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SEC Season Preview: Arkansas

By Matt Smith
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Previewing the Arkansas Razorbacks, ahead of the 2018 season.

Head Coach: Chad Morris at Arkansas; first year at Arkansas, fourth year overall (14-22 overall, 0-0 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Joe Craddock (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: John Chavis (first season)

2017 Record: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)

Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

2018 Schedule

Sept. 1 – EASTERN ILLINOIS (3 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 8 – at Colorado State (7:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN)
Sept. 15 – NORTH TEXAS (3 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)
Sept. 22 – at Auburn
Sept. 29 – vs. Texas A&M (Arlington)

Oct. 6 – ALABAMA
Oct. 13 – OLE MISS (Little Rock)
Oct. 20 – TULSA

Nov. 10 – LSU
Nov. 17 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 23 – at Missouri (2:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

What We Know

-Arkansas is going to play fast. Yes, Bret Bielema shifted somewhat from his prodding ground-heavy Wisconsin offense in the latter half of his tenure, but it was never going to be confused for Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense. This one might, as Chad Morris arrives from SMU after guiding a Mustangs offense that reached the 40-point mark seven times last season. A quick fix is much harder in the SEC than in the AAC, but Morris’ first SMU team did go from 11.1 points per game to 27.8. The Hogs averaged 28.8 points per game last season, and with a friendlier schedule, a five-point improvement should be the goal.

-The Razorbacks possess a sneaky-good collection of skill position talent. There might not be five-stars in the bunch, but there are a ton of playmaking options for Morris with three of the top four running backs returning and eight of the top-nine pass catchers, as well as veteran wideout Jared Cornelius, who missed all but two games last season. Morris developed two NFL Draft picks at wide receiver last season at SMU, and he’ll have a variety of skill sets to deploy at Arkansas. Emerging junior La’Michael Pettway is a physical presence at 225 pounds, while Deon Stewart and Jonathan Nance, the top two receivers in 2017, are shiftier at about 175 pounds each. There isn’t an all-SEC contender here, but there are too many good options for Morris not to turn two or three guys into 50-catch players.

-Morris inherits a great locker room. Am I reaching here for something good? Maybe, but what Bielema walked into five years ago and what Morris found last December are worlds apart, and that’s not a small deal. Arkansas was a broken program after the Bobby Petrino-John L. Smith disaster, but Bielema ridded the program of some bad apples, improved the team’s academic performance, and re-developed the trust factor that was missing during the multiple coaching changes. There’s still a massive talent gap for Morris to close, but he has the luxury of a senior class that has embraced the challenge of laying the foundation for a new era at Arkansas.

What We Don’t Know

- The defense is going to do what John Chavis always does. The longtime SEC coordinator brings back the 4-3 defense to Arkansas and will hope to keep the big plays to a minimum while getting to the quarterback with four pass rushers. The blend of an up-tempo offense and a defense that tries to force long scoring drives doesn’t seem to jive, which gives me great pause about the Morris-Chavis marriage going forward. With a fast-paced offense, I prefer an attacking defense that won’t be on the field as long – either because they’re forcing turnovers or giving up three-play touchdown drives. Can this defense hold up playing 35 minutes per game?

-Is Cole Kelley the answer at quarterback? The 6’7” sophomore will remind Razorbacks fans of Ryan Mallett with his size and No. 15 jersey, but he isn’t quite as immobile as the guy who stands No. 2 on the school’s passing yards list. Kelley isn’t a runner by trade, however, but he’s mobile enough to maintain at least a plausible threat of the quarterback running game. It’s not quite the square peg-round hole situation that it may seem for Kelley and Morris, but there are still significant limitations here. Good coaches adapt to their players, and expect Morris to ensure this offense is still functional while transitioning to a roster of his choosing over the next couple years.

-What do we make of this offensive line? It fell off a cliff once Sam Pittman bolted to join Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia after the 2015 season, going from allowing 12 sacks per season and 5.1 yards per carry in 2013-15 to a whopping 35 sacks and just 4.2 yards per carry in 2016 and 2017. This unit has a ton of experience, even with losing first-round NFL Draft pick Frank Ragnow at center, but they’ve vastly underperformed the past two seasons. Will a fresh start work? If so, this team can get back to the postseason.
Ranking The Units

  1. Linebackers
  2. Wide Receivers
  3. Defensive Line
  4. Offensive Line
  5. Running Backs
  6. Quarterbacks
  7. Defensive Backs

Quick Hitters

Swing Game: Oct. 13 vs. Ole Miss
Trap Game: Sept. 15 vs. North Texas
Offensive MVP: WR Jonathan Nance
Defensive MVP: LB De’Jon Harris
Floor: 4-8
Ceiling: 7-5

Season Prediction

This is a build-out for Morris, and no one, even in Fayetteville, is expecting overnight success. The goal should be to sweep the light non-conference schedule, win home games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, and steal a game against Texas A&M, Mississippi State or LSU, with all three teams playing the Hogs the week after Alabama. Seven wins would be a fantastic debut for Morris, but that seems a little too ambitious with the schematic revamp on both sides of the football. It won’t be a winless SEC season like Bielema started with, but it won’t be much better.

Overall Record: 5-7
SEC Record: 1-7
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: None

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.