The Vols have squared off against the Razorbacks just twice in the last decade and haven’t won in Fayetteville since 2001. In fact, the Vols are 1-3 in their last four trips.
Can the Vols break out of their slump in 2020? The Razorbacks have lost 19 straight SEC contests over the last few seasons, so if there ever was a time, it’s now.
2019 in review
Final Record: 2-10 (0-8), last SEC
Final National Ranking: N/A
There’s no other way to slice it: 2019 was an abject failure for the Razorbacks.
The team started off 2-1, but completely fell apart as the season went on. Head coach Chad Morris was fired after the loss to Western Kentucky, ending his career in Fayetteville with a 4-18 record that included an abysmal 0-14 in SEC play. Tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. took over as the interim until Sam Pittman was hired to replace Morris later on.
Football Outsiders’ offensive FEI rating placed the Razorbacks at No. 103 last year. In terms of raw/volume stats, it didn’t get any better. Arkansas averaged the 111th-fewest yards per game and was the 110th-best scoring team in the country. The offense finished 100th-or-worse in every major offensive category sans rushing yards per game (they ranked 85th).
When you’re a 2-10 team, it’s clear that you aren’t doing anything right, so you can imagine how bad the defense was, as well. The Hogs were actually worse on defense, coming in at No. 110 in both FO’s defensive FEI rating and yards allowed per game (450.7). They were the bottom of the barrel in terms of SEC defense.
Teams ran and threw the ball at will. Arkansas fielded the country’s 122nd-best run defense and 123rd-best defensive passing efficiency. It’s important to key in on the efficiency aspect when it comes to Arkansas’ pass defense. At first glance, they allowed the 69th-fewest yards through the air in 2019, but that’s because a) opponents ran all over them and b) they had the 111th-most pass attempts against due to the fact that opponents ran all over them.
The defense also allowed the seventh-most points in the country. It’s easy to see why this team only won a couple of games in 2019.
Who left and who’s new?
New offensive coordinator Kendall Briles has a lot to figure out with practically no time to do it.
Five quarterbacks attempted at least 25 passes for the Razorbacks in 2019. The good news is that they were able to obtain valuable playing time and experience, but the bad news is that no one really separated from the pack last year.
Feleipe Franks — yes, him — is a grad transfer from Florida and is expected to win the starting job this year. He will have to fight off K.J. Jefferson, who has shown flashes and can win the job if he improves his accuracy. Malik Hornsby, a promising dual threat quarterback, could be a guy to watch down the line.
Whomever wins the job will have some major help in the form of Rakeem Boyd, one of the SEC’s best running backs. Boyd decided to forgo the NFL Draft and will look to build off a 1,133-yard season, which was the fifth-most rushing yards in the SEC. He’s a true workhorse back that ran the ball on 50% of the team’s rushing attempts last year. Devwah Whaley was second after running the ball on just 18% of the team’s rushing attempts. It’s clear that this is Boyd’s backfield.
The wide receiver room has questions, but there is plenty of potential. Treylon Burks and Trey Knox showed a ton of potential as four-star freshmen in 2019, but look out for Mike Woods. He was also a part of last year’s recruiting class and tied for the team lead in receptions, led the team in receiving touchdowns, and was second in receiving yards. Deon Stewart’s return from injury should add depth.
Hudson Henry is expected to be the guy at tight end, but the position could be in big trouble if he doesn’t develop as planned. He is the leading receiver returning from 2019 with a grand total of two catches for 17 yards. Henry is surrounded by two true freshman in Jonas Higson and Collin Sutherland, while veteran Blake Kern provides back up.
The offensive line returns three of five starters from 2019 in Dalton Wagner, Myron Cunningham, and Ty Clary, however don’t be surprised if Pittman —who is an offensive line savant— makes some changes before the season starts or midway through the season. Redshirt sophomore Luke Jones is a good player and four-star guard Marcus Henderson is talented enough to crack the rotation. Regardless, Pittman will find the best starting five, that’s for sure.
As we’ve discussed, the defense was bad in 2019. But if anyone can fix it, Barry Odom can. He’s back as defensive coordinator and will oversee one of the country’s worst defenses, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is completely bare in terms of play makers.
He’ll certainly have his work cut out for him on the defensive line, however. The Hogs lost 9.5 of the 21 team sacks in the form of McTelvin Agim and Jamario Bell. Johnathon Bell will anchor the interior and Dorian Gerald returns from an artery issue that basically forced him to miss the entire 2019 season, so that’s a start. It remains to be seen what happens outside of those two players. Zach Williams and Mataio Soli should be big contributors. Clemson transfer Xavier Kelly and JUCO transfer Julius Coates are wildcards that could end up making an impact, as well.
If there is any kind of a bright spot for the Razorbacks last year, it was the linebacker corps. De’Jon Harris led the SEC with 101 total tackles, but he’s now a member of the New England Patriots. Fortunately, the Hogs have Bumper Pool —the SEC’s sixth-leading tackler in 2019— coming back. Hayden Henry returns, but underwent offseason shoulder surgery, so the hope is he recovers in time for camp. Grad transfer Levi Draper may be the favorite to take Harris’ place, but Arkansas recruited four other linebackers in 2020, so all bets are off.
Kamren Curl was definitely the No. 1 guy in the secondary, but he left early for the draft. Joe Foucha is back and is one of the SEC’s best safeties and the Razorbacks recruited four-star safety Myles Slusher, who should compete for playing time.
The corners are experienced. Montaric Brown, Jarques McClellion and Greg Brooks Jr. all started at outside and slot in 2019. They return a combined 33 starts. Brooks Jr. started every game at the slot as a true freshman and should have a big year.
Breakout players for 2020
WR Treylon Burks - I know I singled out Woods earlier, but there’s a lot to like when it comes to Burks. He can be used in a variety of ways (one pass attempt, nine carries, and 12 punt returns in 2019) and is an electric receiver. He didn’t see the end zone in 2019, but that will change this year.
RB Trelon Smith - After sitting out a year, Smith is ready to take over the No. 2 spot in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks love to run the ball and they need someone to take over behind Boyd in the worst way. Smith, who is a very talented back, will likely be the favorite entering camp.
S Myles Slusher - He’s the Razorbacks’ highest recruit and plays the position his defensive coordinator coaches. The defense needs a starter opposite Foucha after Curl’s departure, so there’s a need, too. Slusher also enrolled early, so he should have a leg up on his competition.
This year all depends on what the coaching staff can do with what it has. But even the staff has questions. Pittman has never been the head coach of a P5 program, Briles had the issues at Baylor, and Odom flamed out in Missouri. Now, that doesn’t mean they haven’t tasted success, it’s just more of a reflection of how they got here.
You could say that Arkansas should win more than two games this year, but I’m not entirely sure that will happen due to the recent schedule change mandated by the SEC. The Hogs’ current 2020 SEC opponents averaged 8 wins in 2019. I’m sorry, but I don’t see Arkansas beating any 8-win teams in 2020.
Just one SEC win may be considered a successful season in Fayetteville, but that one win will certainly be hard to find this year.