The coaches and players who appear at SEC Media Days every year are so well-trained on what to say and what not to say that it’s difficult to sift through the blahblahblah to find anything interesting.
When talking about goals for the upcoming season, we typically hear optimistic sonnets about “playing to the best of our ability” or some other generic form of “win a lot.” Schools at the Alabama level might openly discuss national championship possibilities. Bret Bielema infamously talked about going 1-0 every day. Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said of his program, presumably with a straight face, “We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country.”
It’s tradition to throw out generalities when it comes to expectations. We rarely hear about specific goals in terms of the numbers of wins a team wants to achieve. That’s what made this line from Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson interesting:
“Try to get a 10-game winning season,” Jefferson said. “Just getting over that hump from nine games. Taking that next step forward, that’s our team goal.”
There’s nothing shocking about stating 10 wins as a goal. Arkansas went 9-4 last season and a 10th win would obviously be evidence of improvement. The dream is always for a program to continue to grow and get better until eventually reaching the promised land.
It is somewhat unusual for a team to state a specific number of wins as the team goal when that number wouldn’t result in an undefeated season. You don’t often hear “we want to go 10-3” or “we’re hoping for 7-6”. Fans may know a team will likely lose some games throughout the year, but it’s important for the players to go into each game expecting to win.
Breaking Down KJ Jefferson’s Goal
To be fair to Jefferson, he didn’t say he expected the Hogs to go 10-3. He said winning 10 games would be improvement and proof they “got over the hump.” If the Razorbacks are fortunate enough to have won 10 games before the season ends, the team isn’t going to stop working hard since they achieved their stated goal from July.
However, if the team’s goal is for 10 wins, it doesn’t make much sense for anyone else to have a goal of anything less. Considering it has been 11 years since the Hogs won 10 games, and Arkansas – as seemingly always – has what is expected to be one of the country’s toughest schedules, there isn’t much margin of error to accomplish a 10-win season.
Of course, if Arkansas had converted the final two-point conversion against Ole Miss last year, the Razorbacks may already be coming off a 10-win campaign. That alone should be enough for anyone to know just how achievable this goal is. Theoretically, the Razorbacks don’t even need to be significantly better than last year to win 10 games.
Will the Razorbacks actually be better, though? That remains an open question. The Hogs still have to prove their offense can be at least as effective as it was last season without the playmaking of Treylon Burks. The defense has to prove it can be as good as it was while replacing several key players. Arkansas has players eager to step into more of a spotlight than they saw last year, and the Razorbacks also signed several intriguing players in the offseason that will be expected to contribute immediately. Returning contributors from last season have hopefully developed into better players as well. But until it’s proven on the field, it’s all hype.
How to Define Success for Arkansas Football
If the Hogs just equal last year’s 9-4 record, does that make this season a disappointment? In that situation, they would have won a lot of games, including against some big names, but they would fail to meet the stated goal of 10 wins. Would people be upset if the Razorbacks go 8-5? That’s still a winning record and very close to last season’s mark, but it would be a worse record.
Arkansas’ tough schedule won’t make anything easy. Just as Arkansas lost to Ole Miss on the last play of the game last season, the Hogs also beat Mississippi State and LSU on the last plays of those games. All three of those games could have easily gone the other way. There is sometimes a very thin line between winning and losing these games. What if Arkansas loses a few games in September, but then goes on a remarkable run through the rest of the schedule? I contend that feelings about a program are actually less about the record than the perceived momentum of the team. The Hogs could play well in at least 10 games without winning 10, and if that happens, does that equate to disappointment?
Like beauty, how one feels about the Hogs lies in the eye of the beholder. Preseason predictions are usually thrown out the window as things develop throughout the season. Last year, heading into the end of the season, Sam Pittman stated Arkansas’ goals were Boot, Bama, Battle Line, Bowl. The Hogs won three of those games, and played Alabama more competitively than they had since 2014, but they still did not meet the goal. However, did anyone have negative feelings toward the program at the end of the year? No. No one reasonable, anyway. That excitement has led to a lot of positive momentum and also a big new contract for Pittman.
With last season’s wins, Sam Pittman’s new contract, returning stars on both offense and defense, potential new stars on both sides of the ball, and a stated goal of 10 wins, the expectations are clear. Pittman is typically more general in discussing the team’s goals. He often says he simply wants to make Arkansas proud. He’s accomplished that through his first two seasons because the team started winning, and often in impressive fashion. Ten wins would definitely keep the pride going, but ultimately feelings toward the program will likely be tied to how the team performs throughout the season and less about a specific number.
Watch KJ Jefferson’s full interview at 2022 SEC Media Days:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…