Arkansas was in dire straits when it fired Chad Morris in November 2019. Over almost two seasons, Morris had coached 22 games and won four. The last straw was a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky, quarterbacked by a player who had transferred out of Arkansas’s program under Morris. But the biggest problem was that Arkansas could not compete in the SEC. Morris went 0-14 against the conference, and Arkansas added two more losses after his firing.
To right the ship, the Hogs hired Sam Pittman, a longtime offensive line coach who worked at Arkansas under Bret Bielema and most recently led the line at Georgia. Pittman knew the ways of the SEC, having coached in the conference since joining Tennessee’s staff in 2012. More than that, he seemed genuinely excited to be taking over the worst team in the conference as a 58-year-old first-time head coach. The Washington Post recently reported that Pittman and his wife “broke down in tears” when Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek offered him the gig. He seems to genuinely enjoy calling the hogs. He wants to make Arkansas a program people will talk about at church or Waffle House.
The Hogs took noticeable steps forward in a 3-7 campaign in 2020, and they’ve only built atop them in 2021. A third of the way into his second season, Pittman is the toast of the SEC. Arkansas woke up on Monday ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25, with a 4-0 record and a chance to have its best season since Bobby Petrino took Arkansas to a Cotton Bowl and a No. 5 final ranking in 2011. A win over then-No. 7 Texas A&M was one of the biggest blockbusters of Week 4, and Saturday’s visit to No. 2 Georgia will get the College GameDay treatment.
The on-field story of Arkansas’s revival is multifaceted, but we don’t have to overcomplicate it: Yurachek hired a big, beefy line coach who understands what it takes to beat people up in the SEC. One season and a quarter of another into his tenure, Arkansas is playing like a team coached by a big, beefy line coach who knows exactly how to maul you. At the same time, Arkansas has cut back on the mistakes that so often doomed it under Morris.
Morris came up as an offensive coach, serving as Clemson’s offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at SMU. But he never could field effective scoring machines at Arkansas. The Hogs’ expected points added per offensive play, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, dipped into the negatives in Morris’s first season and didn’t recover. The driving factor behind Arkansas’s offensive incompetence was the lack of a functioning pass game. In the Morris years, Arkansas averaged an SEC-worst -0.17 EPA per pass play, nearly three times worse than the next-worst team in the SEC, Vanderbilt (and 127th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams overall in those years).
The pass game improved in 2020 and has done so again in 2021. A few things seem to be going on. For one thing, Arkansas QBs are doing a better job avoiding interceptions. In 2018, quarterback Ty Storey was picked off on 4 percent of his passes, and in 2019, Nick Starkel threw an INT on 5.6 percent of his. Feleipe Franks cut that to 1.7 percent in 2020, and KJ Jefferson has so far been picked off on 2.6 percent of his attempts, still a much lower rate than his Morris-era predecessors. Combined with some gains in the run game, Arkansas has posted 0.15 offensive EPA per play, 40th-best in the FBS.