FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Pittman led Arkansas to three SEC wins in 2020 and then a 9-4 mark this season.

Arkansas’ 2021 season was boosted by a large group of Super Seniors returning as well as the emergence of redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson at quarterback and a great year from wide recever Treylon Burks. One senior, offensive tackle Dalton Wagner and two underclassmen, safety Jalen Catalon and center Ricky Stromberg, have announced their intentions to return for 2022. Pittman is still hopeful linebacker Bumper Pool and some others return. But whatever happens Pittman feels good about the future of the football program.

“I think it’s got to be easier,” Pittman said. “I think the recruiting has to become a little bit easier. We don’t have a discipline problem on our team or anything of that nature, so they’re going to do what we ask. KJ can answer that better than me. I think it will make our kids a little bit hungrier understanding we can be a top-25 team, somewhere in there. Certainly we want to get higher than that and start into the top 15, top 10 in the country.”

Arkansas was ranked No. 21 heading into the bowls and now will likely make a nice jump in the final polls. Pittman feels the 24-10 win over Penn State has created excitement.

“I hope it is. It is to us,” Pittman said. “I believe it is. You can kind of feel it in the crowd. You could kind of feel it. You know, we’re hungry for football. Our state’s hungry for football. We’re a proud state. Football, no disrespect to any other sport, football is big in the state of Arkansas, at the University of Arkansas. I think there’s always folks that want more. One of them is me. 

“But it’s over now. To be Outback Bowl champions with nine wins, I’m really, really proud of our team with what we’ve accomplished. Two of the teams that beat us also were pretty good last night. We play in a heck of a league. I said it a long time ago, we’re in the SEC West, right where Arkansas belongs, and we’re starting to prove that.”

Pittman broke into laughter when asked if he thought the Hogs would go 9-4 in preseason.

“Oh, yeah. I knew that was going to happen,” Pittman said laughing. “Look down on a piece of paper, just don’t put the schedule on a piece of paper. You look down on the paper, you go, Huh, who is trying to fire me (laughter).”

Jefferson earned MVP honors at the Outback Bowl. Jefferson likes where Arkansas is that as attention turns to 2022 with much higher expectations.

“I mean, of course,” Jefferson said. “I feel like heading into the next season, we always have an advantage with the young guys coming in, being able to play out there in the game, giving those guys an opportunity, they’re taking an opportunity. We’re ahead of some programs right now. We’re just going to move forward.”

Pittman could be getting an answer from Pool very soon. Following the game Saturday, Pool talked about a timetable for a decision.

“I’m going to take a couple days. I’ve honestly just been thinking nothing but this game,” Pool said. “I knew there was a job to be done and then whenever the game is over, sit down with my parents, kind of hear what I should do. But this state is just so amazing. Just truly proud of the other guys that came back, so all those things go into it. But I’m going to take a couple days, see what happens and then I’ll make an announcement.”

Pool’s good friend and teammate, linebacker Grant Morgan was asked if he plans to recruit Pool to stay?

“I said I wanted him to come back earlier, but no, I don’t,” Morgan said. “I’m going to be the biggest fan of him no matter what he does. If he’s training to go to the NFL or if he’s coming back, I want him to make the best decision for himself. But with decisions like that, you can look at it either way. You can go, leave and if you give it your all, you’re going to be successful. I don’t care. With the way we work, he’s going to be successful. If he comes back, it’s going to work out for him. He’s going to work his butt off. He’s going to be successful. If you look at me, you’re like ‘We won nine games.’ Well, yeah, that’s what I came back for because we saw that. If he come back, it’ll be just as good if not way better next year. If he leaves, they’re going to be just as good if not better. Bumper is going to make the right decision for him no matter what. I’d like him to be a Hog, but I’m telling you right now, he could go play in the NFL right now if he wanted to, as well.”

Arkansas will open the 2022 season at home by hosting the Cincinnati Bearcats who made the four-team playoff this season. The Hogs and Bearcats will battle on Sept. 3.