sam Pittman’s first team to pick up a win.

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The best bet for Arkansas fans now is that Covid-19 cancels the college football season. That may be the only way Arkansas doesn’t finish winless.

The SEC announced last month it was playing a 10-game, conference-only schedule in light of the pandemic. Friday, the schedules were officially released and Arkansas was dealt a low blow with the additions of a home game against Georgia and trip to Florida. Both teams are picked to challenge for the SEC East crown.

It was a cruel and unusual trick to play on the Hogs, who are trying to climb back from rock bottom with new coach Sam Pittman. I’ll let my esteemed colleague Andy Hodges pontificate on how the SEC did the Hogs dirty.

So, now Arkansas will not open with quality mid-major Nevada, at Notre Dame or at home against Sun Belt Conference foe Louisiana-Monroe, who shocked Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in 2012.

Now Arkansas will play SEC East teams Tennessee (who was originally scheduled), the Bulldogs and Gators.

This would be a tough schedule for a team loaded with returning starters coming off a national championship let alone a team who has endured two of the worst seasons in its school history with a new coach and no spring practice to implement schemes or evaluate talent. Talk about dire straits.

“We already owned the nation’s strongest 2020 football schedule and with these additions to our SEC-only schedule, we now own the most challenging schedule in the history of college football,” Hogs athletic director Hunter Yurachek said via social media Friday afternoon. “As Razorbacks we have never backed down from a challenge, this year will be no different. Our focus remains on the growth of our program and supporting Coach Sam Pittman and our football student-athletes as they embrace this extraordinary opportunity.”

That may be the most “glass-half-full” quote I’ve ever seen, but truth be told, Yurachek can’t be happy. Where’s Kentucky and Vanderbilt for Pete’s sake?

For now, it’s the reality Pittman and company have to deal with.

If Arkansas was going to enter a hopeless season, Pittman is the guy to do it with. We knew, or at least those of us who are realistic knew, Arkansas’ ceiling was probably three or four wins and maybe playing competitively in a few losses.

That would be a major accomplishment compared to the dumpster fire that was the Chad Morris Era. It would possibly lead to momentum for 2021 as somehow Pittman continues to land talented recruits. That unexpected stellar performance needs a column of its own soon.

On the low end of things maybe two wins. But, still with the hope of a new regime.

What Pittman needs to guard against now is that a dreadful record and several blowout losses against a stacked schedule doesn’t set the program back five years.

How he will do that is the same way he has navigated the obstacles that have already arisen — with positivity and reassurance.

By all accounts, Arkansas players and recruits have bought into what Pittman is selling as a program on the rise. His stock in my eyes really took off when he hired talented offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach.

Those two moves along with the great recruiting have gone hand-in-hand in setting the tone.

Before Covid, I was leaning more toward three or four wins with a late-season run because the roster does have some talent, especially on offense and Pittman’s ability to coach the offensive line, which has been a major disaster recently.

You have to figure if Pittman could pull some strings on the line, senior running back Rakeem Boyd could have a monster season.

He’s already being recognized on preseason watch lists despite the fact that it is a common fact he’s had little help up front. When you couple in the fact that former Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks is under center with talented sophomores Trey Knox and Treylon Burks to pass to, that could cause optimism that wins over Ole Miss, Missouri, Mississippi State and ULM are possible.

A good debut against Nevada pushes the win potential more. You’d also have to hope that a beleaguered defense led by linebackers Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan could step it up.

So, who can Arkansas beat on the revised schedule?

Well, Arkansas won’t be favored in any game. A lot depends on how the schedule falls. With new coaches, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Missouri seem like the best bets, but if the Hogs are 0-9 heading to Columbia, Missouri, to play Missouri in December that probably gives the Tigers the edge.

However, Mizzou has its own problems drawing LSU and Alabama on the revised schedule.

The gap between Mizzou, Ole Miss and Mississippi State isn’t as far as some may think. Arkansas just has to make sure they keep perspective and play well against the West teams who will be picked near the bottom.

Tennessee is real wild card. They have struggled, but some expect them to have a breakout season.

If Arkansas doesn’t go 0-10, Pittman needs to be commended because a whole bunch of media members have already penciled in that mark.

If the worst does happen, Pittman needs to shrug it off and hopefully start anew with a more realistic schedule next season when Rice, Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff are added.

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Nate Olson

Prep coaches still don’t have answers; delay for football could be coming

A lot of prep coaches have no idea what their depth charts will look like until they see players in real practices and that’s not happening in state yet.

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It’s safe to say Arkansas prep football coaches and athletic directors are antsy.

After seeing offseason activities halted for 11 weeks because of COVID-19, players have been training under strict guidelines since early June. The individual training includes weight lifting, running and other activities by contact is strictly forbidden.

Typically by now, prep coaches have been able to evaluate players in contact situations during spring drills, summer team camps. Seven-on-seven tournaments also provide valuable reps for offensive skill players. All of that has been eliminated because of the pandemic.

And now, as the first week of scheduled fall camp is supposed to begin, it appears at the very least the start of the season may be delayed. During Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, he was asked about contact sports.

“We have given it thought, we have had discussions with the Arkansas Activities Association,” Hutchinson said. “The Department of Health and the Arkansas Activities Association have worked very hard on this. Teams are not allowed to do contact drills.

“In terms of contact sports, we are not ready to move. Hopefully, it will get better. They can train but not engage in contact drills.”

That comment prompted a statement from the AAA later Tuesday afternoon:

“We know there are many questions that we can’t give definitive answers for close-contact team sports on start dates, allowable practice activities for the future, plans for competition venues, etc. We are in communication with the Governor’s Office and Department of Health in efforts to provide answers.”

Without much clarity, there are still some assumptions that can be made based on the traditional calendar and the fact that Hutchinson said earlier this month that contact sports will not be allowed until the state moves into Phase 3 of the CDC guidelines.

If Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health aren’t ready to give the go-ahead at this time and fall camp is supposed to begin next week, it’s easy to assume with the timetable schools wouldn’t be ready to play Week Zero — Friday, Aug. 28.

With the number of cases in Arkansas fluctuating between 500 and 1,000 the past week, it appears the soonest high schools could begin contact drills is mid-August. But will the numbers improve as much as they need to by then to move to Phase 3? Maybe late August?

As much as I know coaches want to begin contact workouts and start the season on time, they know not giving the players enough time to begin contact drills before the season starts will place their safety in jeopardy.

Typically, coaches get two weeks of workouts in before school starts which limits the number of hours players can practice. Those two weeks before school starts is valuable in getting game ready. It also allows coaches time to evaluate players in contact situations.

Normally, of course, they have already seen players during spring practice and team camps. The weeks in August leading up to the season opener still provide heated competition for playing time, but coaches have an idea of who is contending.

Currently there are a lot of high school coaches who have no idea what their depth charts will look like until they see players scrimmaging in practice.

I would think most coaches would want a month to get players into game shape and have a chance to evaluate. All of those factors would lead observers to believe a delay is imminent.

Could that mean pushing back the season to September like Texas is doing with its larger schools and playing into January or cutting some games from the regular-season schedule?

Both would seem to be possibilities at this point.

Now, that other states have acted, the AAA can draw from those examples. Waiting until the last minute may not be the preference of coaches, but when making a decision of this magnitude taking the time is important.

The pandemic is fluid and changes daily. Making a rash decision wouldn’t be wise.

Seeing how the trend looks going into the first of August is a sound move. If it continues to stay the same or rise, the prospects of beginning contact seem slim. Then, a decision can be made on the schedule moving forward.

Other states, including New Mexico and California, have already decided they will not play contact sports this fall. Flipping fall and spring sports is an option, too, although if that were to happen that decision may have to be made already.

What one coach told me he is fearful of is beginning the season only to have it shut down by COVID-19 affecting numerous programs. He assumed if that happened, the season wouldn’t be resumed later.

As we head into the final week of July, we still don’t know much about high school football season, but it appears less and less likely games will begin as scheduled.

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