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Advanced Stats Season Preview, Part 1: Where We’ve Been

Let’s take a closer look at the last 12 seasons of Razorback football

UTEP Miners v Arkansas Razorbacks
Things have gotten messy since Sam Pittman left Fayetteville in 2015.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Well, we’re back.

Once again, Arkansas is entering a rebuilding season filled with unknowns. Coach Sam Pittman is the fifth Arkansas head coach since Houston Nutt was fired in 2007, and he’ll try to be the first in that period to leave on good terms. As Pittman is nearly 60, leaving on good terms means lifting the program out of the SEC basement it currently finds itself in.

Before we launch a 2020 preview for a season that may not happen, we have to ask: how did we get here? There were off-field issues, like Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle crash that helped define the collapse. There were administrative issues, like an ill-advised stadium expansion and bad buyouts for both Bret Bielema and Chad Morris. Former athletic director Jeff Long was saddled with the blame for a lot of the bad decisions and was fired weeks before Bielema in 2017.

Today, we’re going to look at the on-field collapse.

Our advanced stats system returns for another year. If you’re confused by these stats, check out the glossary, but here’s a simple explanation: the chart below shows adjusted scoring margin per game, which is the number of points we’d expect that team to beat a perfectly average FBS team by that year. So the 2010 team was about 17 points better than an average FBS team. This stat is predictive and not a measure of resume. The calculations to find this figure are very complicated, but the glossary explains the basics.

I didn’t design this stat to do this, but it’s worth noting that every team to finish in the negative (meaning they were worse than the average team that year) missed a bowl, while every team to finish in the positive (better than average) made a bowl.

Arkansas has been on a pretty steady decline since the 2014 team that only went 7-6 but was really good. There was a big dropoff after Pittman (and Brandon Allen, Alex Collins, and Hunter Henry) left in 2016, and Bielema’s final team was about equal to his first team.

Morris set new boundaries for being terrible, as his first team was the worst in modern Arkansas history… and then his second was worse. The 2018 team was 6 points worse than Bielema’s 2013 team that went 3-9 and lost to Rutgers, and the 2019 team was somehow a field goal worse than that. Petrino’s 2010 team that reached the Sugar Bowl was just under 30 points better than last year’s squad, with a projected score of 45-15 if the two played. Yikes.

Okay, so the overall trend is evident. Where was the breakdown? Let’s start with the offense. Here, we’re using points above normal (PAN), which is the total number of points contributed by the run and pass games beyond what the average FBS offense would generate, adjusted for the quality of the defenses faced.

Lots of long up-and-down trends here, with Arkansas’ offenses generally above average. The 2008, 2012, and 2017 teams all had above-average offenses but still missed bowls. Brandon Allen oversaw an offense that got about 13 points better per game over his three years as the starter, while Austin Allen at least oversaw bowl-level offenses. The last two years have been the two worse over this period, and the 2019 offense was only a half-point better than the 2018 one despite a major talent upgrade at quarterback and receiver.

The six-and-a-half point drop from the end of the Bielema era to the beginning of the Morris era is the single biggest decline, bigger than the 2016 offense losing BA, Collins, and Henry, bigger than the 2008 offense losing Darren Freaking McFadden, and bigger than the 2012 offense losing Bobby Petrino for John L. Smith.

Let’s check out defense:

Okay, so John Chavis was making some progress in rebuilding the defense and then…. last year. I don’t know what happened there. Does Chavis deserve more blame for tanking the Morris era, or did Morris’ tanking cause Chavis’ defense to give up? Remember that the Hog defense had defensive touchdowns in 3 of the first 5 games to open the season, and the fall to minus-8.22 mostly happened down the stretch of the year.

Unlike the offense, the defense is generally below average at Arkansas. The 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2016 teams all had below-average defenses and still made bowls, while the 2018 team was the only one to be close to positive and still miss a bowl.

Now that I’ve showed you each of these three graphs on their own, hopefully it will be less confusing when I show you all of them at once, color-coded by coach:

Note: Margin is plotted on a hidden secondary axis. Don’t look at specific numbers, look instead at the trends.

The broad trends are interesting. Petrino was the best coach of this period, obviously, but he was trending down in a way not necessarily suggested by the Hogs’ 11-2 record in his final season. Still, the Hogs would be happy to get that 2011 team back.

Bielema quickly rebuilt both the offense and the defense, but his defensive rebound was short-lived. By the time Kurt Anderson torpedoed the offensive line, fan patience with Bielema had run out, and he left Arkansas about where he found it.

Morris oversaw an offensive collapse in his first year and a defensive collapse in his second, plunging the program into uncharted waters. Now Pittman has a rebuilding task ahead of him. In the next post, we’ll dive deeper into some of the more granular stats that have driven recent trends.