TAMPA — When Arkansas coach Sam Pittman considers how his No. 22 Razorbacks went from an SEC doormat to the program’s biggest bowl appearance in a decade — Saturday’s Outback Bowl against Penn State — he can sum up the progress in two words Florida fans recognize.
“To me, he was everything to helping us get started,” Pittman said.
Franks jumpstarted the Razorbacks because he needed a fresh start.
Though he was one of the nation’s most improved passers in 2018, he and the fan base seemed to sour on each other. They booed him. He shushed them back.
Franks’ horrific season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky in 2019 led to the break he and the program needed. Kyle Trask took over the starting job and starred, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Bucs’ second-round pick. Franks saw Trask’s growth, knew his spot atop the depth chart was gone and moved on.
“I think it was the biggest blessing in my life …” Franks said in May.
The injury gave Franks a chance to reassess his future. He decided on Arkansas over Kansas and UCF for reasons Pittman still doesn’t fully grasp.
“I don’t know if you understand,” Pittman said. “We were 0-and-however-many-we-played in two years in the SEC, and 1-for-the-year before and 4-20 in a two-year span. And we got Feleipe Franks.”
They got a player who was underappreciated in Gainesville but wanted to be a conquering hero in Fayetteville.
Arkansas had lost its last 19 SEC games and needed someone who could lead a turnaround. Franks had already done that at Florida, helping the Gators go from 4-7 in 2017 to 10-3 the next year.
“It just takes that one spark …” Franks later told 247Sports.
Franks became that spark. He had won big games and was the offensive MVP of the 2018 Peach Bowl, so he had immediate clout. The fact that he saw the potential of a struggling program led by someone who had never even been a major-college coordinator, much less an SEC head coach, changed the mentality around Arkansas.
“He basically let other kids believe in our program,” Pittman said.
That belief led to one of the nation’s best stories of 2020. The Razorbacks beat then-No. 16 Mississippi State on the road in Week 2 to end their disastrous SEC drought. They nearly knocked off No. 13 Auburn the next week but were doomed by a controversial call late. They beat Mississippi and Tennessee by double digits and lost to LSU and Missouri by a combined five points.
The 3-7 record doesn’t seem impressive, but doing it against an all-SEC schedule under a new coaching staff was a major step forward. And Franks was at the center of it, setting Arkansas’ single-season record in completion percentage (68.5).
“He believed in us,” Pittman said, “and he got us on the map.”
Though Franks is gone (he’s a rookie with the Falcons) Arkansas remained on the map thanks to the foundation he helped build.
The Razorbacks beat Texas and Texas A&M by two scores each to jump into the top 10. Their 8-4 record is already the program’s best since 2015, and a win over Penn State at Raymond James Stadium would secure their first top-25 finish in a decade.
It’s a remarkable turnaround — one that began with an unfortunate break at Florida and ended with the spark Arkansas desperately needed.
• • •