Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Chad Morris and a young roster seek to bounce back
Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Chad Morris walks off the field after an NCAA college football game against the Texas A&M Aggies, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks lost to the Aggies 24-17. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
FAYETTEVILLE — Rebounding is torture in SEC football.
Yet, clawing out of the basement is the exact position the Arkansas Razorbacks find themselves in — again — in Year 2 under Chad Morris after a 2-10 season that featured the program’s second 0-8 SEC record in the past six years.
Morris inherited a roster from Bret Bielema in December 2017 that did not have enough team speed, did not have enough SEC-caliber power on its offensive and defensive lines, and did not have enough dynamic skill players.
Morris and his staff have recognized those deficiencies and recruited with an eye toward repairing them. The Razorbacks brought in a 27-man signing class that ranked No. 23 in the country, and much of that young talent should be on display this fall.
The Razorbacks are coming off their fifth winless conference season since 1931, and the first 10-loss season in school history. A look at the Hogs’ worst records since joining the Southwest Conference in 1915:
Season: Record, Pct., Comment
2018: 2-10, .167, Chad Morris’ debut came with the SEC running hot
2013: 3-9, .250, Hogs lost final nine games in Bret Bielema’s debut
2012: 4-8, .333, After an 11-win season in ’11, the Hogs unraveled
1992: 3-7-1, .318, Jack Crowe fired one game in to Hogs’ SEC debut year
1990: 3-8, .273, SWC foes ran amok after UA announced move to SEC
1953: 3-7, .300, Bowden Wyatt guided the 25 Little Piggies the next year
1952: 2-8, .200, Otis Douglas shown the door after a 9-21 three-year record
1950: 2-8, .200, Otis Douglas makes an inauspicious debut on the Hill
1945: 3-7, .300, Coach Glen Rose doesn’t make it to a third season
1943: 2-7, .222, John Tomlin’s one season ended with 61-0 loss at Tulsa
1942: 3-7, .300, George Cole had better success as AD
1941: 3-7, .300, 0-6 in SWC in Fred Thomsen’s 13th and last season
1932: 1-6-2, .222, Lone win came against Baylor; tied Hendrix, Centenary
Winless teams in SEC play since 1966
Year: Team (SEC record), Next year
1966: Mississippi State (0-6), 0-6
1966: Vanderbilt (0-6), 0-6
1967: Mississippi State (0-6), 0-4-2
1967: Vanderbilt (0-6), 2-3-1
1968: Mississippi State (0-4-2), 0-5
1968: Kentucky (0-7), 1-6
1969: Mississippi State (0-5), 3-4
1970: Kentucky (0-7), 1-6
1972: Vanderbilt (0-6), 1-5
1974: Ole Miss (0-6), 5-1
1975: Kentucky (0-6), 5-1
^1975: Mississippi State (0-6), 0-6
^1976: Mississippi State (0-6), 0-6
1976: Vanderbilt (0-6), 0-6
1977: Mississippi State (0-6), 2-4
1977: Vanderbilt (0-6), 0-6
1978: Vanderbilt (0-6), 0-6
1979: Vanderbilt (0-6), 0-6
1979: Florida (0-6), 4-2
1980: Auburn (0-6), 2-4
1980: Vanderbilt (0-6), 1-5
1982: Kentucky (0-6), 2-4
1982: Ole Miss (0-6), 4-2
1983: LSU (0-6), 4-1-1
1985: Mississippi State (0-6), 2-4
1986: Vanderbilt (0-6), 1-5
1988: Mississippi State (0-7), 1-6
1989: Vanderbilt (0-7), 1-6
1991: Kentucky (0-7), 2-6
^1993: Alabama (0-8), 8-0
1994: Kentucky (0-8), 2-6
1996: Vanderbilt (0-8), 0-8
1997: Vanderbilt (0-8), 1-7
1998: South Carolina (0-8), 0-8
1999: South Carolina (0-8), 5-3
2000: Kentucky (0-8), 1-7
2001: Vanderbilt (0-8), 0-8
2002: Mississippi State (0-8), 1-7
2002: Vanderbilt (0-8), 1-7
2007: Ole Miss (0-8), 5-3
2009: Vanderbilt (0-8), 1-7
2011: Ole Miss (0-8), 1-7
2012: Auburn (0-8), 7-1
2012: Kentucky (0-8), 0-8
2013: Arkansas (0-8), 2-6
2013: Kentucky (0-8), 2-6
2014: Vanderbilt (0-8), 2-6
2017: Tennessee (0-8), 2-6
2018: Arkansas (0-8), TBD
^ - Includes forfeit(s)
Source: SEC media guide 2019
“I think we’re right on track,” Morris said when asked during camp about the implementation of his rebuilding plan. “I think it all starts with what we’ve talked about early on in the start of this season with where we are with the culture of our football program.”
Morris pointed out how the players kept up their energy and encouraging attitudes during a hot, taxing 175-play scrimmage that capped the first full week of camp recently.
“To be able … to give the effort and the intensity we’re asking, it shows we’re definitely on the right track,” he said. “But there’s no finish line though. There is no finish line in this. This is all about getting up and being the absolute best we can be every day.”
The Razorbacks have not re-established themselves as a serious threat in the SEC West since their first winless SEC season in 2013 in Bielema’s first year, the season after the ill-fated interim term of John L. Smith.
Arkansas has had just one winning conference season since the departure of Bobby Petrino after 2011, a 5-3 mark in 2015 that included heartbreaking league losses to Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Smith’s lone season coincided with the entry of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, a transition that has so far worked to the detriment of Arkansas. The Razorbacks have the worst league record since 2012 at 13-43. That’s 10 wins behind their next-worst SEC West rival, Ole Miss at 23-33.
The 13-43 record (.232) is also four games worse than Kentucky and Tennessee, whose 17-39 conference records in that span are second worst in the SEC.
The rut the Razorbacks are in is on a historical level.
Their overall record the past seven years is 35-52 (.402). The Hogs and their fans have experienced home losses in that span to teams such as Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers, Toledo and North Texas. They are 7-19 in SEC home games since 2012, including an eight-game losing streak that dates to a 31-10 upset of No. 11 Florida on Nov. 5, 2016.
The only comparable stretch of Arkansas football came in the 16-year period between 1938 and 1953, when the Razorbacks had 10 losing seasons and went 24-67-3 (.271) in Southwest Conference play with one winning conference season and two bowl berths. That stretch included back-to-back 0-6 SWC records in 1941 and 1942. Legendary Coach Frank Broyles would arrive five years after that run of lousy football ended.
The Arkansas “brand” remains strong. The Razorbacks were rated as the No. 8 most valuable college football program by Forbes, with a current value of $89 million in the magazine’s latest rankings this year.
Fayetteville led the SEC and ranked fourth in the country by U.S. News & World Report in its annual “Best Places to Live” report in April. It’s the fourth consecutive year Fayetteville has led the SEC in those rankings.
The Razorbacks have 715 all-time victories to rank 23rd among FBS programs, and they have spent 417 weeks in The Associated Press poll, good for 21st in the nation. Three years ago, the AP slotted Arkansas at No. 21 in its all-time rankings since making its first appearance in the debut season of the AP poll in 1936. The AP noted Arkansas has been ranked in the top 3 of the poll 30 times, but only once since 1978, on Nov. 20, 2011.
The Razorbacks were crowned champions last summer by the website Football Scoop in its rankings of the best mascot names in college football, so they’ve got that going for them.
But right now, the football program needs a lot of work.
UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek was at the University of Houston and in the same American Athletic Conference with Morris, the head coach at SMU from 2015-17, when he engineered a rebuild for the Mustangs. SMU also went 2-10 in his first season, then improved to 5-7 and 7-5.
“They were in a much worse place, in my opinion, having been a part of that conference, than we are now,” Yurachek said. “So he’s seen it. He’s fought through it before.
“He understands what it takes to build a program and get it to where you can have success over the long term.”
Yurachek said Morris needs only time to turn the Razorbacks into challengers.
“We need to be patient with this process,” he said. “You look at the roster and there’s 50-plus freshmen, redshirt freshmen and transfers, 20-plus sophomores. The talent level is improving.
“What you see from Coach Morris is he’s not trying to make this a quick fix where we have one great year. He didn’t go out and fill our needs with all junior-college players. He’s building a program that will have sustained success out into the future, that’s not going to be that flash in the pan.”
In his opening comments at SEC media days last month, Morris laid out his vision for the program, and also stressed patience.
“When you take a head football coaching job, you know that establishing and enhancing a culture is your top priority, and it takes time, and it takes consistency, and there’s a certain process to follow to develop the results that you’re looking for,” Morris said. “You can look at examples for guys that I worked for. Coach [Dabo] Swinney. Guys in this league, Dan Mullen and Mark Stoops. It didn’t happen overnight.
“My focus as a head football coach at the University of Arkansas is about building a program that’s a consistent winner. Year in, year out, we want to compete for championships. But to win championships first, you’ve got to develop champions, and our staff is doing a tremendous job of doing that and recruiting that way and turning young men into champions. But it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Indeed, recovering quickly from a winless league record in the SEC has been a rarity.
Of the 48 teams that have gone winless in the SEC since 1966, which is the year after Tulane left the conference, only eight managed to finish better than .500 in conference play the next year.
The 2013 Auburn team, led by first-year head Coach Gus Malzahn, is the only team to win a conference or division title the year after going winless in the SEC. Those Tigers went 7-1 in the SEC, defeated Missouri in the league championship game, then lost the BCS Championship Game to Florida State.
Due to forfeits, the 1993 Alabama team officially went 0-8 in the SEC and followed with an 8-0 league record in 1994.
Needless to say, the current Razorbacks face a long road back to contention. Most around the program say a six-win season, which would result in bowl eligibility, would be a significant milepost.
“I think going to a bowl game is a goal that Coach Morris and I both share,” Yurachek said. “I think that’s taking that next step in the rebuilding process of getting this program back to where we all want to see it.
“We have four very winnable nonconference games. That doesn’t mean we’ll win them, but I would say very winnable at-home nonconference games. Then we’ve got to find a way to win two or three conference games so we achieve that goal.”
Former Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt, now an analyst for CBS Sports, likes the Hogs’ schedule.
“It’s laid out right,” he said. “You’ve got to get off to a good start. You win that first game at home [vs. Portland State] like you should, then the second week when you go to Ole Miss, that’s the Super Bowl. I mean, when you go to Oxford, you’ve got to win.
“And if you do that, you’re going to be 4-0 if you take care of business. Then you gear up for A&M. To me, it’s a matter of having success early and gaining some confidence. Of course, winning is what breeds that. When you haven’t had some success in a while, it’s very difficult, especially in the SEC.”
Cycling back to the top of the SEC is going to take a chain of solid recruiting classes, and the Razorbacks are off to a good start.
Morris and his staff are aggressive, hard-core recruiters, and they delivered a class this winter with the highest average player rating since 247Sports began compiling composite rankings in 2001. The class is thick with big bodies on both sides of the line and rife with speed. Their numbers have created the kind of depth chart that allowed the coaches to run four groups of players on two fields during training camp.
The staff landed key in-state talent such as tight end Hudson Henry, receiver Treylon Burks, defensive end Zach Williams and defensive lineman Marcus Miller. They went hard in Texas and signed six quality athletes from the Lone Star State. They dipped into south Louisiana for defensive backs Greg Brooks and Devin Bush, and offensive lineman Dylan Rathcke. They also pulled talent out of eastern Oklahoma, western Mississippi and Memphis, and they landed a highly sought wideout in 6-4 Trey Knox.
Those who have followed Arkansas football for decades believe that’s a winning recruiting plan.
Nutt, who led Arkansas to a 75-49 record and two SEC championship games in 10 years, thinks Morris can make the Hogs formidable again.
“It starts with what he’s doing right now, recruiting the right ones,” Nutt said. “You’ve got to do a great job of evaluating players, and you have to build a big wall around Arkansas and keep those players in state with the Hogs.”
Scoring recruits from Texas is paramount as well.
“That’s a big reason I think Arkansas can be successful, because Chad has the Hogs back in Texas,” Nutt said. “Start in Arkansas — build that wall very high around the state — and get the best of the best to stay at home, but then you look under all the rocks to find the ones that want to be at Arkansas and are tough, committed and hard-nosed. Eventually they’re going to develop for you, but you’ve got to have great evaluation and projection.
“Then you get some great players out of Texas. Texas and Texas A&M can’t sign them all. When Arkansas has been good, it’s always had players from Texas.”
Thet Arkansas coaching staff and players enter 2019 bristling with hope even though they’re aware the Razorbacks are picked to finish last in the league by SEC media.
A large crop of newcomers will have to be the bedrock of Arkansas’ turnaround.
“I think it’s moving in the right direction, there’s no question about that,” said defensive coordinator John Chavis, who was part of four SEC championship teams at Tennessee and coached in five SEC championship games.
“It starts with all the coaches buying in and then all the players buying in. The difference, it’s almost — I don’t want to say night and day — but it’s so much different than it was at this time last year. We have more trust. I think our players trust us more. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re buying into the things that coach is giving them.”
Junior wide receiver Jordan Jones confirmed that view.
“I took notice of that when guys started buying in,” Jones said. “We started getting onto each other. I think we’re a lot closer than we were last year, too. It’s not just hanging out with a specific group. It’s hanging out with different people.
“Our coaches are doing a good job with the brotherhood thing, getting older guys matched up with the younger guys so we get to know them a little bit better.”
Running backs coach Jeff Traylor pointed out two things when asked where the Hogs are in Morris’ rebuilding plan.
“Our D-line and O-line depth and just our commitment to our culture to really everybody buying in,” Traylor said. “I know it’s the most overused word in college football history right now. But this team really is bought in. We’re extremely young. But the message Coach Morris is speaking, they’re repeating and they’re living it. That’s been the biggest difference.”
Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. was on Danny Ford teams that had losing records in 1992 and 1994 before claiming the school’s first SEC West title in 1995.
“We’re on the right track,” said Lunney, the longest-tenured assistant on staff entering his seventh season. “We’ve got a better feel, a better vibe than we did last year. We’re working, our guys are working.
“I think everybody is hungry to play. We can’t accelerate that beyond the preparation, but I think our guys are excited to get the bad taste out of our mouth. We’ve just got to go prove it.”
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