Prior to the 2021 football season the last time the Arkansas Razorbacks had a winning football season was 2016 under head coach Brett Bielema. In the 2016 campaign the team went 7-6 and the season concluded with a 35-24 loss to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Following the 2017 season, in which Arkansas went 1-7 in the SEC and 4-8 overall, Brett Bielema was fired as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Bielema went 29-34 during his five seasons at Arkansas. Chad Morris was brought in to replace Brett Bielema at Arkansas, but he was fired in November of 2019 after going 4-18 as head coach of the Razorbacks. During his tenure at Arkansas Morris was 0-16 against SEC opponents.
Sam Pittman was brought in to replace Chad Morris in December of 2019. Prior to being named head coach at Arkansas Pittman had been the offensive line and assistant head coach for the Georgia Bulldogs where the team went 43-12 and won three straight SEC championships. Pittman has over thirty years of coaching experience on his resume including stops at “Northern Illinois (twice), Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, UNC, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia” according to The Athletic. Pittman has coached 17 players who have been drafted including seven linemen picked in the first round of the NFL draft.
Year One Under Pittman
Sam Pittman took over a program that had not had a winning season in three years and had only three winning seasons in the last seven years. From the outside, the team did not appear to make significant improvement going 3-7 in 2021. Arkansas defeated Mississippi State 21-14, Ole Miss 33-21, and Tennessee 24-13 to collect the team’s first three SEC wins since 2017 when the team won only one SEC game. Arkansas also had three games in which they lost by three points or less (Auburn 28-30, LSU 24-27, and Missouri 48-50). The fan base was optimistic after coming so close to ending the season at 6-4 and becoming bowl eligible rather than the 3-7 record that they ended the season with.
I am not sure what the administration, fans, and players expected in year number two of the Pittman regime, but the Arkansas Razorbacks definitely exceeded even the highest expectations for 2021. The Razorbacks began the 2021 campaign with four straight victories including wins over the Texas Longhorns and SEC rival Texas A&M. The Razorbacks would drop the next three games to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn. Arkansas pulled to within a point of the Rebels and elected to go for the win on the road. The Razorbacks two-point play was unsuccessful and Ole Miss held on for a 52-51 victory. Pittman addressed the decision to go for the win rather than the tie “I wish the results were different, I think I’d do it probably 100 percent of the time in the situation we were in. Ole Miss was scoring easily, and we had to work for ours.”
Arkansas would reel off three straight wins including conference wins against Mississippi State and LSU before losing on the road to #2 Alabama 42-35. The Razorbacks would finish the regular season with a 34-17 victory over Missouri before playing in their first bowl game since the 2016 season. Arkansas would face the Penn State Nittany Lions in The Outback Bowl from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Florida. The Razorbacks would wrap up the 2021 season with a convincing bowl victory over Penn State 24-10 to finish the year 9-4 and ranked #22 in the nation. The 2021 season featured four SEC conference victories (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU, and Missouri) and two wins against teams ranked in the top 25 (#15 Texas, #7 Texas A&M).
What’s Next for Pittman and Crew?
The University of Arkansas rewarded Sam Pittman with a contract extension that runs through the 2026 season and beyond. According to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg the head coach will make a minimum of $6 million per season with a $100k increase each year. If the Razorbacks win seven games or more each season, Pittman can extend the contract through the 2027 season according to Razorbacks Wire. Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek stated, “There is no doubt Coach Pittman has proven to be the right man to lead our football team. He has earned this opportunity with the success he and his staff have had on the field and on the recruiting trail.” Pittman, who stated that Arkansas would be his last job upon his hiring at the university expressed his gratitude for the contract extension. “I am so grateful for our University and Hunter for believing in me, our coaches and staff and the program we’re building. We are all excited to continue to build on what we’ve done and continue to make our fans and the whole state of Arkansas proud of our football team.”
The decision to hire Pittman at Arkansas has certainly paid off for the Razorbacks. The contract extension is a good faith effort on the part of the administration to keep Coach Pittman in Fayetteville for years to come. The expectations for the 2022 season are sky-high for the Arkansas faithful. The Razorbacks will be tested early as they open the season at home against the Cincinnati Bearcats who finished 2021 with a 13-1 record and an appearance in the college football playoffs. Other notable non-conference games include a road game against BYU who finished 2021 at 10-3 and a home game versus Liberty who finished with an 8-5 record. Arkansas will have to navigate a difficult SEC schedule which includes games against Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Alabama. For Pittman to improve on last year’s breakout season in Fayetteville he will need a little magic, a little luck and to have the best coaching performance of his career. Pittman has built his coaching resume on getting the most out of his players and I expect the 2022 season to be no different in that regard. The SEC better watch out for the Arkansas Razorbacks when the season kicks off in just over 70 days.