A new era is off and running in Fayetteville. Yes, that was a reference to Chad Morris’ up-tempo offense.
Bret Bielema had a disastrous season that ultimately cost him his job. It goes to show you how quickly things can change. Last year in this very series, we projected Arkansas for 9 wins. Needless to say, the Hogs came up a bit short.
Now, expectations have shifted in Year 1 of the Morris era. Nobody in their right mind is projecting a 9-win season for the Hogs, and if they are, they’re probably under the impression that Darren McFadden is going to use his final year of eligibility in 2018.
That isn’t happening. Most projections that you see will reflect exactly what 2018 is — a rebuilding year. For Morris, this is more about establishing his identity than it is about wins and losses.
2017 record: 4-8 (1-7)
The questions about The Chad
It doesn’t feel like there’s a consensus opinion on the new Arkansas coach. That probably stems from the fact that it was pretty publicly known that he wasn’t the Hogs’ first choice. Morris isn’t Gus Malzahn, but the hope is that his offense can soon become that.
Morris’ efforts in turning around the SMU offense probably don’t look that impressive on the surface. His high note was posting a 4-4 mark in the American Athletic Conference after consecutive bowl-less seasons. There were mid-major candidates who had better programs than Morris, but they didn’t have two important things.
Morris has the offensive pedigree that suggests he’ll be able to scheme his way past teams with better athletes, which he’ll obviously see plenty of in the SEC West. His up-tempo spread offense will be a complete 180 from the ground-and-pound pro style offense that ultimately failed Bielema.
So will Morris be able to upset some teams in the SEC by doing just that? It seems like a better bet than Bielema’s formula.
The other hope is that he’ll become a fly in the ointment with recruiting the state of Texas. His high school roots in the Lone Star State could allow him to steal more and more 4-star recruits from Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher.
Morris was put in a tough spot as someone with a completely different style from Bielema who had to recruit an entire class in a few weeks. Arkansas fans might not be thrilled with a No. 48 ranking for 2018, but the Hogs are sitting at No. 21 in the 2019 rankings. A year of exceeding some low expectations would only help those numbers.
That’s the good news. The bar is low for Morris. As long as he keeps recruiting and his team can light up the scoreboard more often than last year’s squad (that’s not saying much), he’ll get the support he needs in Year 1.
John Chavis’ latest stop
One of the things that will determine if the Morris era is a success is if he can find the right defensive coordinator to stick around. Chavis is of course on his third SEC school in 5 years and his fourth in the past decade. The well-paid, well-traveled defensive coordinator surely wouldn’t mind making Fayetteville his home for a few years.
Many are questioning if Chavis’ best days are behind him. That’s what happens when your Texas A&M unit finishes 87th in scoring defense and you’re not retained by a new coaching staff.
Lucky for him, Arkansas was even worse last year. Chavis inherited a defense that was No. 114 in scoring, which was dead last in the SEC. The good news is that a secondary that allowed 8.4 yards per pass attempt should be better with veterans like Ryan Pulley, Santos Ramirez and Kevin Richardson (when he returns from injury) leading the way.
Chavis’ strength is his ability to dial up pressure. Despite A&M’s defensive struggles last year, the unit finished tied for second in FBS in sacks per game. Chavis could be the right guy to maximize the potential of McTelvin Agim, and Randy Ramsey could see a spike in production operating out of the new 4-3.
If Chavis can simply make Arkansas average on defense, the Hogs will be much scarier than expected.
Last Chance U to next great Hog tailback?
Speaking of people who used to be at Texas A&M, Rakeem Boyd is going to be fascinating to watch. I’ll be honest. I didn’t know a ton about him until I watched “Last Chance U.” I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
But if you did watch Boyd, you saw the NFL talent that the Independence Community College (Kans.) coaches said he had. In their final 8 games, Boyd ran for 1,207 yards and 14 touchdowns. His breakaway speed stood out. For a program that was so desperate for a game-changer at the skill positions last year, Boyd’s presence could be just what the doctor ordered.
My question is how he’ll function if he’s only getting limited work. In the show, Boyd didn’t really take off until he started getting true feature back work. That’s obviously not a given at a place like Arkansas, where he’ll certainly share carries with Devwah Whaley and several other promising young backs.
But Boyd could easily be the most dynamic of the bunch, especially if his Last Chance U showing was just scratching the surface of his potential.
Week 1: vs. Eastern Illinois (W)
No Jimmy Garoppolo, no Tony Romo and no Sean Payton. In other words, there’s no chance for Eastern lllinois to go into Fayetteville and spoil the opening of the Morris era.
Week 2: at Colorado State (W)
This won’t be a picnic in Fort Collins. There will still be kinks to work out with the offense, and that’s not an easy thing to do traveling across the country in the second game of the season. For what it’s worth, the Rams hung well with Alabama last year (an 18-point loss is “hanging well”) and they nearly knocked off Boise State. The problem is the Rams are dead last in FBS in returning production, which doesn’t bode well for a Week 2 matchup against a Power 5 team.
Week 3: vs. North Texas (W)
Seth Littrell is going to be one of the hot up-and-coming names in the coaching world. North Texas won 9 regular season games last year. Ironically enough, one of its 3 losses came via Morris’ SMU squad … 54-32. While I think Littrell’s team played much better after that Week 2 loss, I don’t see Morris losing that battle after trading in SMU’s roster for Arkansas’.
Week 4: at Auburn (L)
I fear for whoever starts at quarterback for Arkansas against Auburn. The Tigers’ front seven is capable of dominating just about any offensive line in the country. Arkansas’ undefeated start will come to a screeching halt at Jordan-Hare.
Week 5: vs. Texas A&M* (L)
As weird as it might sound, I actually think this is the most important game on Arkansas’ schedule. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s huge. Taking down the Jimbo Fisher hype in Dallas would be enormous. Avoiding an 0-2 start to SEC play would be ideal, too. Does that happen for Arkansas? I highly doubt it, but man, Morris would chug all the Red Bull if it did.
Week 6: vs. Alabama (L)
And this is life in the SEC West. Even with a favorable nonconference slate, Morris’ first 3 SEC games are against the reigning division champs and then 2 of the 4 active coaches with national championship rings. Good luck with that. This game will take a few years to at least get interesting.
Week 7: vs. Ole Miss** (L)
I know, I know. Last year’s win in Oxford was Arkansas’ gutsiest performance of the year. If Bielema had a few more of those, he might still be in Fayetteville. It was also Jordan Ta’amu’s first career start. Something tells me the Ole Miss quarterback will be a much better player when they meet in 2018. But in terms of entertainment value for 2 teams at the bottom of the division, this one will be fantastic.
Week 8: vs. Tulsa (W)
Fun fact about the Hurricanes — they have a quarterback named Chad President who’s coming off a torn ACL. Other fun fact about the Hurricanes — they were 2-10 last year. In other words, Arkansas’ losing streak ends when Tulsa comes to town.
Week 9: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
Say what you want about how brutal it is to play in the West, but not having to face a Power 5 team in nonconference play coupled with crossover matchups against Vandy and Mizzou is pretty nice. A win against the Commodores at least makes bowl eligibility possible heading into November.
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: vs. LSU (L)
Morris’ offense against Dave Aranda’s defense has potential to be a sneaky-good matchup in a couple years. As for 2018, the Tigers have the playmakers to stifle the Arkansas offense. Devin White and Rashard Lawrence could bring a few 2017 flashbacks for that Arkansas offensive line. The Razorbacks wouldn’t mind if Joe Burrow turned out to be another LSU quarterback who fell short of expectations.
Week 12: at Mississippi State (L)
It’s interesting to think about how Joe Moorhead and Morris are both considered among the top offensive minds in the sport. The difference is that Moorhead stepped into a program with the perfect personnel to run his system while Morris still might be a year or two from that. That ultimately allows MSU to get the better of Arkansas.
Week 13: at Mizzou (L)
In a bowl-or-bust showdown, Arkansas can’t find the answers to contain Drew Lock in his final game in Columbia. I will say, though, that this is one of those games that’s tough to predict in the preseason. I expect Lock to look somewhat like he did last year, but that’s not a given under Derek Dooley. And I also expect it to be a slow learning curve for Morris’ offense, but it could have things clicking by late November. As of right now, though, it’s a Mizzou win and a bowl-less season for the Hogs.
* at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.
** at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark.
2018 Projection: 5-7 (1-7)
Final Standings: 7th in SEC West
I’m not high on the Hogs early in the Morris era simply because there are too many unknowns. I didn’t even bring up the biggest personnel question. That is, who starts at quarterback?
Given how awful Arkansas was last year, it’s probably pretty telling that there were so many other areas to address before digging into the quarterback battle.
Even if this season is only a 1-game improvement, it won’t necessarily be a failed proof of concept for Morris. If his offense is as bad as Bielema’s was, it’s certainly not an ideal start, but this is more about getting the program moving in a new direction. Arkansas would benefit greatly from getting an additional month to play in the postseason.
In the West, though, that’ll be easier said than done in Year 1.
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