Arkansas in SEC mix, stacked on rushing, defensive backfield

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas was last in this position – coming off a season of nine wins or more – 10 years ago. Except this offseason, there was no program-altering motorcycle crash.

Sam Pittman – the antithesis, personality-wise, to coach Bobby Petrino, whose wreck in April 2012 turned into a scandal that cost him his job – led Arkansas to a 9-4 record last season, capping it with the Razorbacks’ first New Year’s Day bowl since 2000 and a win over Penn State.

The previous four years saw Arkansas win between two and four games in a dismal stretch that cost the program fans, attention and respect.

The third-year coach gets a chance at building momentum with his 19th-ranked Razorbacks. He has three returning players who ran for more 600 yards last season, including a potential All-SEC quarterback in junior KJ Jefferson. He has four starters back on the offensive line and a pair of potential All-Americans in linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon.

Pittman and the Hogs also have a big challenge right away: The season opener is No. 23 Cincinnati at home on Sept. 3 in an intriguing Top 25 clash.

MOTIVATED BY SNUBS

Pittman said in the offseason that Jefferson was motivated by an online publication, which named him the 14th-best quarterback in the 14-team league ahead of the 2021 season. Many expected Jefferson to be named to a preseason All-SEC squad after throwing for more than 2,600 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions, but no such designation came.

REPLACING A SUPERSTAR

Jefferson will have to find a new favorite target after wide receiver Treylon Burks was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by Tennessee. He had 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and rewrote Arkansas’ receiving record books in his three seasons.

“Losing Treylon Burks, I don’t know you replace a guy one for one,” Pittman said. “I don’t think you can there. We’re going to have to do it by committee.”

Enter Jadon Haselwood, an Oklahoma transfer who led the Sooners with six receiving touchdowns in 2021.

BACK TO RUNNING

Jefferson threw for 2,676 yards and 21 scores last year, but it was his team-high 664 yards rushing and six touchdown runs that helped most.

Also returning: Dominique Johnson, who had 575 yards and seven touchdowns last year; Rocket Sanders, who had 578 yards and five touchdowns; and A.J. Green, a change-of-pace back who ran for 227 yards and a touchdown.

LOADED SECONDARY

The strength of Arkansas’ defense lies in the defensive backfield. Catalon, the safety who was an All-American as a freshman two seasons ago, is back after being knocked out halfway through last season with a shoulder injury.

LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern and Georgia transfer Latavious Brini join returnees Hudson Clark, Malik Chavis, Myles Slusher, Simeon Blair and LaDarrius Bishop to give Arkansas one of the most experienced defensive backfields in the country.

THE SCHEDULE

On top of the SEC slate – which has Arkansas hosting LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss – the Razorbacks will play three bowl teams from last season: Cincinnati and Liberty in Fayetteville, and at BYU.

Arkansas will also welcome FCS team Missouri State on Sept. 17. The Bears went 8-4 last year and are coached by Petrino.

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.

CFP expansion talks head toward October after 7-hour meeting

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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ROSEMONT, Ill. — The conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff met for almost seven hours Tuesday to work on expanding the postseason system from four to 12 teams as soon as the 2024 season.

There is still much work to be done.

“We will not wrap up this week,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.

The CFP management committee, comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, is scheduled to convene again at the Big Ten offices for a few hours Wednesday morning. They are set to meet again in person in Dallas on Oct. 20.

“That’ll be important,” Hancock said.

Expansion talks were revived by the university presidents and chancellors who oversee the College Football Playoff last month.

By adopting a 12-team plan that had been on the table since the spring of 2021, the presidents pushed the commissioners to try to implement a new format before the end of the CFP’s current contract with ESPN. That deal ends after the 2025 season.

Expanding from four to 12 in 2024 and ’25 will require rescheduling semifinals and championship games that already have dates and sites set, plus adding four new first-round games in mid-December to be played on campus sites.

Squeezing it all into about a month and working around the NFL for television will be challenging.

Hancock said the idea of moving up the start of the college football season to the week before Labor Day to create more room at the end for the playoff has been discussed, but more for beyond the 2025 season.

“I think most people view that as a future item. As long-term item and not an immediacy item,” Hancock said. “Remember, there’s so many details.”

Hancock said CFP officials have spoken to bowl partners and hosts cities that are set to hold semifinals and championship games after the 2024 and ’25 seasons, but they have not been presented definitive new dates.

Atlanta already has been chosen as the host city for the championship game to be played following the 2024 season, on Jan. 6, 2025. The game would have to be pushed back about two weeks if the playoff grows from four teams to 12.

“(Atlanta organizers) have some work to do because of other businesses in the community,” Hancock said. “Other meeting-type business, hotel business and Convention Center business there. They’ve been great to work with.”