Arkansas Football: Rebuild the Foundation – Sean Clark
Jan. 6, 2012. The Razorbacks have just defeated Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl and finished number five in the AP Poll. However, things start to take a turn for the worse as head coach Bobby Petrino gets involved in a motorcycle accident that leads to a chain of events that uncover an affair he was having and led to his dismissal. Despite returning star quarterback Tyler Wilson and having a top-ten preseason ranking, the Razorbacks finished 4-8, and needed a coach to lay the foundation for a bright future.
They went out and hired Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema, a coach known for his ground-and-pound philosophy. He implemented his formula with the Razorbacks and found some success. He defeated three top-10 teams and six top-20 teams between 2014-16. He led Arkansas to a combined record of 22-17 during that span and won two bowl games. While this was not fantastic success, Arkansas was a respectable program and beat contenders such as Ole Miss, LSU and even pushed Alabama to the brink of defeat.
Arkansas produced plenty of NFL talent from this ground-and-pound philosophy. He had a great defense to back up the offense and Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr. were both draft picks by the New England Patriots. The former of which, Flowers, has been a Pro-Bowler and has a $90 million contract with the Detroit Lions. Also, they produced tight ends A.J. Derby and Hunter Henry. Leading the offense, however, was an offense line anchored by first-round draft pick Frank Ragnow. This allowed the Razorbacks to pound the ball with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and gave quarterback Brandon Allen time to manage the offense. It was an efficient system that allowed for some quality seasons after the Petrino disaster.
Arkansas has struggled in the last three seasons, finishing a combined 8-28. Bielema was fired after a 4-8 2017 season, and SMU coach Chad Morris took over. He finished with a 4-18 record before being let go by the Razorbacks.
The biggest reason Morris failed was trying to implement a system that does not work for Arkansas. Apart from the Petrino years, Arkansas was, predominantly, a running team, and Morris’ air raid and read-option offense did not work for the kind of team Arkansas is set up to be. It wasn’t a good fit and that is why letting Morris go was the right decision.
Just like after the Petrino disaster, the foundation was destroyed and they needed a coach to rebuild the foundation that has, for many decades, been the trademark of Arkansas football.
Enter Sam Pittman. Pittman was the offensive line coach for the Georgia Bulldogs the last four years under coach Kirby Smart. During his time, Georgia has won the SEC East three of those years, and was in the National Championship Game in 2017. Pittman helped build an offensive line that ranked from 50th in rushing offense to 9th the next season.
Arkansas was a ground-and-pound team that had success between 2014-16, and now, they got a coach that will emphasize the running game again.
Here’s the kicker. Who was the offensive line coach for Arkansas for Arkansas at the start of the Bielema tenure? Pittman.
Pittman was the offensive line coach of Arkansas from 2013-15 and helped Bielema emphasize his ground and pound philosophy. The foundation has been laid once again. This next season will be one in transition as they will struggle, like they did during Bielema’s tenure as they went 3-9. But if Arkansas can get the personnel to fit this scheme, they will be a good team once again in the SEC West and will annoy every team they play with their physicality and running ability.
Ole Miss goes with a risk – Johnny Crane
The story of Lane Kiffin as a football head coach is a fascinating one. “Fascinating,” though, can also be synonymous for a roller-coaster ride with a tendency to cause stomachs to churn.
This past weekend, Lane Kiffin was hired by the Ole Miss rebels; with Kiffin replacing head coach Matt Luke, who finished with a 15-21 record.
When looking at this from an Ole Miss perspective, it is a high-risk, high reward move. However, given the history of Kiffin, this seems like a move with too much risk that could create a hefty amount of room for error.
It is best to look at Kiffin’s coaching career first. Kiffin started his coaching career with the Oakland Raiders, where he was fired not even two seasons into his tenure. He then took on the Tennessee Volunteers’ job, where he led them to a 7-6 record and a Chick-Fil-A bowl bid where they lost 37-14 to the Virginia Tech Hokies. After one year with the Voles he then took the head coaching gig at USC, where he was expected to rebuild the program after recruiting violations derailed the team. After a 10-2 record in 2011, he was not able to replicate the same success and was fired after the team plane landed. Eventually, after a stint with Alabama as offensive coordinator he went to the Conference USA to become head coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls, where he led them to a school-record 11 wins in 2017. After a down year in 2018, he led them to double-digit wins again in 2019 before taking the Ole Miss head coaching vacancy.
The head coaching carousel of Kiffin would be enough in itself to make someone’s head spin, but the controversy surrounding Kiffin during those tenures will make one beg for a sickness bag. With the Raiders, Kiffin butted heads with the front office and ownership regarding who to draft. At Tennessee, he abruptly quit, causing fans and students alike to picket the athletic facility. At USC, he was fired in an airport terminal room after arriving back in Los Angeles following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State. Even as a coordinator, he butted heads with Nick Saban while offensive coordinator at Alabama and having issues with the media. Even with FAU he made questionable decisions in recruiting players and coordinators that had spotty histories. No matter the angle you look at it, Kiffin has had controversy.
Ole Miss does not have a clean sheet either. The Rebels are just off of recruiting and academic violations that Matt Luke predecessor Hugh Freeze violated. It was also determined that Freeze predecessor Houston Nutt also violated. The end result included over 30 wins vacated, two-year postseason bans and a probation period.
A particular coach is needed for Ole Miss. A certain fit. A coach that brings a clean slate and can help boil off the previous head coaching eras that put the program in a bad spot.
Reports have come out that current LSU head coach and former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron, a close friend of Kiffin, advised Kiffin against going to Ole Miss as he did not see him as that “certain fit” required for the job.
While Lane Kiffin can bring a high-octane offense that can be multi-dimensional in scheming, the Ole Miss job could be a risky one that could end badly. With a stint back in the SEC, Kiffin must deal with a heightened media presence when compared to the Conference USA, and, given Kiffin’s history with the media, could start his stint with Ole Miss poorly before a game is even played. His controversial recruiting of players and coordinators who have shaky histories could cloud a football program attempting to come out of the smog of their violations they recently committed.
Kiffin and Ole Miss could be matches made in heaven for each other. The thrill of the roller-coaster ride of him could pay off tremendously. On the other hand, the roller-coaster could just turn into another controversial experience.