Arkansas head coach Chad Morris / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
If the Arkansas-Mississippi State game at 3 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium were an old-timey wrestling match, it might be billed as a loser-leave-the-SEC match.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s there were multiple wrestling territories, when a key wrestler was jumping from one territory to the next, he’d usually lose his final match in the territory he was leaving in a loser-leave-town match to dramatically explain why he was exiting to the fans.
Rightly or wrongly, some believe the outcome of Saturday’s game will have a weighty bearing on whether Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead will return as the Bulldogs’ coach in Starkville, and whether Arkansas head coach Chad Morris’ job remains safe with the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2
Where: Razorback Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Nov. 9 – Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at LSU
Nov. 29 – Missouri
After all the click-bait website CoachesHotSeat.com lists Moorhead’s job as the most volatile in the college ranks with Morris at No. 2. Fellow SEC head coaches Will Muschamp at South Carolina sits at No. 5, with Barry Odom of Missouri at No. 7 and Jeremy Pruitt of Tennessee at No. 9.
Of course, the website is just someone or some group’s callous opinion, concocted to play upon the worst aspects of fandom. It’s a far more destructive form of rat poison than the kind Alabama head coach Nick Saban rails about from time to time.
Despite all the message board, social media, and talk-show chatter, few know how safe Morris’ job is or isn’t with a full third of the season left to play, and all of the financial considerations on the line.
Admittedly, the situation feels bleak from any standpoint after watching the Razorbacks (2-6, 0-5 SEC) lose five consecutive games since topping Colorado State, 55-34, on Sept. 14. That seems like an eternity ago.
Morris’ situation is compounded by last year’s 2-10 record and his overall 0-13 mark against SEC opponents. Arkansas’ SEC losing streak dates back 16 games to the Bret Bielema era.
Though Morris was considered somewhat of a quarterback whistler for his work as an offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Clemson and as a head coach at SMU, Arkansas hasn’t suffered this poor of play at quarterback in two consecutive seasons in the program’s modern history dating back to Frank Broyles’ arrival as head coach in 1958.
Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead / HailState.com
Moorhead’s Mississippi State program (3-5, 1-4 SEC) is on a four-game skid of its own. The Bulldogs won eight games in his first season as coach with arguably the SEC’s strongest defense and a solid quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald. Dan Mullen didn’t leave the cupboard empty when he jumped to Florida. However, MSU has backtracked this season with quarterback issues and a tutor scandal that has taken some of the Bulldogs best defenders off the field.
Making matters worse Moorhead, who hails from Pennsylvania, popped up as a candidate for the head coaching job at Rutgers in the middle of the season. Many had wondered how a coach with no ties to the South would handle the culture shock of life in the SEC. It made Moorhead’s situation even more sticky to fans when he didn’t refute the Rutgers rumors strongly enough to their liking.
The Bulldogs are as much as an 8-point favorite in Saturday’s game, but few around the program are excited about their prospects this week with injuries mounting and a game in what should be a hostile environment.
I say “should be” because attendance at the Razorbacks’ last home game, a 51-10 loss to Auburn, was announced at 51,000 ticket sold, but thousands of Razorback fans stayed away.
Even with it being Homecoming for the Hogs, one has to wonder how many of the Razorback “faithful” will make it to the stadium.
One of the jokes cycling around social media on Halloween was a riff on a scene from the classic cartoon “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” In the meme, a costumed child is looking despondently into his sack of candy while exiting the porch of the home where they had just trick-or-treated when he moans, “More Razorback tickets.”
Fan attendance has always been the major factor in whether struggling Arkansas coaches have retained their jobs, and I’m guessing it will play a role in Morris’ future as the Razorbacks’ head coach.
All of this is about money, after all.
The best thing for all Razorbacks would be for Morris to find away to rally his troops for at least two victories out of Arkansas’ last four games. Three would be even better. Even if LSU has a whooper hangover after playing Alabama on Nov. 9, I doubt it will be strong enough to give the Razorback s even a slugger’s chance against the Tigers in Death Valley on Nov. 16.
It even seems a bit pie-in-the-sky to fantasize about three victories in the Hogs’ final four games, when they only managed to win two in their first eight. Teams do improve, but that much, this late in the season, sounds like too much. But it’s what Hog fans should hope for.
Arkansas head coach Chad Morris / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Arkansas would be in a weak position in trying to find a coach if Morris does wash out in just two years. The money would still be attractive, but a program that has had three head coaches and one interim in a decade may look like a graveyard to potential hires.
There also is a ton of uncertainty on the horizon for all of college athletics with the new rule allowing college athletes to benefit from their name and likeness beginning in 2021. No one knows for sure what that means for players and particularly coaches who have to manage programs under an entirely new set of rules.
Every hire is uncertain, but from what we’ve seen so for Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek found a very promising replacement for Mike Anderson in Eric Musselman. Maybe he could do the same for football if necessary?
As for this game, expect the Bulldogs to attempt to run the ball down the Razorbacks’ throats behind SEC-leading rusher Kylin Hill. The Razorbacks have struggled stopping the run all season, ranked 13th in the league in run defense, but they’ve not been much better against the pass, sitting at ninth place.
On offense, it’s anyone’s guess who will get the call at quarterback. With a win desperately needed and based on past Morris’ past decisions, I would guess Ben Hicks will start with John Stephen Jones in relief.
Morris indicated true freshman K.J. Jefferson could get his feet wet this week, but then again who knows?
“Who knows,” might be the best answer for any question about the Razorback football at this point. There has been so little consistency and so much frustration that it is hard to see above the gloom that has hampered the program since Bobby Petrino’s scandalous exit back in the spring of 2012.
Starting over at ground zero with a new coach doesn’t sound all that promising at the moment, but if Morris can’t guide the Razorbacks to some semblance of success over the next month, Yurachek might find it hard to justify standing behind Morris to give him more time to rebuild.
So, let’s hope the Razorbacks can find a way to put it all together for the first time this season and pull off a victory Saturday and hope for the best for the Hogs and Morris.