Arkansas and Missouri are on similar rebuilding trajectories with similar energy building around charismatic coaches. Can the influx of Missouri-talent into the Razorback roster finally break the spell the Tigers have over our rivals to the south?
Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
How bad has the football in Fayetteville been for the past five years? Well…bad enough that a 3-win season was hailed as a monumental achievement.
I’m underselling this, of course. The 2018-219 Arkansas Football Razorbacks under Chad Morris went 4-20 overall and never won an SEC game. Their victories were over Eastern Illinois, Tulsa, Portland State (by a touchdown), and Colorado State. They also lost to Colorado State, North Texas, Vanderbilt, San Jose State, and Western Kentucky – the latter of which was quarterbacked by a guy that the Morris staff chased out of Arkansas. So…yeah…given all that, three wins – three conference wins, at that! – is a big, damn deal that they should be proud of. Add in the fact that they went 1-3 in one-possession games (the Reverse Drinkwitz, if you will) and the Hogs were just as close to playing .500 ball as Missouri was.
The Tigers and Razorbacks were fairly close comparisons to each other, in fact. Arkansas graded out slightly better in SP+ by playing at a consistently “good” level with one 98th-percentile performance (against Tennessee) whereas Missouri had three elite performances – 84th percentile against LSU, 92nd-percentile against Kentucky, 100th-percentile against Vandy – but also stunk out the joint five times: 0% against Alabama, 3rd-percentile against Tennessee, 0% against Florida, 0% against Georgia, 2nd-percentile against Mississippi State.
In fact, Mizzou and Arky had six common foes in 2020, here’s how each fared:
Missouri had higher highs and way lower lows against the 8th-toughest schedule in the country; Arkansas fared better in losses but didn’t hit maximum performance as frequently as Mizzou against the number one toughest schedule in the country. The difference is that Missouri did better in one-possession games and beat Arkansas head-to-head…in a one-possession game, no less.
The point is that both Arkansas and Missouri are on similar tracks of rebuild and the difference in quality – regardless of other noticeable differences – isn’t that far off. What I hope that means is that the Battle Line Rivalry (presented by Shelter Insurance) continues to be a hotly-contested, back-and-forth, maximum entertaining game for however long the expanding SEC lets the two teams play.
Oh, and also, that Missouri continues its winning streak until the heat death of the universe.
Here’s what Arkansas did last year:
Did you forget that they only won three games and had zero wins after November 7th? I sure did. Even Sam Pittman, in his SEC Media Days tour, admitted that he might be the most beloved three-win coach in the history of college football. It shows two things: 1.) how completely awful the Razorbacks were before Pittman showed up, and 2.) how quickly the Pittman staff was able to install some competence in a rudder-less program. They didn’t always finish strong but they scared the bejesus out of much-more-talented teams and were usually competing well into the third quarter.
That’s quite a bit better than getting blown out by a bad team helmed by your old quarterback, huh?
Sam Pittman – 2nd Year – 3-7 (3-7)
The career offensive line coach can apparently coach a team pretty well! Pittman was the architect of those bruising offensive lines of Bret Bielema’s early (and best) Arkansas squads before he went to Georgia and made the ‘Dawgs a bruising powerhouse offensive line school as well. Pittman walks the walk of blue-collar, lunch-pail football guy and his players respond incredibly well to it. There’s no doubt about his care of his team and the appreciation he has for the gig; the question is whether Arkansas can actually win close games and improve recruiting. As Missouri fans can attest, it’s cool to be the rough-and-tumble football guy who takes other’s scraps and turns them into a competent team but that’s not going to consistently win you games. Pittman’s first recruiting class ranked an incredible 30th (the first, abbreviated recruiting class of a new head coach typically ranks way outside that) and, given a full year to recruit, Pittman’s staff managed to haul in the 25th best class. Their current class sits at 19th, one spot behind Missouri. Now we see if that talent can help them win close games; the last staff recruited their butts off as well but only managed to win four games in two years, a reminder that recruiting wins are nice but it’s the on-the-field wins that count. As likeable as Pittman is, another season with 3 wins and a ton of close losses is not going to be charming or tolerated.
Kendal Briles – Offensive Coordinator: Briles the Younger is still a piece of s*** but the reason he continues to stay employed is that the dude can coach offense. He inherited a unit that ranked 105th in SP+ offense in 2019 and – with no spring practice and only a different quarterback – got them up to 57th in 2020. Apparently there was quite a bit of “doing your homework on the bus” luck that came with it, as he couldn’t run the scheme he wanted and had to frequently have Feleipe Franks bail him out on passing downs. Regardless, this will be the first time since 2016 that Briles has had the same job at the same school for more than one year, and if he’s able to improve the Razorback offense yet again I doubt he makes it to a third year in Fayetteville.
Barry Odom – Defensive Coordinator: Well, last year’s Razorback defense was a nice reminder that, regardless of his faults as a head coach, Barry can coach the hell out of a defense. Much like his offensive counterpart, Barry took over a dismal unit that ranked 88th in 2019’s Defensive SP+ rankings and got it up to 62nd by the conclusion of 2020. Again, much like Briles, Odom wasn’t really running the scheme he wanted as he almost exclusively dropped 8 guys in coverage and forced the offense to slowly move down the field. But it did work to frustrate most offenses the Hogs played and that’s a win in anyone’s book. What he does in Year 2 will be interesting, especially regarding his (possible) aspirations of being a head coach somewhere.
Scott Fountain – Special Teams Coordinator
Jimmy Smith – Running Backs
Kenny Guiton – Wide Receivers
Dowell Loggains – Tight Ends
Cody Kennedy – Offensive Line
Jermial Ashley – Defensive Line
Michael Scherer – Linebackers: Hi there, Mike! Scherer was Mizzou’s starting inside linebacker up until 2016 when he suffered a season-ending injury and was replaced by Cale Garrett. Mike had long wanted to get into coaching and the only place that would take him was Barry Odom’s defensive staff at Arkansas. Rion Rhoades, 2020’s linebackers coach, moved to an off-field position and Pittman saw fit to promote the young defensive analyst to the linebacker’s head chair. I’m very happy that Scherer is getting this shot and hope he does well enough to continue to get promoted throughout the years. I also hope his linebackers absolutely gack it in their Black Friday matchup.
Sam Carter – Cornerbacks
Of all the college football preview magazines out there (yes, I still buy – and read – physical magazines) my personal favorite is Athlon Sports’ editions. The reporting is great and the information on each team is thorough, but my favorite aspect is a feature they run for every team where an anonymous coach in the conference of the team being previewed is asked to share their thoughts on the program. Coaches can be a catty bunch – especially when they get to truly unload their thoughts anonymously – so I wanted to share what an anonymous SEC coach though of Arkansas’ 2020 offense:
“That wasn’t Kendal’s (OC Briles) ideal system by far; you could see the struggle where they didn’t have guys to fit what they needed to do to build plays off of each other. KJ Jefferson is their QB most likely, so you’ll see a lot of different stuff because they built a lot of things specific to Feleipe Franks” – Anonymous SEC coach
The advanced stats back this up: the Hogs were terrible at running the ball (76th) and fell apart in obvious passing situations (98th), but were very good at passing the ball (30th) and did well at moving the ball on standard downs (29th). If they could stay on schedule by connecting on quick hitting passing routes then they could maintain possession and convert; if they got knocked off schedule and absolutely needed a play to be made they were toast. Their secret weapon, however, was a surprisingly-competent attack in the red zone. While the offense was very hit and miss in the open field, once they crossed the 30-yard line they morphed into a Top 15 offense that averaged 4.6 points per scoring opportunity (36th). That was the main reason they kept games so close and something they’ll have to continue if they want to increase their win total from last year with a super young core group of talent.
Quarterback – KJ Jefferson – Redshirt Freshman
I’ll say it: I don’t get the hype surround KJ Jefferson. Outside of his one good day against Missouri last year – 18-33, 274 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 sack, 42 yards rushing on 13 carries – he has a career 47% completion rating, averages 7.2 yards per attempt, and has taken nine sacks in the eight games he’s played in, He’s only managed to throw a touchdown pass against Missouri, and while he does average a healthy 4.1 yards per carry, his confidence in his legs leads to the unnecessary sacks cited above. We’ll see what he can do with a fall camp as the presumed starter – and what he does with starter-level weapons around him – but given the heaps of praise thrust upon his potential I’m not sure where he’s earned it so far. I mean, he’s not going to have the benefit of throwing against an injury/COVID-riddled Missouri defense every game…
Running Back – Trelon Smith – Redshirt Junior
Remember this guy? Despite the fact that the Hogs were pretty terrible at running the ball last year, Smith managed to carve up the Missouri defense for 172 yards on 26 carries, a performance that represented 20% of his season’s total carries and 25% of his season’s total yards. Hopefully the Missouri defense won’t be relying on Drake Heismeyer to play defensive tackle by the next time these two play next, but on the whole, Smith was a totally fine running back if he had space to move. Despite getting stuffed 15% of the time he still averaged 5.6 yards running inside the box as opposed to the 4.6 on the outside while also doubling as the third-leading receiver with 159 yards on 35 targets. While it’s nice that he was able be a reliable receiving threat I would imagine Briles would like another receiver (or two) to be able to take those targets and, oh yeah, not have the third-most-targeted receiver on the team barely crest 150 yards through the air.
Wide Receiver – Treylon Burks – Sophomore
This is the other Treylon who torched Mizzou last year, to the tune of 206 yards on 15 targets, representing 22% of his season’s targets and 25% of his season’s total yards. The good news (for Arkansas) is that he’s back; the bad news (for Arkansas) is that their second-leading receiver, Mike Woods, hit the transfer portal and wound up at future SEC-member Oklahoma. So, while it’s nice that Burks and Smith return, who else is around to catch passes? Graduate Student tight end Blake Kern was the fourth-leading receiver in targets (25 targets, 201 yards) while De’Vion Warren also returns (24 targets, 278 yards). Then it’s a grab bag of youngsters and backups, with none of the other returning receivers from last year’s squad eclipsing more than 20 targets or 100 yards through the air. Blue-chipper Ketron Johnson or 3-stars Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Wilson have a chance to break into the rotation as freshmen but, regardless, there’s a whole lot of unproven depth behind Burks and Kern that might take awhile to get going.
Here’s what that same anonymous SEC coach had to say about the 2020 Razorback defense:
“The defense was raw, nothing really special, but most of those guys are back. They drop a lot of guys. I think as the offense was coming along the idea was to try and keep it all in front of you, don’t take big risks with the pass rush. Nothing in particular stands out for them on defense” – Anonymous SEC coach
Again, this anonymous coach was spot on: Barry’s boys were elite at stopping big plays – 14th against explosive plays, 6th in limiting the yards gained on big plays, 22nd in stopping explosive plays on the ground, 6th in stopping explosive plays through the air – but outright TRASHGARBAGE in every other defensive stat you can think of. 83rd against the run, 97th against the pass, 81st on standard downs, 122nd in passing downs, and 123rd in blitzing success reminds you of a vintage Mizzou defensive aroma circa 2016. Odom has to hope that with a full spring and fall practice, plus the maturation of the talent that has been stockpiled in Fayetteville for the past three years, he can field a defense that can actually execute the game plan he wants instead of just hanging out six yards down the field and hoping something good happens.
Defensive Line – Eric Gregory – Redshirt Freshman
Jonathan Marshall and Julius Coates were terrors on the Hogs’ defensive line, combining for 33 tackles and 9 tackles for loss but they are no longer on the roster. Eric Gregory and his 17 tackles and 2 tackles for loss is the lone experienced piece in the Arkansas front. While guys like Mataio Soli and Taurean Carter got some experience as rotational guys, the experience on the front will be solely lacking. Pittman’s staff brought in reinforcements, however— three 3-star linemen to fill out the depth on the back end, Illinois State transfer lineman John Ridgeway, and – OH YEAH OF COURSE -the Missouri tandem of Markell Utsey and Tre Williams. How these guys gel as a unit is yet to be seen but Utsey and Williams, in particular, should provide an instant impact since they have plenty of SEC experience and have played under Odom before.
Linebacker – Grant Morgan – Graduate Student
Michael Scherer’s first linebacking corps is going to be loaded, thanks to the return of both Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool. Those two combined to play almost every defensive snap of 2020 while contributing 63 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 passes broken up and an interception (those last two were all Morgan). Morgan is the feel-good-walk-on-makes-it-big as he was an All-American last year. He chose to return for a sixth year instead of heading to the NFL and, for his sake, I hope he makes it worth it. Neither of these guys are big havoc monsters but they play a lot like Scherer and Cale Garrett did: clog the passing lanes and always be in the right spot to make the tackle.
Defensive Back – Jalen Catalon – Redshirt Freshman
And now we get to the real wrecking ball of the Razorback defense. As a redshirt freshman, the 1st Team All-SEC safety led the defense in snaps played (684), was second on the team in tackles (32), second on the team in passes broken up (4), and first on the team in interceptions (3) while also forcing two fumbles for good measure. Catalon is a terror to whichever side of the field he is covering and should continue to produce those types of results if opposing quarterbacks dare to test him deep. The Hogs also return damn-near every single defensive back from last year’s roster as well so passing defense should be a particular strength in 2021.
So what does it all mean?
Winning streaks are cool and good but you’re always worried as to when they’re going to end, ya know? Lately it hasn’t really mattered the quality of either team, whether Missouri is terrible or excellent they seem to be able to win this game no matter what. Arkansas’ defense should be much improved from last year but the offense is going to have to find ways to score points with a scatter-shot quarterback and a brand new receiving corps.
There’s also the case of the schedule: Missouri will be travelling to Fayetteville after (hopefully) hosting Florida in the snowy-blizzards of Columbia in November while Arkansas will have (probably) just been blasted by Alabama. Whoever can recover the best from the battle against their respective divisional hegemon will have a chance to jump out to an early lead…but this game tends to be wacko-nuts so don’t count on anything logical to happen.
Without seeing the products – and without taking into account the grind of the season – I think Odom’s defense is going to be the strength for this year’s Razorbacks while Drink’s offense should be much improved. Regardless of outcome, this should hopefully be yet another heart-stopping slugfest.