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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Gut Check Time for Razorbacks Football Program Following Tough Loss to Alabama

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It is officially “overreaction time” in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Following last Saturday’s loss to Alabama before a raucous crowd, calls for the coaching staff to be fired and for the official start of basketball season to begin, are all part of raised expectations prior to the season and the disappointment of losing for the 16th straight year to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. But, realistically, not many people have beaten Nick Saban over the years.

But before I get into the preview for this weekend’s game at Starkville, I want to share a few thoughts. And that is all that they are; it’s a free country, and you can agree or disagree.

Not many people have or will defeat Alabama this year. And the case can be made that Nick Saban may be the greatest college football coach of all time. Even, the Bear, Saban is doing it in a time when scholarships are limited and is eclipsing the Bear in fewer games. Some critics say he is a good recruiter and not a developer of players. I would argue that his NFL record of player placement makes his case, and, by the way, he was having this success before NIL money. Unlike Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, who is not winning even with NIL money.

For Arkansas, the program is improving. The quality of athletes has improved, the players love their coach, the stands are full at DWR Razorbacks Stadium. But, we are not Alabama. The Hogs program is not at the level of the Alabama program. But it is improving, and like every other college football program in America, Alabama is the benchmark of all programs that others aspire to be.

Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Milroe (4) takes off for a long touchdown run in the second half Saturday against Arkansas (RNN Sports Photo / Jim Best)

Coach Saban warns his teams every year of not taking the “rat poison” and believing the press telling them how good they are. Great coaching advice for his team. But, I would argue that the reverse is true for the Arkansas program. I would argue, “don’t take the rat poison” believing that the sky has fallen and the program should be dismantled with another coaching change. But with that said, a lot is riding on the Hogs game at Mississippi State this weekend.

Historically, Arkansas has not played well over the years at Starkville. State is a hard place to play; you leave the stadium with the ringing of cowbells in your ears for an entire week after the game. And the State offense will be a huge challenge for an Arkansas defense that has struggled giving up the big play or the explosive play. I will say, if the Hogs do not win, or, play poorly this Saturday, then there are indeed problems in Fayetteville. We will see. Which Arkansas team will show up after the disappointing loss with Alabama? We will know Saturday.

Much of Arkansas’s fate on Saturday will rest on the defensive secondary, and the status of the Hogs’ quarterback issues. Will K.J. Jefferson play on Saturday? We simply will not know until game time. Other issues, such as what is going on with Malik Hornsby, his role on the team, and the effect that is having are among the other issues that are unknown to fans and only known to the players and coaches.

Hogs quarterback K.J. Jefferson’s (1) playing status for Saturday is unknown (RNN Sports Photo / Jim Best)

These and other questions will start to be answered on Saturday when the Razorbacks go on the road to take on the 23rd-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Here are some game day notes for Mississippi State as provided by the University of Arkansas:

AP/Coaches Poll: RV/25
Head Coach: Sam Pittman (Pittsburg State [Kan.], ‘86)
Career Record: 15-13 (3rd season)
Record at Arkansas: Same

AP/Coaches Poll: 23/23
Head Coach: Mike Leach (BYU, ‘83)
Career Record: 154-104 (21st season)
Record at Mississippi State: 15-14 (3rd season

• Arkansas goes on the road to take on No. 23 Mississippi State in a battle between a pair of SEC West foes. Kickoff between the Hogs and Bulldogs from inside Davis Wade Stadium is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, on SEC Network.

• Arkansas, which is receiving votes in the AP Top 25 Poll and checked in at No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, faces yet another ranked opponent on Saturday. Mississippi State is ranked No. 23 by both the AP and coaches.

• This year’s schedule, which has featured four ranked FBS opponents in the first six games, is Arkansas’ “toughest” schedule since last season, when the Razorbacks also faced four ranked FBS opponents in their first six games. Since 2020, 21 of Arkansas’ 27 FBS opponents have either been
ranked or received votes in the national polls.

• QB KJ Jefferson continues to wreak havoc on opposing defenses through the air and on the ground. Jefferson has completed 80-of-121 passes (66.1%) for 1,096 yards and nine
touchdowns with one interception while rushing for 312 yards and four scores through five games. Entering this week, Jefferson is the only FBS quarterback to throw for over 1,000 yards and run for over 300 yards this season.

• RB Raheim ‘Rocket’ Sanders is the Razorbacks’ leading ball carrier through five games, totaling 609 yards on 105 carries (5.8 avg.) with four scores on the ground. He leads the SEC in both rushing yards (609) and rushing yards per game (121.8) while ranking second in all-purpose yards (625) this season. Sanders, who has also caught 10 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown, is the only FBS player with 600+ rushing yards and 100+ receiving yards on the season.

• WR Jadon Haselwood leads Arkansas’ receiving corps through five games this season with a team-high 24 catches for 251 yards (10.5 avg.) and a pair of touchdowns. A transfer from Oklahoma, Haselwood has caught three or more passes in each of his first five games as a Razorback and has tallied at least one reception in 17 consecutive games dating back to the start of the 2021 season.

• LB Drew Sanders has quickly emerged as one of the top defensive playmakers in all of college football. Sanders has racked up 43 total tackles (22 solo) with a team-leading 7.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 6.5 sacks through five games. Sanders, who leads all FBS defenders in sacks, has
tallied at least half a sack in all five game.

So Hogs fans, like the players, it is time to put the Alabama loss behind us and focus on a very good Mississippi State team. A rebound win by Arkansas would be huge for the Hogs and would re-establish their momentum going into the second half of the season with important conference games remaining with Auburn, LSU, and Ole Miss, to name a few.


Note to Our Readers: Portions of this story were sourced directly from the University of Arkansas Office of Communications, Kyle Parkinson.

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Jim Best
Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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