OK, that’s enough. More than enough.
Pretending Arkansas is a powerhouse football program was fine for several weeks this season. Fun, even. We could write about how the team was really turning the corner in coach Sam Pittman’s third year. Big things were on the horizon. KJ Jefferson was a superstar. Rocket Sanders, too. Drew Sanders may be the best linebacker in the country!
While some of those things may be true, we all made a mistake. Some worse than others. We thought through the alchemy of individual brilliance Arkansas was going to – somehow – stop being Arkansas. Instead, a football team that has shown us for 25-plus years in the SEC this is who they are finished the season exactly as such. They aren’t horrible. They aren’t great.
They’re 6-6 and are, frankly, about the twelfth best among 14 football programs in the SEC.
Be real: even if the Hogs had won on Friday afternoon against Missouri, would that have been any different? Of course not. Not really. In fact, it might have made things worse in the long run because it would have allowed those with their heads in the sand to say “Hey, 7-5 isn’t bad after 8-4. Wait until they have a team full of guys the coaches recruited!”
Nah. Friday’s loss was needed as a clear-eyed reminder of painful truths for a segment of fans. Namely, no salvation is around the corner. The program is what it is. Even Arkansas’ best attributes weren’t good enough against a team that is one of most laughed-at in major college football (even if they are occasionally good, who takes Missouri football all that seriously? Arkansas fans were adamant the Battle Line Rivalry isn’t a rivalry before the game. They were proven right).
What Cost Hogs in Arkansas vs Missouri
Sam Pittman said after the game the Razorbacks were out-physicaled. Being the person he is, Pittman was honest. The angry fans will say “ISN’T IT YOUR JOB TO MAKE SURE THEY AREN’T OUT-PHYSICALED?” Neither is wrong. The angry should just be, you know, less angry. But they are not incorrect.
It’s been especially noticeable in the red zone where Hogs offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has taken the bulk of the blame. He shouldn’t. It makes more sense to shift blame to offensive line coach Cody Kennedy and Hogs’ hogs up front. Arkansas is 10th in the SEC when it comes to red-zone efficiency. The Razorbacks scored on 81% of their trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line this year. Not atrocious, but definitely in the bottom-third in the FBS. Things get a little better when considering red-zone-touchdown-percentage. There, the Hogs are eighth in the SEC (and 55th in FBS) scoring 65% of the time. For what it’s worth, Georgia is 51st in FBS in red-zone-touchdown percentage. The difference is the Bulldogs have been in the red zone 61 times to Arkansas’ 48 (both totals are entering Friday).
Running the ball up the gut rarely worked in 2022. Rocket Sanders finished second in the SEC in yards rushing, within about 50 yards of leader Quinshon Judkins, gaining more than 1,400 on the ground this season. Only Darren McFadden, twice, and Alex Collins, once, had more yards rushing in a single season than Sanders had in 2022 and he did it on 219 carries, which is about 50 fewer than Collins needed in 2015 to gain about 50 more yards. But Sanders also had just 10 touchdowns. A decent total, but as of Friday morning it was the third-least efficient yards-to-scores total of any FBS back with double-digit touchdowns in the FBS.
Passing the ball near the goal line worked fairly often. Eight of KJ Jefferson’s 22 passing touchdowns this season came from within the 10-yard-line. So Briles tried it on 3rd-and-goal from the Missouri 2 in the fourth quarter with the Hogs down 29-24. Jefferson was nearly picked off as he attempted what appeared to be a no-look pass over the middle. When combined with Jefferson’s two-yard keeper two plays before and Trey Knox’s no-gain keeper immediately before, Pittman was all but forced to kick a field goal and take a chance with his defense. A sack would have hurt more and the offensive line was giving up plenty of those.
“They whipped our butt, that’s what happened,” Pittman said. “They whipped us. They physically dominated us. They did in the run game and they did in the protection game. I don’t know how else to say it. We got dominated physically is what happened.”
Too Much Hullabaloo about Kendal Briles, Trey Knox
And don’t think they were dominated schematically, either. Stop dragging Kendal Briles for that attempt with Knox. No one takes issues with Jefferson running up the gut near the goal line. Why take issue with Knox doing so? He’s just as athletic, big and fast. And as we said, what the heck else was working? Nothing. So stop.
“It wasn’t there,” Pittman added. “There was a pair of shades. That one there, we should have went to something else there. It just wasn’t there. It was a surprise thing. We felt like we could sneak it in but it wasn’t there.”
For decades now, Hog fans have wanted to see Arkansas sneak it in when it comes to winning an SEC title. The reality is they are farther away now from that happening than they were 15 years ago. It’s easy to overreact to a loss like this and forget that the Hogs weren’t as awful in the red zone as people think. Their offense gained far more yards than people think. It just happens. The defense was rough – bad, even. And the two together? Well, that’s how you get 6-6 seasons.
In the grand scheme of things, is that all that bad or are folks just itching for something grander? If it’s the latter, I might just ask “Why?” Outside of a motorcycle-accident-coach that lucked into getting three superstars at wideout and the best two passers in school history, what in the last 25 years makes you think Arkansas can be better than modest in the sport of college football?
Face it, naysayers, that 8-4 record in 2021 isn’t that much different than 6-6 in 2022, especially when you consider how close the Hogs came to matching last year’s win total.
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