Opponent: Arkansas Razorbacks
Date: October 27
All-time series record: Arkansas leads, 7-2
Last meeting: October 29, 2011, in Nashville. Arkansas won, 31-28.
Last year’s record: 4-8, 91st in S&P+
Head coach: Chad Morris (1st year at Arkansas; 14-22 overall, 3 years)
Returning starters: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
Vanderbilt fans will know Chad Morris. The one-time Clemson offensive coordinator was one of three finalists for Vanderbilt’s head coaching job back in 2014; the job ultimately went to Derek Mason. Morris would take the SMU job where, after a 2-10 maiden campaign in 2015, he improved to 5-7 in 2016 and 7-5 in 2017 before taking the Arkansas job.
While Morris was taking over an SMU team that had just gone 1-11, the transition from June Jones’ offense to Morris’ was an insignificant one. At Arkansas, he’s taking over from Bret Bielema, who had tried to implement a Big Ten-style manball power offense. After some initial success, Bielema’s offense saw diminishing returns in the ground game, dropping from a peak of 5.1 yards per carry in 2014 to 4.1 in 2016; last year’s offense managed just 4.4 yards per carry in spite of being built to pound it.
The Razorbacks might have been able to overcome that if not for the defense completely falling apart. Arkansas’s opponents averaged 6.5 yards per play and 36.2 points per game; to put those numbers in context, Vanderbilt’s much-maligned 2017 defense gave up 5.9 yards per play and 31.3 ppg. SEC teams averaged 42 ppg against the Razorbacks, and only Mississippi State was held under 30.
That unit might get worse before it gets better, too; Arkansas returns just five starters on the defensive side of the ball, and for all the things he’s known for, “defensive whiz” appears nowhere on Chad Morris’ resume.
Arkansas does have nine starters back on offense, though, and that’s not counting redshirt sophomore Cole Kelley, who was a part-time starter at quarterback before a late-season DUI arrest. Kelley threw for 1038 yards and eight touchdowns in a much less passer-friendly system than the one he’ll be playing in now. Arkansas also returns four of five starters on the offensive line, its top four pass catchers, and two of its top three rushers from a year ago.
Of course, they were basically all recruited to run Bret Bielema’s offense, and Morris’ offense is... different. The defense probably won’t be much improved over last year, so expect Arkansas to play a bunch of 42-35 type games this season.
Of the six rotating opponents from the West, Arkansas was easily the best that Vanderbilt could have hoped for in 2018. Interestingly, while Vanderbilt is 2-7 against Arkansas all-time, both of the Commodores’ wins in the series have come in the state of Arkansas: a 28-24 win in Fayetteville in 2005, and a 14-13 win in Little Rock in 1950.