Arkansas football: What qualifies as success in Sam Pittman's debut against Georgia?
This college football season already has been strange.
No fans or limited capacity in every stadium. Piped in crowd noise. Teams missing several key players and games being postponed. Not to mention September is almost over and SEC football is just getting started weeks after some who decided to play.
For first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, it’s unusual in yet another way.
With the SEC adopting a conference-only schedule, Pittman begins his head coaching career against the team he left: Georgia. The Bulldogs weren’t even on Arkansas’ schedule to begin the season, 1 of 2 late additions thanks to the change.
“Never in my wildest dreams when I took the job did I think Georgia would be the first opponent,” Pittman said in a zoom conference Monday. “I’m very thankful and grateful to have had the opportunity to coach at Georgia and coach under Kirby Smart. I learned a lot and he was very good to me. …Without that, I wouldn’t be the head coach here at Arkansas. However, am I nervous? Yes. Why? Because they’re really good.”
Georgia is indeed really good. Arkansas could have drawn just about any other team in the conference and fared better. The Bulldogs have been a regular contender to make the College Football Playoff the past 3 seasons and finished runner-up in 2017.
Is it possible that Pittman can use his knowledge of the Bulldogs to his advantage? Watching him talk about Georgia during his press conference is almost like watching him talk about his own team. When he mentions the quarterback battle between JT Daniels and D’Wan Mathis, he adds how incredible it would be for Mathis to play considering he had brain surgery a little over a year ago.
Later, he raves about the Bulldogs’ offensive line, saying that though they lose a lot of starters they still have players with experience. He even cited Jamaree Salyer as a “draftable player.”
Still, that knowledge isn’t likely to lead to a huge upset when there is such a huge talent discrepancy. So what is reasonable for fans to expect from Pittman against his former team in a game that very few expect him to win?
The offense is the place to start, in particular the offensive line.
Pittman was an offensive line coach at all of his stops prior to Arkansas, so there is naturally an expectation that that group will see tremendous improvement under him. The Razorbacks need it, too. Their power success rate (percentage of 3rd or 4th downs converted with 2 yards or less to go) ranked 85th last year, far too low for a team boasting a running back as talented as Rakeem Boyd. More efficiency for Boyd there and elsewhere would be a great place to start looking at success.
Ricky Stromberg returns to start at center after earning third-team all-freshman honors from Pro Football Focus last season. Although 3 of the 5 starters on the line are underclassmen, Pittman isn’t worried. He sees that as a problem that will diminish quickly.
“We are young and we understand that,” he said. “But young’s gonna get better faster than old.”
Grad transfer Feleipe Franks, who as expected will start at quarterback, will also be a key factor in the Razorbacks’ success. The Razorbacks lacked balance in their offense last season, allowing defenses to hone in on Boyd. The new offense and how it operates under Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles should be the most exciting thing to watch Saturday.
Arkansas is young defensively, but expect defensive coordinator Barry Odom to have his team well-prepared for Georgia, a team he also knows well, even if the Bulldogs also are changing schemes and quarterbacks.
Thankfully for the Razorbacks’ defense, Georgia has a lot to replace from last season. It loses not only starting quarterback Jake Fromm, but also leading rusher D’Andre Swift. But Pittman still alluded to the fact that Arkansas can’t take their replacements lightly. He knows as well as anyone the players the Bulldogs have waiting, since he was primarily the one responsible for recruiting them. Success here would beating the 24-point spread.
But ultimately, how watchable the Razorbacks are is what will quantify Pittman’s opening day success. The pressure is completely off him to win. Fans just want to see the progress he has talked about making all offseason.
In his media appearances since being hired, Pittman has come off composed and a natural leader. Monday was no different as he talked about preparing to embark on his journey as a Division I coach. Arkansas can’t afford to whiff on another hire. If he can stay the same way on the sidelines, it will be a win for all parties involved.