Photo Courtesy of Kevin Snyder
It has been just over seven months since I typed up the last State of the Hogs. Since then, Arkansas has lost seven straight games on the gridiron, were denied a chance for a deep run in the SEC Tournament, and had a baseball season shut down before it could even play a conference game. To say the least, it has been a brutal stretch for Hog fans. However, I am going to tell you why the Arkansas Razorbacks are in a better state than you think, without just pumping sunshine.
Every university leans heavily on its football program for the biggest chunk of revenue, so let’s start there. Having been on our fifth head coach since 2011, the fan-base has heard its fair share of car salesman gimmicks. We have heard it all. Remember this? “We are going to be one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football.” This was Chad Morris on his first plane ride since being named the Head Coach in December of 2017. In his 22 games as the head coach in Fayetteville, he won four games. Explosively? Not at all. Explosively bad? That’s more like it.
Moving forward, Sam Pittman is the guy. I will be the first to admit, Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek caught me a little off guard with the hire. My top choice would have been former Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach, who is now in Starkville, but I believe that Coach Pittman will do a good job here. He will bring the program back to a form of respectability that Hog fans will be proud of. Being proud of the Razorbacks is the ultimate goal. SP said it best, “This is a proud damn state.” I have said it before and I will say it again, the passion this fan-base has for its Razorbacks is exceptional. That word gets thrown around a lot; passion. If you want to see it first-hand, go to Omaha, go to a bowl game, go to Bud Walton in the early hours of the morning and check out the student section line before a conference game. Getting back on track, Coach Pittman loves his Razorbacks. Don’t believe me? Check out his introductory press conference as he was named the head football coach back in December. He grew up just hours outside of Fayetteville in Oklahoma, even growing up as a Hog fan. He has said many times how much he loves the state of Arkansas. Being passionate about what you do gives you such an advantage over the next guy. The last Head Coach who was truly passionate for the Razorbacks was Houston Nutt. He led Arkansas to Atlanta for the SEC championship game twice and had the Hogs in a bowl games in each of his first six years. I’ll take a guy that loves this program over the flashy car salesman. With this being his first head coaching job at the collegiate level, immediate success is an unfair benchmark to ask for. A bowl game is still out of the picture for 2020. A conference win, something that hasn’t happened since 2017, would be an excellent start. With the pandemic making it a challenge for people be around each other, it makes turning this program around even tougher having to install a brand new system over a zoom call.
Overall, I am very pleased with the coaching staff that Coach Pittman was able to assemble around him. That was the biggest box he had to check for me to be on board with him, and he passed with flying colors. Kendal Briles and Barry Odom is the best coordinator combination we have seen in a long time. With the college football season still on track, a four-win season under these circumstances would be a great start for the 58 year old.
Turning over to the hardwood, Coach Eric Musselman has sent energy and enthusiasm through the veins of Razorback fans. Winning 20 games in a shortened season in which the Hogs endured a stretch of games without their best deep threat was an impressive feat. Now, the 2020-21 season has a mix of veterans, transfers, and the 6th best recruiting class according to 24/7 Sports. This class is the best that Arkansas has seen since the 2004 group which featured 7-footer Steven Hill and was ranked 4th in the country behind Kentucky, Texas, and Louisville.
Mason Jones has signed an agent and is a lock to play professional basketball, unlike Isaiah Joe who has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft, but has not yet signed an agent. This puts Musselman and his staff in a tough spot because if they lose Joe, they will need to pluck a transfer out of the magical transfer portal to field a full roster of 13 scholarship athletes. While we have been awaiting Joe’s final move, the Razorback coaching staff has been contacting (basically) every transfer that is out on the market. The most enticing transfer currently available is Elijah Weaver. The Southern California prospect would have to sit out a year before being eligible to play for the Hogs. He just released a final three of Arkansas, Dayton, and Central Florida.
Overall, this program is in great shape. Musselman has proved he is able to recruit AND win. Fayetteville may build a statue of Coach Muss if he is able to take his team to a sweet 16, something that hasn’t been done since 1996.
If the SEC Tournament in Nashville would have continued, I firmly believe Arkansas would have defeated South Carolina in the second round. A win in the next round versus LSU would have likely put the Hogs into the NCAA Tournament. Playing their third game in three days would have left me wondering if they had enough left in the tank with the way Coach Musselman played this roster to defeat the Tigers.
And finally, arguably the biggest bummer since COVID-19 has entered the world has been the cancellation of the 2020 college baseball season. Even though Arkansas had stumbled out of the gates, they ended the strange year on a four-game winning streak with a trip to Starkville coming up to kick off conference play. Heston Kjerstad was on track for a ridiculous season. In 16 games, he batted .448 with six home runs, 19 runs scored, and 20 runs batted in. Any stat from that line is just ridiculous. He is pegged to go in the first round of the shortened MLB Draft in June. Along with Kjerstad, Casey Martin is more than likely to join him as the two Razorbacks to be picked in the five rounds. Casey Opitz has a tougher decision to make in regards to entering this years draft. With it being shortened to five rounds, Opitz is not a lock to be selected. He could decide to return for his “corona-junior” season. This is important because as a senior, you have very little negotiating power in the MLB draft and earn significantly less money than the average junior that is selected. By coming back, Opitz would still have that negotiating power. For Kjerstad and Martin, they are near locks to be selected in the first few rounds.
The question I have received quite a bit is a good one; without the cancellation of the season, was Omaha the final destination for this team? A seven-game win streak and a four-game win streak sandwiched an ugly five-game losing streak. The simple answer is no. Inconsistency is not a trait of teams that make the trip to Omaha. I believe Arkansas would have hosted and advanced in a regional within the friendly confines of Baum Stadium. In the super regional, you need two good reliable pitching performances out of three games. Based off the first 16 games, it was hard to string together solid pitching performances from the starters to the relievers. Arkansas would have needed a little bit of luck on their side to advance to Omaha, and ultimately they would have fallen in the super regional. I believe the Hogs would have been a good team, not a great team due to their inconsistent pitching.
All in all, Arkansas athletics is in good shape. Coach Pittman is laying the foundation on the gridiron, Coach Musselman has expectations soaring on the hardwood, and Coach Van Horn has the program coming off back to back trips to Omaha.