Arkansas coach Chad Morris at SEC Media Days / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The Arkansas Razorbacks are a week away from the start of preseason camp for what should be a very telling season for the Chad Morris era of Razorback football.
Not much is expected of the Razorbacks going into his second season on the hill. The SEC media picked the Hogs to finish dead last in the Western Division, and while some see a path to a bowl game this season, most in-state prognosticators feel safer calling for a 5-7 season rather than 6-6 or better.
The most pessimistic are only forecasting four wins. I’ve even heard a few trolls call for three.
Those are the sentiments a 2-10 season reaps for a program that Morris himself has labeled a sleeping giant. Of course, he said that before ever coaching in an SEC game.
However, I doubt Morris’ feelings about the Razorback program have changed much. He knows the program has potential that hasn’t been tapped since Bobby Petrino’s ill-fated motorcycle crash near Elkins.
Again, few are expecting much from the Hogs this season, but every Razorback fan has hopes and dreams of a much improved team and a far more competitive season that ends with a bowl trip, even if some have trouble seeing through the haze of last season to believe it.
Arkansas senior De’Jon Harris was recently named to the Butkus Award Watch List, which honors the nation’s best linebackers. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
There have been great turnarounds in college football over the years. In 2000 alone, Oklahoma went from a subpar 7-5 the previous season to 13-0 national champions. The same year, Lou Holtz took South Carolina from being 0-11 to 8-4 with an Outback Bowl win over Ohio State. I could mention dozens of other such turnarounds. They do happen and almost every year.
I’m not suggesting that the Razorbacks can vie for the Western Division crown this year, but when other programs have bounced back strong from bad seasons, why can’t the Razorbacks?
Now, I could give you a laundry list of why a turnaround probably won’t happen. The Razorbacks are riddled with question marks going into preseason camp. But, why are some Razorback fans so certain Morris, his staff, and the Hogs won’t find enough answers to crawl out of the hole and into bowl eligibility this season?
Whether the starting quarterback is Ben Hicks or Nick Starkel, the Razorbacks are going to be much improved at the position this fall, and while that won’t be an instant cure-all for a young team in a building program, it does give the Hogs a fighting chance.
The Razorbacks were so impeded by the quarterback play last season that I believe we’ll see an entirely different view of the capabilities of an offense-coached Morris at the end of this season than we do right now.
While the Razorbacks are going to be young at receiver, that is a position where young players can be successful. With solid-to-outstanding talent returning at tight end and running back, the big question remains the offensive line. It is a young group, but most of the top six or seven players got a taste of SEC play last year, while the others bring solid junior college experience with them. This year’s O-line doesn’t have to be dominant, but they do need to gel, which is something that never happened last season despite having three seniors.
Playing defense was a chore last season. Not only were players still adjusting to defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis’ new scheme, but they were also playing with their hands tied behind their back from a stand point of field position and point production by the offense.
Arkansas senior Connor Limpert was named to the Lou Groza Award Watch List, which honors the nation’s best kicker. / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Arkansas was dead last in the SEC in scoring offense, putting up just 21.7 points per game. That wasn’t enough points to give the Razorbacks’ defense a fighting chance in a league that’s embraced tempo and the Spread offense.
Better offensive play should help the defense perform better and in turn better defense should help the offense.
What would help both units is to build some momentum early in the season. That’s not going to be easy with Arkansas’ SEC opener staring them in the face on Sept. 7 at Ole Miss.
That game should be a knock-down, drag-out affair. It’s a game both teams need to win to keep their fans interested while their teams work to improve in the most brutal division of college football.
The best thing about that game coming so early in the season is that its loser will have time to rebound within the season, but frankly any other conference win for either squad would likely be billed as an upset, at least based on preseason thinking.
And preseason thinking is often askew. As much as the most knowledgeable analysts and experts think they know about the Razorbacks and the SEC, the season ahead will be full of surprises week by week and even month by month.
Certainly, Alabama and Georgia are the odds on favorites in the West and the East, and even with all the retooling Nick Saban has done with his Alabama staff, it is difficult to pick against the Crimson Tide until someone in the league beats them. Even when teams like Ole Miss and Auburn do manage to upset Alabama, Saban seems to find a way to make sure the loss is just a stumble and not a true fall.
So, yes, there is the perceived certainty of Alabama and Georgia, but who will be this year’s Kentucky? The Wildcats rose from obscurity to have a 10-win season, including upending Florida for the first time in recent memory.
At this juncture, Razorback fans should be rooting for a similar rise this season. It might be unlikely, but it is not unprecedented.
Those thinking they know exactly what to expect from Arkansas this season might just be surprised. Better quarterback play for the Razorbacks will lead to a better performance. We just have to wait and see how much better.