For the first time since the 2013 season, the Arkansas Razorbacks have a new chess master presiding over their football team in offensive-minded head coach Chad Morris. Morris, along with offensive coordinator Joe Craddock and defensive coordinator John Chavis, have some key pieces to their 2018 puzzle laying down ground work for years to come, but do they have enough to make Year 1 in Fayetteville truly successful?
On paper, the strength of the Hogs’ offense should be the offensive line with five players returning with starting experience, but that group has been besieged by injuries early in fall camp and has to learn a new scheme switching from a pro-style set to a spread attack. A battle in the pocket is taking place between returning part-time starter Cole Kelley, Ty Storey, and incoming four-star true freshman Connor Noland. Can Morris find the ideal field general that can sling the rock and execute run-pass option plays against SEC talent? An area of depth for Arkansas is in the backfield and at tight end; two groups that will have to carry a big load this season. The receiver corps is experienced led by senior Jonathan Nance but may lack that deep ball threat that keeps defenses honest.
The only person that might be hungrier for success in Fayetteville than Morris is Chavis. “The Chief” is a SEC defensive coordinator legend after stints at Tennessee and LSU but hit a rough patch in College Station with the Aggies (2015-17). Yet, Texas A&M still fared better (409 ypg) than the Hogs (438) in 2017, offering some glimmer of hope for better results on that side of the ball this season. Chavis has talent up front in end Randy Ramsey and nose guard/end McTelvin Agim and may have one of the best linebacker duos in the SEC with Dre Greenlaw (above, right) and De’Jon Harris. The secondary is experienced led by safeties Santos Ramirez and Kamren Curl with young talent at the corners and at nickel back.
If the pieces of the puzzle can come together, the schedule favors the Hogs to enjoy success early coupled with a five-game, midseason, in-state run against Alabama, Ole Miss, Tulsa, Vanderbilt, and LSU. Back-to-back road games against Mississippi State and Missouri to end the slate will put a stamp on just how successful Morris was in Year 1.
Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Arkansas in 2018.
Arkansas Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I wouldn’t be shocked to see Arkansas hit 6-6 in coach Chad Morris’ debut. The Razorbacks have winnable home SEC games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, along with their four non-conference matchups: Eastern Illinois, at Colorado State, North Texas and Tulsa. However, as fall practice has progressed, the lack of depth on Arkansas’ offensive line is beginning to show. That’s a huge concern within the SEC, especially with an unsettled quarterback situation. Ole Miss and Arkansas are locked in a tight battle for the No. 6/7 spots in the West, but the Rebels are ahead at quarterback and are already a season advanced in coaching transition. Morris makes a difference in Year 1, as the Razorbacks improve over the course of the season. However, I think Arkansas falls just short of bowl eligibility and finishes 5-7 in Morris’ debut.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Chad Morris' first season in Fayetteville won't be easy, but he is no stranger to rebuilding efforts after he inherited a mess from June Jones at SMU. None of the three non-conference games against FBS foes is a gimme, especially the trip to Colorado State. Even if the Hogs win all four non-conference games, they still need to find two more wins to become bowl eligible. They likely will be favored to beat Vanderbilt and possibly against Ole Miss, but they figure to be underdogs in the other six league games. The guess here is Arkansas wins five games in Year 1 of the Morris era.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Chad Morris has worked miracles before so it wouldn't be shocking to see the Hogs make a bowl game and be a pesky team to deal with in the SEC. A lot of that faith comes down to seeing a big jump out of the offense, which has enough weapons to get into some fun shootouts along the way. The defense is just not going to be good enough over the course of a season to make a dent so while the team will be entertaining, it might not be quite enough yet to get Arkansas' head above water in a brutal division.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
Depending on how one looks at the 2018 season under Morris, former head coach Bret Bielema set a low bar that should be easy to surpass. In Bielema’s first season with the Hogs, Arkansas won just three games. Last season with the Hogs, the Razorbacks won just four games. Bielema did not leave the shelves of talent bare, with six starters back on offense and seven on defense, but the Hogs have a big question mark along the offensive trenches while navigating a SEC West schedule that only seems to get tougher and tougher each year. A bowl berth should be considered a very successful season for Morris and company in 2018.
(Top photo courtesy of www.arkansasrazorbacks.com)