Whether KJ Jefferson Stays or Goes, Hogs Can’t Get Past a Certain Frightening Realization

KJ Jefferson, Arkansas football
photo credit: SEC Network / Nick Wenger

Arkansas football is struggling to become bowl eligible.

It didn’t seem like that would be the case when the Hogs were ranked in the top 10 in September and early projections had the Razorbacks competing for a spot in a prestigious bowl worthy of such a high ranking, but here we are. Arkansas now must either defeat an Ole Miss team that nearly beat Alabama this weekend, or beat Missouri in Columbia – a place where the football program has never won – just to earn a spot in the postseason.

A key difference between this year and last is Arkansas’ failure in close games. Last season, the Hogs were 2-1 in games decided by three points or less. This year, Arkansas is 0-3 in such games so far. It feels like things just aren’t breaking Arkansas’ way this season, but many of these problems are self-inflicted. The Razorbacks have made too many mistakes and taken too little advantage of their opportunities to win close games.

Close Losses for Arkansas Football

Close losses always mean every play and every decision is magnified, and that is certainly the case here. It’s easy to look at a single decision in the first quarter of this past Saturday’s game against LSU, the choice not to kick a field goal, and then see the final three-point deficit, and wonder if that field goal may have at least led to overtime. Of course, LSU would have played the 4th quarter differently if the game was tied rather than holding on to a close lead, but Arkansas’ defense was playing so well that the what-if is agonizing.

The first such loss was the Texas A&M game, and that setback looks worse and worse each week as the Aggies continue to lose. They clinched a losing season this weekend with a loss to Auburn. Arkansas may be the only SEC team A&M will be able to claim a victory over this year. No need to rehash all the bad things that happened in that game, but KJ Jefferson’s ill-fated leap a few yards short of the goal line and A&M’s subsequent touchdown off a lateral could go down as the signature painful moment of the season if the Hogs can’t get that sixth win and make a bowl.

The other two losses have of course happened over the last two weekends. The biggest common issue with both games is that Jefferson was playing hurt in the first game against Liberty, and then his injuries prevented him from playing against LSU. We’ll never know what might have happened if Malik Hornsby had played against Liberty, and whether that extra time off would have allowed Jefferson to play against LSU, but it’s certainly going to be something people wonder about going forward, especially if Arkansas isn’t able to clinch a bowl berth.

The Razorbacks’ QB Issue

Arkansas’ quarterback depth chart has proven to be a significant problem. Jefferson is a very physical runner. It’s not a huge surprise that he would get a little banged up as the season goes along. Unfortunately for the Hogs, the team hasn’t developed a good enough backup behind him.

When Hornsby took over in the Mississippi State game, he made the coaches look foolish for starting Cade Fortin over him. When we saw Hornsby again against LSU, that earlier decision might make more sense as he didn’t seem comfortable throwing the ball downfield at all. Fortin came in and provided a “spark” as Sam Pittman likes to say, scoring Arkansas’ lone touchdown on a wonderful pass down the sideline to Matt Landers. But sparks don’t always turn into fires. Sometimes sparks go away as quickly as they arrive.

The sub-optimal play from Arkansas’ backup quarterbacks brings the frightening realization to light that the team’s stability at the position is currently nonexistent. The Razorbacks have failed to develop a quality backup behind Jefferson in the two years he’s been the starter, and he’ll have the option to test the professional waters after the season. Even if he does return to Fayetteville, his running style puts him at pretty high risk for a repeat of the types of injuries he’s sustained this year. The Razorbacks should put an emphasis on having a better backup quarterback ready to go if that happens.

“With all the injuries that we’ve had this year, your backup better be as good as your starter or close to it,” Pittman said on Monday. “That’s maybe shown a little bit for us this year, where if we had went in the transfer portal a little bit more, maybe we’d be a little bit better off record-wise and hopefully team-wise, too.”

Currently, the only new quarterback scheduled to join the team next year is four-star high school recruit Malachi Singleton. It’s possible that he will be ready to take on the QB2 title next year, but he had surgery on a broken foot in September. One would think the team will look through the transfer portal to see if they can find someone that might be more ready to go. If Jefferson returns, it may be difficult to find a quarterback willing to transfer to be a backup. Figuring out situations like this is why Pittman makes millions of dollars each year.

Arkansas Fighting for Bowl Eligibility

It’s a real shame that Arkansas’ defense, which has been highly criticized for most of the season, has put together a couple of strong performances in these last two games, but the offense hasn’t been able to support them. The team has had its opportunities to win both games, but the offense failed to cash them in.

The quarterback situation isn’t Arkansas’ only issue, but whenever a quarterback problem arises, it’s the biggest one. The transfer portal allows every program to solve just about any problem in every offseason, and the Hogs will have their chance to create some quality depth at the position. It’s also possible the team is able to develop the current quarterbacks on the roster if everyone stays on the team. No matter what happens over these next two games, next year will be difficult to project until Arkansas’ quarterback questions are answered.

As for the current Razorback squad, whether or not they make a bowl may largely depend on how healthy Jefferson can get. Arkansas has a good chance to win both of the games if he’s fully ready to play, and you know Jefferson wants to win this Ole Miss game after the heartache in his home state last year. But if he’s not good to go, can the rest of the team score enough points to pull off a win? At least we don’t have to worry about Harold Perkins wreaking more havoc on Arkansas’ backup quarterbacks than Chad Morris himself.


More from Sam Pittman

The below excerpts are from Pittman’s first press conference in the week before Ole Miss.

More on the effect of losing KJ Jefferson:

“If anybody in the conference loses your best player, your quarterback, it’s going to affect your football team. And it’s not only about affecting your team, it’s affecting how people play against you. If you notice the box numbers, the amount of blitzes we’re getting on run-downs now vs. what we did before with KJ running, it’s [now] a different number count, it’s different schematics that people are using against us.”

“It’s gonna take away some of your rushing yards because they’re not afraid of you. They’re not afraid of that slant anymore. They’re not afraid of that go-route off of a play-action read. Part of that is having the confidence in whoever’s there as a 2 that we can still do that, because we’ve got to back people off of us.”

On why Arkansas football fans being upset is a “great thing”:

“With being 5-5 and all the expectations, I’d rather have the expectations be high and take what I, take the criticism than they go, ‘Oh well, you played LSU to 13-10 and they’re West Division champs.’ We don’t want any of that. We want to win. It doesn’t matter who we play.”

“We haven’t been able to win the close games… two of them weren’t close, really, but Alabama was a five-point game going into the fourth quarter. We’ve got to figure out how to win close games and you’re going to have to do that every year. If you don’t your record is going to be from 9-10 wins to 6 or 5.”

“That’s just how it is and I think if you look over most all the teams in the SEC it’s that way as well.”

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