Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Arkansas. Wednesday morning: LSU.

Brutal.

That word has been used to describe a lot of Arkansas-related football things the past few years. Brutal because a program that appeared to be on the cusp of joining the conference’s elite a few years ago has won 1 SEC game in the past 3 years. Brutal because the Razorbacks are in that position while paying 3 head coaches (I suppose it’s murky with Bret Bielema).

Brutal because Arkansas is dealing with an identity shift, a pandemic-fueled offseason and now has, as athletic director Hunter Yurachek described it, “the toughest schedule in college football history.”

Brutal, brutal, brutal.

If you’re a glass-half full Arkansas fan, you’re telling yourself that at least Ty Storey won’t walk into Fayetteville and sink the program to a new low. Or perhaps you’re saying, well, it’s physically impossible to run through as many quarterbacks as Chad Morris did.

Even those things are brutal. But let’s get to it.

Yesssssssiiiirrrr!!

I don’t care if he goes 0-10 this year. Sam Pittman deserves a round of applause. To sign the staff and then recruit the way he did was remarkable given the limited timeframe he had to rebuild a program that hasn’t won an SEC game since 2017. That’s not an easy task to do for anyone, much less someone who has never even been an FBS coordinator. The motor is absolutely there. I don’t doubt that.

I want to see how Pittman handles this grind. Is he going to keep that locker room together when tough times arrive? Is he going to be his same, happy self when he’s at a press conference talking after a 1-5 start? Is he going to make necessary in-season adjustments that yield improvement in the latter half of the season?

I can’t answer those questions yet. Not even he can. This is such a strange situation to be in. I’m not sure if we’ve ever seen anything quite like what Pittman is up against in the nation’s toughest division. Will that be a constant crutch or fallback if blowouts happen early and often? I hope not.

Arkansas fans might be eating up the Pittman narrative now, but it’ll be interesting to gauge how they feel if the results are Morris-esque.

All aboard the Feleipe roller coaster

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Feleipe Franks is the SEC’s version of Jameis Winston. No, I don’t think he’ll have a 30-30 season or anything close to that (on either side), especially with only 10 games. But the key with Franks isn’t arm talent or his ability to take a hit. It’s how he handles the lows.

That is what made him such a lightning rod for conversation at Florida, where he had plenty of good moments and plenty of bad moments (mainly in 2017). Whether it was shushing the home fans in the South Carolina game or jawing with fans during a close game against Miami, Franks doesn’t play with the same even-keeled tone that many of his peers do. I don’t think he can. Some people are just wired differently.

My question is what happens to Franks, who is now entering Year 5 in college, when something doesn’t go his way and Arkansas is down 35-7. Will that emotion spill over into the huddle and impact his ability to lead? Or will he be able to take things more in stride and allow himself to move onto the next play? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to see this chapter of Franks’ career.

Defensive improvement is imminent

Remember when I praised Pittman’s offseason hires? I was mainly referring to bringing Barry Odom on board. Odom running that defense should be night and day to what Arkansas fans saw with John Chavis, which isn’t saying much considering that Arkansas had the worst scoring defense in Power 5 last year. They’re going to have guys who are actually in position to make plays. Bumper Pool is a major breakout candidate to sort of play the Cale Garrett role in Odom’s defense.

This defense is extremely young, especially after losing guys like McTelvin Agim and Kamren Curl, but it should still be put in much better spots to make tackles. Joe Foucha, Montaric Brown and Jarques McClellion are all back for a secondary that should be significantly improved in 2020. It has to be.

Even if Arkansas struggles in the trenches in Year 1, I’d give those guys a much better chance of making plays in the open field and avoiding the costly gashes. This will not be a run defense who finishes in the bottom 10 of FBS teams like it was last year. Odom’s track record at Memphis and Mizzou is too good in order for that to happen.

Odom as DC
Run defense
Scoring defense
2012 (Memphis)
No. 33
No. 56
2013
No. 11
No. 61
2014
No. 19
No. 11
2015 (Mizzou DC)
No. 28
No. 5

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Georgia (L)

For me, it doesn’t matter who Georgia starts at QB in Week 1. This is still a lopsided matchup. Georgia defense returns a wealth of production from the unit that allowed the fewest points in America last year. That’s going to make for an awfully difficult challenge for Rakeem Boyd to get any sort of running room (the Dawgs allowed 2 rushing scores all of last season). Pittman’s Georgia reunion might not be a complete and total beatdown, but I’m not expecting Arkansas to score double-digit points in this one.

Week 2: at MSU (W)

UPSET CITY. I have this theory. Well, it’s a couple of theories. One is that with this game being played in Week 2, I bet Arkansas is practicing against the Air Raid already. I think defensively, they’ll be more ready to go than MSU is expecting, especially after last year’s beatdown in Fayetteville. That’s not a capacity crowd in Starkville, either. Keep in mind how that impacts MSU’s cowbell-fueled home-field advantage this year. This comes back to my belief that if Arkansas is going to win a game this year, it won’t come against a team that dominates at the line of scrimmage. That’s the Hogs’ biggest weakness in Year 1 with Pittman. I don’t think MSU is built to push people around up front, and Mike Leach’s pass-heavy offense struggles to string drives together against Arkansas’ experienced back end. Bust out the Gatorade for Pittman.

Week 3: at Auburn (L)

Consider this a reality check moment. A week after celebrating the first SEC win in nearly 3 years, Arkansas runs into an Auburn team with something to prove after a frustrating start. Kevin Steele finds all sorts of ways to generate pressure against the Arkansas front. Franks goes from hero to goat and talks of a possible 3-win season head to the back burner.

Week 4: vs. Ole Miss (L)

This is the one that you know would make all the difference because going into the bye week at 2-2 would feel monumental for Pittman’s progress. I get the feeling Ole Miss will play desperate. After potentially starting 3-0, Lane Kiffin draws up a masterful offensive game plan that keeps Arkansas on its heels. Boyd’s rushing keeps Arkansas alive, but when a late comeback drive is needed, a careless Franks interception ends Arkansas’ hopes of getting tot 2-2.

Week 5: Bye

Week 6: at Texas A&M (L)

It’ll be weird to not see this game played in Dallas. That’s certainly advantage, A&M. Also an advantage is my belief that the Aggies will load the box and dare Franks to beat them. That’s not how Arkansas wants to operate. I think that makes for a long day in College Station against an A&M squad that’s plenty capable of running all over inferior teams.

Week 7: vs. Tennessee (L)

This is a potential swing game for an Arkansas team that could catch a couple of foes by surprise if they’re dealing with mass quarantines. Of course, I’d worry about that impacting Arkansas’ depth, as well. This Tennessee offensive line is no joke, and I envision that being a problem for Arkansas. A big Eric Gray performance could be in the works. But hey, who knows? Franks certainly pulled a rabbit out of his hat before against the Vols …

Week 8: at Florida (L)

The Franks reunion is going to be fascinating. Here’s what I’ll say to Arkansas. If he’s still starting at this point, that’s a good sign compared to what we’ve seen in recent memory. But I wonder about Franks maybe being a little too emotional in this one. You can’t force throws against a secondary that good. This will serve as a reminder of why Kyle Trask’s emergence ultimately forced Franks’ hand. The successor gets the last laugh again.

Week 9: vs. LSU (L)

I think LSU could lose all of its first-stringers and still probably have a good chance to take care of Arkansas. Is that mean? Sorry, but I think LSU has recruited that well. And from a development standpoint, I think we’ll see the Tigers really hit their stride in the latter half of the season. A big Arik Gilbert showing headlines a comfortable LSU victory.

Week 10: at Mizzou (L)

I’m here for this rivalry. Eli Drinkwitz is going to provide a little juice to a league that’s been mostly full of politically correct coaches. Pittman wants this one bad, I’m sure. Shoot, Odom wants this one bad, too. But while I think Arkansas’ young studs Treylon Burks and Trey Knox flash some major potential in this one, I think Mizzou gets the late stop it needs. That defense has an All-SEC candidate at each level. I’ll call for a 28-27 Mizzou win that stings as much as any game all year.

Week 11: vs. Alabama (L)

Nope. Not happening.

2020 projection: 1-9, 7th in West

#WooPig

Baby steps.

I realize this is easy for me to say as someone who isn’t emotionally invested into the program. I totally get that. But try to have some context with this season. The bar is incredibly low. But watch out for things like:

  • Significant run defense improvement
  • Having 1 starting quarterback all 10 games
  • Improving by a full touchdown in average margin of defeat (-22.5 per SEC game in 2019)

These are basic things that are important first steps to make in this rebuild. That’s what it is. It might not be trying to go from a Bielema team based on size to a Morris team based on speed, but it is building the program back up to respectability. It’s probably still not fair to use Florida, LSU, Alabama and Georgia as actual barometers. The rest of the conference is fair game. At least it should be.

Gauge how Pittman handles this. If he takes this all in stride, that’s a positive sign from someone who understands what he signed up for. If his identity of building up the offensive line is evident by season’s end, that’s a win. If his coordinators are still being referred to as obvious upgrades at season’s end, that’s a win, too.

Set the bar low for 2020. It’s going to be brutal.

But dare I say, it might not quite as brutal as anything that happened under the previous regime.

Cover photo of Feleipe Franks courtesy of University of Arkansas athletics.