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SEC Preview: Arkansas

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Arkansas Razorbacks.

Head Coach: Sam Pittman (first season)
Offensive Coordinator: Kendal Briles (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Barry Odom (first season)
2019 Recap: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
The Hogs bottomed out in 2019, dropping their final nine games after a 2-1 start to the season. An embarrassing home loss to San Jose State, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2012, was followed by the absolute low point – a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky and quarterback Ty Storey, who had transferred from Arkansas a year earlier. Chad Morris was fired the next day, and the Razorbacks played out the string with losses to LSU and Missouri to extend their SEC losing streak to 19 games. One positive? Arkansas actually finished ahead of Vanderbilt in both yards per play gained and yards per play allowed.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – GEORGIA (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 3 – at Mississippi State (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate)
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – OLE MISS
Oct. 24 – Idle
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 - ALABAMA

Under Center
After Arkansas started five different quarterbacks in 2019, Sam Pittman and Kendal Briles made it a priority to find an established starter for 2020. With Feleipe Franks getting Wally Pipp-ed at Florida by Kyle Trask, the Razorbacks were able to land a two-year SEC starting quarterback. The fifth-year senior had an up-and-down 2018, culminating with quality play in a four-game winning streak to close the season, but was lost for the 2019 season with a leg injury in Florida’s third game of the year.

Franks can produce with his legs when necessary, but he’s not an overly dangerous runner. He feels pressure well in the pocket, which he’ll see plenty of this season against 10 SEC opponents. Redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson, one of the five who started last season, should be the backup. Jefferson has more ability as a runner, but lacks the passing polish yet to be a sustainable option as a starter. He could be a change-of-pace option in select packages.

In The Trenches
If you’re looking for a bright spot for Arkansas in 2019, the offensive line, most of which returns this season, held up reasonably well. There weren’t a ton of sacks allowed, and the ground game made some hay at times. A miserable passing attack led to a 2-10 disaster, as the Hogs’ boy band of quarterbacks completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes and threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. If Franks can play like a living, breathing SEC quarterback, the Razorbacks offensive line is capable enough for this offense to have some success.

Defensively, there’s not a ton of experience up front for new coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom, but there’s some interesting pieces with Clemson transfer Xavier Kelly and defensive end Dorian Gerald, who played in only one game last year before suffering a neck injury. Inside linebacker Bumper Pool has the name to be a great defender, and his game isn’t too far behind. The run defense was miserable last season, but if they can stay healthy, this group should be substantially better. There isn’t much depth, however, so a key injury or two could send this unit back to the bottom ten in the country for a second straight season.

On the Edge
Morris didn’t bring in much talent in his two seasons, but he did leave Pittman and staff with a solid group of wideouts. The top three returning targets all caught more than 25 passes last season, led by junior Mike Woods with 33, followed by sophomores Treylon Burks and Trey Knox with 29 and 28 respectively. Senior running back Rakeem Boyd topped 1,100 yards as a junior and is the team’s most talented player. Who provides the five-to-ten carries a game to spell Boyd is a mystery.

The raw numbers suggest Arkansas’ pass defense wasn’t terrible, but given Razorbacks opponents had so many big leads last season, efficiency is a more appropriate metric. Those numbers were hideous, as the Hogs allowed more than eight yards per attempt and intercepted just six passes all season. Even worse, the secondary’s best player a year ago, safety Kamren Curl, left early for the NFL Draft. Odom will have to work wonders for this unit to become a middle-of-the-pack group.

Ranking The Units
1.   Running Backs
2.   Receivers
3.   Offensive Line
4.   Quarterbacks
5.   Linebackers
6.  Defensive Line
7.   Defensive Backs

Schedule Analysis
The SEC dealt the Hogs a brutal draw, as the two added games were Florida (away) and Georgia (home). Tennessee was already on the slate as the annual rotating opponent, giving Arkansas the toughest schedule in the country by a fairly wide margin. Ole Miss and Mississippi State both appear prior to the week off, which isn’t ideal, although both Magnolia State schools also have new staffs. The post-idle week stretch is comical, with Missouri being the only one of the final six opponents with whom Arkansas can even be competitive.

Season Prediction
I never predict a team to go winless in conference play for a second consecutive season, but Arkansas accomplished that “feat” last season. I looked foolish predicting the Hogs to get a lone SEC win against Mississippi State, a game which the Bulldogs ultimately won by 30 points. Nevertheless, I will take another swing, calling for Arkansas to lose 27 straight league games before finally being victorious on Thanksgiving weekend at Missouri. Odom’s familiarity with the Tigers could present a Jon Gruden vs. the Raiders in the Super Bowl-type opportunity. Franks will have his moments, and Boyd will be a rock in the backfield, but anything more than one win should give Pittman SEC Coach of the Year honors.

Record: 1-9
CFP Ranking: NR

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.