Arkansas has been a bit of a nice story this year, as most expected them to be by far and away the worst non-Vanderbilt team in the SEC, trying to break in a new coach with a roster that was absolutely dreadful the last few seasons. Instead, Sam Pittman has turned the Razorbacks into a team that, while undermanned, has been a thorn in the side of everyone they’ve played and put together three nice wins against Miss State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee (and should have beaten Auburn if not for SEC Officiating shenanigans).
They’re scoring 28 points per game, good for 66th in the country. Put into context that they only scored 21 points per game (110th) only one season ago, it’s highly impressive that they’ve made such a big jump. OC Kendal Briles has a pedigree of learning the pre-scandal Baylor juggernaut offense from his father, then adapting it at Florida Atlantic with Lane Kiffin.
Coupling him with Florida transfer QB Feleipe Franks has done wonders for the Arkansas offense, even if it’s still far from a well-oiled unit. Franks is completing 68% of his passes on 8.8 yards per attempt with only 4 interceptions. Add in some solid production rushing the ball, and he’s been a huge boon for the Arkansas offense.
That was, until he hurt his ribs in practice last week and unexpectedly missed the game against Missouri. In his place, K.J. Jefferson (a former top 100 recruit) was explosive, throwing for nearly 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. There’s some talk that Franks may sit out another week since Jefferson played so well, and many think that he fits Briles’ system better.
Receiver Treylon Burks caught my eye in this preview last year as a 230 pound true freshman with legit breakaway speed and a whole lot of YAC ability. He’s improved in 2020 to become Arkansas’s #1 receiver, and has over 800 yards on the season. Mike Woods, another second year man with a growing role in the offense, is more of a downfield threat, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch.
Tight ends Blake Kern and Hudson Henry also have fairly regular roles in the passing offense, grabbing nearly 300 yards of their own.
The Razorback offensive line has been the main improvement from last season, which, as Sam Pittman was an accomplished OL coach at Georgia, shouldn’t as too much of a surprise. While they’ve still allowed a lot of sacks, their run blocking has improved tremendously. Last year’s leading rusher, Rakeem Boyd, had seen his role diminish as the speedy Arizona State transfer, Trelon Smith, showed out, but was still a major factor in short yardage and more power running.
Unfortunately, Boyd opted out for the rest of the season last week, leaving Arkansas to turn to 6th year enigma and yearly big-play-threat-that’s-typically-invisible-all-season T.J. Hammonds to be Smith’s running mate in a two-headed rushing attack.
Alabama’s had the occasional slip up with letting a speedy running back (Ainias Smith, Jerrion Ealy, John Emery) around the edge for a big play once in a game, so don’t be surprised if that happens again with Arkansas’s two big-play backs. Past that, though, I don’t expect any real sustained success rushing the ball from the Razorbacks.
If Franks plays, he’ll convert a few third downs scrambling or finding an open man right at the last second, and may even lead a touchdown drive or two. If Jefferson plays, there’s a bit of a wildcard effect. There’s very little film on the guy, and, while he wasn’t particularly efficient (less the 60% completion rate), he made a lot of big plays against Missouri.
Ultimately, this offense, both in rushing and passing, thrives on big plays. It’ll lead to a mostly shut-out effort from the Alabama defense, but they wind up getting a couple of explosive plays to make Alabama fans nervous in the third quarter.