Razorbacks ready for Morris era to begin

Whew, we made it!

Our long statewide crisis is over.

We’re mere hours away from kickoff of Razorback football season, and I personally am eager and excited to get my first look at the 2018 Hogs with the rest of the state at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The Hogs play the Eastern Illinois Panthers in a SEC Network-televised game, but make no mistake, Saturday is about the Razorbacks and not who the Hogs are playing.

Razorback fans from all across the Natural State and from outside its borders, too, are converging on Fayetteville for the first game of the Chad Morris era. Expectations outside the fan base and those from within aren’t great this year.

National analysts and pundits, for the most part, are calling for from three to six wins. Local reporters and columnists might think a bit better of the Razorbacks, but the known and unknown has most of their predictions hovering around five or six wins, as well.

While Razorback fans do love their Hogs, most have become very hesitant of being optimistic about their football squad. They’ve seen too much heart break and disappointment over the years, and they will reference the unfortunate events of 2018 College World Series as proof, even though what happened in Omaha, Neb. in June has no bearing whatsoever on the upcoming football season.

Though not all Razorback fans feel that way, there is a vocal portion of the fanbase that believes Arkansas’ athletics programs are snake-bit.

I don’t have to give you examples of times when the Razorbacks came up short because no doubt you have several games in mind right now as you are reading this column.

How do I know that? Because I’m thinking about them, too.

Though Chad Morris has just been on the job for eight months, he gets it. More than once during the preseason, he has mentioned how deserving the people of this state are to have a winning football program they can be proud to support.

That’s not to say he believes Arkansas fans don’t have pride in their program. He knows Hog fans are a proud and supportive bunch, but while Morris is not looking back as he attempts to push the program forward, he is familiar with the struggle fans have put up with over the last decade.

From the final couple of years of Houston Nutt’s decade-long run as head coach through Bret Bielema’s dismissal as head coach last November, Razorback fans have been on a roller coaster ride with the football program.

There have been highlights like Darren McFadden’s two sprints at the Heisman Trophy under Nutt, playing in a BCS bowl under Bobby Petrino, and the only back-to-back bowl victories in the school’s history under Bielema.

However, two of those coaches’ tenures ended in scandal, and the other lost his job because in his fifth year, his Hogs just weren’t good enough to be competitive in the SEC.

The erratic nature of the recent history of the Razorback football program has fans longing for stability, and the more we hear from Morris, the more I believe he can deliver it.

Though his approach to the game between the lines is modern and innovative, the way he handles the program itself seems old-school and proper.

However, as always the proof will come on the football field over the next three and hopefully four months, if the Razorbacks win enough to garner a bowl bid.

Though Morris has kept the Razorbacks mostly veiled from the eyes of fans and media in the preseason, I personally like the confidence and enthusiasm shown by the Razorback players in post practice interviews that fans can see from various sources on the internet.

The Hogs know what the outside world thinks of them, but it seems they care more about what they think of each other more. That’s a good attribute. It seems that this squad is going to play with a chip on their shoulder, and they need to.

From the little I know about this team, like others, I peg them for a squad that will finish somewhere around .500, but from the vibe I’m getting I’ll be a little disappointed if the Razorbacks don’t do a hair better than what is generally expected.

That may be the eternal optimist or even the Kool-Aid in me speaking, but when I look back at the results of last year’s games against Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Missouri, the Aggies, Rebels, Bulldogs, and Tigers don’t exactly strike fear in my heart. On their own, anyone of those games should be winnable for the Hogs.

To me, those four games are going to be the difference in the Razorbacks winning more than five games. But then again, anything can happen.

My biggest fear for the season is the meat grinder the Razorbacks face in the second third of the season.

Going from playing at No. 9 Auburn, at Arlington, Texas against Texas A&M, and hosting No. 1 Alabama would be a difficult stretch for any college team, and the hangover from it could leave the Razorbacks at less than their best for pivotal home games with Ole Miss at Little Rock and Tulsa and Vanderbilt at Fayetteville.

Injuries have already struck the Razorbacks hard on the offensive line, and with all due respect to redshirt freshmen Shane Clenin (left tackle) and Kirby Adcock (left guard), they have a lot of maturing and growing to do before Arkansas heads to Colorado State for the second game.

As eager as I am to see Morris’ offense operate, I’m even more anxious to see how much the Razorbacks can improve on defense under the tutelage of legendary defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis and his staff. To me the difference in whether the Razorbacks go to a bowl or not this season is how much better the Razorbacks play defense.

The past two seasons the Razorbacks fielded two of the worst defenses in school history. It truly was embarrassing how many blowouts Arkansas suffered in Bielema’s two final seasons and how many games were lost in the third and fourth quarters..

In one sense, I’m excited about the pressure defense Chavis is going to dial up, but as the old saying goes, when a team blitzes, someone’s band is going to play for the big play. You just have to hope it’s yours.

Personally I hope we don’t learn much about the Razorbacks in Saturday’s game. That would indicate a blowout in favor of the Hogs. The more Eastern Illinois teaches the Razorbacks, I’m afraid the less Razorback fans will like the result.

2018 Arkansas Razorbacks Schedule

Sept. 1 – Eastern Illinois (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 8 – at Colorado State (6:30 p.m. CBS Sports Network)
Sept. 15 – North Texas (3 p.m. SEC Alternate Network)
Sept. 22 – at Auburn
Sept. 29 – Texas A&M at Dallas
Oct. 6 – Alabama
Oct. 13 – Ole Miss at Little Rock
Oct. 20 – Tulsa
Oct. 27 – Vanderbilt
Nov. 10 – LSU
Nov. 17 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 23 – at Missouri