As dangerous as Arkansas is with Coach Sam Pittman, they may be even more lethal without him.
Pittman tested positive for COVID-19 this week and will not coach at No. 6 Florida. His absence is one of the reasons I am picking the Hogs to upset the Gators.
I know some people wrote Arkansas off as soon as they heard the Hogs would be without Pittman, who has engineered one of the better turnarounds in college football during the pandemic year. He’s taken a lifeless squad and made them more than competitive. It may be natural to think that without him pulling the strings in Gainesville, the team may not play as well.
I take an opposite approach. Fans and media have been quick to give coordinators Barry Odom and Kendal Briles a good amount of the credit for the turnaround and rightfully so. Especially Odom, who would seem to be a shoe-in for the Broyles Award (given to the top collegiate assistant) after resurrecting the Hogs’ defense into a legitimate force.
Pittman has gotten a ton of credit, too, but if one of your main points of praise was the hiring of a good staff, Pittman’s performance has gone far beyond that. I think he showed his true value as a coach Saturday night when he described the atmosphere in the locker room as the Razorbacks trailed Tennessee 13-0 at halftime.
“It’s not like we were down 50,” Pittman told the media after the game. “Our locker room felt a little down. I said, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to get the ball, we’re going to go score, the defense is going to hold them. We’re going to be up before you know it. Just keep the faith.’
“Our defense had kind of figured them out a little bit late in the second quarter. Our offense had just shot themselves in the foot, Tennessee had done a nice job on defense and we missed a field goal. I told them the mind’s so powerful and your mind needs to tell you we’re going to go win the game and this is how we’re going to do it and I didn’t want to see any negative, didn’t want to see any heads hanging because it was only a 13-point game. ”
The pep talk worked, and Arkansas dominated the second half, scoring 24 unanswered points. Pittman has been preaching patience and positivity since he took over the program. He has a calm, steady approach that the team has obviously bought into. His message – you trust me and the staff, we will win games.
So, now Pittman is out. The obvious mantra is ‘win one for coach.’ Pittman said Wednesday he will speak to the team Friday remotely, and then be hands off. I imagine that will be an emotional scene that will only stoke the fire.
The silver lining of the news for Razorbacks fans is that Odom is a former head coach in the SEC. Odom knows how to prepare a team for a tough game and how to make in game adjustments. The preparation and game management in is in more than capable hands. The only downside is that Odom is a defensive genius. The extra responsibility has to take away some of the time he would spend figuring a way to slow down Gators star quarterback Kyle Trask. I am sure Odom has found a way to balance the two and will have something up his sleeve.
If Pittman’s absence wasn’t enough motivation, Feleipe Franks’ return to ‘The Swamp’ could be. Frank was the starter at Florida last year before a season-ending injury. Seeing the writing on the wall with Trask’s emergence, Franks headed to Fayetteville.
Franks needs as much credit as the coaches for the drastic turnaround. The ability and leadership he brings to QB was much needed. You can tell Franks is a leader on the team and as a player who has competed in big SEC games is a respected voice of reassurance to younger teammates.
Returning to Florida and beating his former team would be a huge accomplishment for Franks and his team and show just how far the program has progressed. The team that looks up to Franks has to be inspired to know they can help write a storybook tale for Franks. I think he will save his best performance for this game and help propel Arkansas to the upset. He knows he’s capable of playing well enough to dominate this game.
Florida is much improved since losing to Texas A&M last month. The Gators’ thrashing of Georgia last week was proof. There is a reason odds makers tabbed Florida as a 17.5 favorite. Florida has been picked to contend for the SEC East title since the offseason. However, Arkansas isn’t the same team pundits predicted. The Hogs can win this game. Especially, with the extra motivation.