Chad Morris / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The Arkansas Razorbacks couldn’t find a better spot to land at SEC Media Days than right after Alabama head coach Nick Saban in Wednesday’s lineup of teams, coaches, and players that take the podium in front of the national and regional media covering the SEC.
As much as Kentucky owns the SEC Basketball Tournament, Saban and Alabama have held an even tighter grip on the event that kicks off the SEC season for the last decade.
Scores of Alabama fans pack the Hyatt Regency in Hoover, Ala., which has played host to Media Days since 2001, on Alabama’s day on the podium for the chance to see and hopefully get an autograph from perhaps college football’s greatest coach. There’s literally a roar from the fans when Saban makes his way into the event.
Arkansas coach Chard Morris’ entry will likely be uneventful. He’ll be recognized, but it’s doubtful many fans will be knocking themselves over to get his autograph. That’s the reaction after a 2-10 season.
Morris will no doubt get a more cordial reception from the media. Morris and the Razorbacks won’t be the big story on Wednesday, but Morris and his Hogs might be worth a story some day if he can turn Arkansas’ fortunes around.
Expect the Razorbacks to be picked in the cellar of the SEC once again. That’s where they finished last year, and while the Hogs are a very different team now than after closing out the 2018 season with blowout losses to Mississippi State and Missouri, there is no compelling reason for the reporters, analysts, and pundits ato select the Hogs ahead of Ole Miss no matter what Morris or Razorbacks Devwah Whaley, McTelvin Agim, or De’Jon Harris have to say.
That’s probably good. Morris and the Razorbacks would probably do well to fly under the radar and use any perceived disrespect for motivation. Few outside the Razorback conclave expect much from the Razorbacks, who underachieved at almost every opportunity last season.
Even though word is that Morris has changed the culture within the program by swiftly turning over about a third of the players by getting the veterans on the same page or shipping them out, such talk is cheap. Results are going to have to show on the playing field before anyone outside the state is going to give the Hogs a second thought.
Morris, who took a lot of time introducing himself on the podium last year, will come with a different story. It will be interesting to see what it will be.
The most obvious storyline he will be asked to address is the Razorbacks’ quarterback situation, which will be better this year no matter if SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks starts or if Texas A&M graduate transfer Nick Starkel gets the call. Maybe a combination of both will be the right move for the Razorbacks this season.
It will be the second quarterback battle in as many years for Morris at Arkansas, but the outcome will have to be better this year than last when Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock went Ty Storey over Cole Kelley. Neither were the right fit for Morris’ offense, though Storey played with the heart and guts Razorback fans expect from their quarterback.
Last year was a dismal year for quarterback play at Arkansas, and as poor quarterback play always does, it impeded the team’s ability to improve.
That should not be the case this year. Hicks and Starkel are both capable performers. We’ll just have to see who shakes out as the starter. Hicks has a leg up going in to camp, playing two years for Morris and Craddock at SMU, and taking starting snaps in the spring practice. However, Starkel has a golden arm by all accounts, and those who follow recruiting closely project his talent will allow him to overtake Hicks at some point this season.
The less obvious but perhaps biggest story going into preseason drills is the offense line. Arkansas’ line did not gel last year despite having three senior starters who are all on NFL preseason rosters. Can the Razorbacks play addition by subtraction? Again, we’ll see.
Defensively, Harris and Agim are proven SEC competitors at linebacker and defensive tackle. The question is can they pick up their teammates and help them play over their heads to give Arkansas a chance to compete in the fourth quarter? Last year it didn’t happen.
Improved offensive play will take some pressure off the defense, but the Razorbacks of 2018 not only were pounded into submission by the likes of Alabama and LSU, but also Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Missouri.
It’s one thing to lose a close game to those programs, but that trio outscored Arkansas, 135-23, last year.
So the big question is not whether the Razorbacks will improve this season, but rather how much will they improve.
Las Vegas oddsmakers released updated over-under marks for the college football season on Monday, and they pegged the Hogs at 5.5 wins.
Right now my heart would go with the over, but my head says stick with the under. I think most heads at SEC Media Days will pick under, too.
That’s not a bad place for a team like Morris’ to be picked. He can use the low expectations as cover for himself and his staff, but use it as motivation with his team.
Historically, it’s not been a bad thing for the Razorbacks to be waiting in the weeds. Maybe, this Razorback team can exceed their meager expectations like several notable Arkansas teams in the past.