Considering the success he’s enjoyed with Arkansas football the last two years, it has become harder for KJ Jefferson to play the “no one believes in me” card for motivation.
Luckily for the Razorbacks, though, The Athletic might have provided just enough fuel to reignite that flame.
In a recent exercise, eight of the publication’s national college football writers held a four-round “Heisman Fantasy Draft.” The goal was to pick players they felt had a chance to win the prestigious award, with points awarded for not only picking the winner, but also top-10 finishers and finalists invited to New York City.
Throw in each of the journalists’ “UDFA fliers” at the end and they identified 40 total players as Heisman Trophy candidates. None of them were named KJ Jefferson – or Rocket Sanders, for that matter.
There were the usual suspects, headlined by reigning winner and USC quarterback Caleb Williams, plus some, well, interesting ones. The group features 25 quarterbacks and 11 players from the SEC – including two quarterbacks at both LSU (Jayden Daniels and Garrett Nussmeier) and Alabama (Jalen Milroe and Tyler Buchner).
Heisman Trophy Odds for KJ Jefferson
Perhaps Rocket Sanders isn’t too big of a snub – although he is the third-leading rusher among returning Power Five running backs – but KJ Jefferson’s absence is certainly notable.
On Monday, the same day The Athletic’s piece ran, BetMGM released its updated Heisman Trophy odds and lists the Arkansas quarterback at +5000, which is equivalent to 50-to-1. That is tied for the 18th-best odds in the country.
Many outlets have ranked Jefferson as one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the SEC, if not the best. He was tabbed to the media’s preseason All-SEC second team last week and is primed to break most of the Razorbacks’ major career passing records.
Last season, he completed 68.0% of his passes for 2,648 yards and 24 touchdowns with only five interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 165.2 – which ranked eighth in the FBS, ahead of the likes of Bryce Young and Stetson Bennett. That doesn’t even factor in what he does on the ground, as he racked up another 640 yards and nine scores with his legs in 2022.
When Jefferson was healthy, which is an important caveat, Arkansas football had one of the best offenses in the country. Excluding the Mississippi State and LSU games he missed and the Liberty game in which he was clearly hobbled, the Razorbacks averaged 37.7 points and 496.8 yards last season. Not only would those marks have been school records, but they also would have ranked in the top 12 nationally.
Of course, that was under former offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. He left to take the same position at TCU this offseason and has been replaced by Dan Enos. It remains to be seen what kind of impact that will have on Jefferson, but Enos does return to Fayetteville with a solid reputation for developing quarterbacks.
For all of those reasons, KJ Jefferson remains a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate with the 2023 season on the horizon – even if the eight-man crew at The Athletic didn’t recognize him as such.
What it Says about Arkansas Football
Quite frankly, the exclusion of KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders is less of a slight against them as players than it is against this particular Arkansas football team.
Typically, especially in recent years, Heisman Trophy winners have played on teams in the national championship hunt.
Since 2016, when Lamar Jackson won it on a Louisville team that went 9-4, the Heisman has gone to a player on a team that won at least 11 games. Five of the last six were on College Football Playoff teams, with USC’s Caleb Williams last year being the exception – and the Trojans lost the Pac-12 Championship Game or else it’d likely be 6 for 6.
This point is explicitly made by On3’s Jesse Simonton, who didn’t include Jefferson or Kansas’ Jalon Daniels in his conference-by-conference look at the top Heisman candidates for 2023 because they are “two really good college QBs, but players who are on teams that aren’t expected to win a whole lot in 2023.”
When looking at it through this lens, it makes a little bit more sense why one of The Athletic’s writers would pick someone like LSU’s Garrett Nussmeier over Jefferson.
In their eyes, there’s a better chance of Jayden Daniels getting hurt and Nussmeier still leading the Tigers to double-digit wins while putting up Heisman-worthy numbers than the Razorbacks winning enough for Jefferson – or Sanders – to even get in the conversation, regardless of his own personal success.
Most sportsbooks, including BetSaracen here in Arkansas, have set the Razorbacks’ win total at 6.5 games. Simply hitting the over will not be enough for either player to garner Heisman votes.
For that to happen, Arkansas needs to vastly exceed its expectations – something it last did two years ago. Fueled by a preseason ranking that tabbed him the worst quarterback in the SEC, Jefferson led the Razorbacks to their best season in a decade.
They took a step back in 2022, when they were a trendy pick to finish second or third in the SEC West, but this slight – whether perceived or real – could be just what Jefferson needs to up his game and help Arkansas football overachieve once again this year.
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