Life, for better or worse, sometimes presents a moment so decisive, so momentous, so shattering, so potent, that the people involved in the event are forever changed. There is a “before and after” quality to the occurrence. Life is permanently different on the other side of that moment.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
The 2022 Arkansas football season had a “before and after” moment, and everyone who follows the program knows what this moment was and when it unfolded.
Arkansas got off to a great start in the 2022 season with wins over Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati team (the one which made the College Football Playoff the year before in 2021) and a South Carolina team which showed it could play some ball when it beat Tennessee and Clemson at the end of the campaign in late November. The Hogs then got off to an early lead against Texas A&M in their annual neutral-site battle in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks were driving deep in A&M territory, trying to add to their lead. Arkansas quarterback K.J. Jefferson tried to make a big play. He reached the ball across the line of scrimmage in an attempt to get one more yard (painfully, a yard which would not have given Arkansas a touchdown – the play was first and goal from the 3-yard line). He was stripped at the 2-yard line. A&M ran the ball back 98 yards for a stunning score. Instead of Arkansas going up 21-7, A&M tied the game at 14. Arkansas never did play well again in that particular game, losing to an Aggie side which struggled for most of the 2022 season.
Not only did the Razorbacks fail to respond well in the heat of the moment to that one fumble against Texas A&M, they didn’t respond well in subsequent weeks. The memory of that game seemed to stick in the minds and hearts of every Arkansas player. The team’s confidence never really returned. The unflinching physicality, ruthless aggression, and clarity of purpose which defined Arkansas’ early start to 2022 against Cincy and South Carolina were not present in October or November. Paralyzing, confounding mistakes led to losses against Liberty, LSU and others. Winnable games slipped through this team’s fingers. The sharpness and the high football IQ which marked the best of the Hogs under coach Sam Pittman simply didn’t rise to the forefront of this team’s personality and methods in the several weeks after that fumble in Arlington. It really was a “before and after” moment for this team, and the after was devastating, not happy.
The bad news is that a promising season – following the terrific 2021 campaign this program produced under Pittman’s leadership – evaporated into the fog of failure and disbelief. The Hogs were left wondering how something so hopeful could become so fully disappointing in a short period of time.
The good news? The man whose fumble led to a profound unraveling of Arkansas football last year is back for this year, intent on making things right.
It would have been an especially sad and painful story if K.J. Jefferson walked away from college football unable to compensate for that seismic, untimely fumble against Texas A&M in 2022. Happily, he’s back for another season, older and wiser and focused on staying healthy (which he did not do last year).
If Arkansas can get 12 games from a healthy K.J. Jefferson, it will have a playmaker and leader who can guide this offense to an upper-level finish in a robustly competitive SEC West. If K.J. Jefferson isn’t slowed down by injuries and he improves his level of performance from 2022, particularly in red-zone and other high-leverage situations, Arkansas will be able to trade punches with anyone in the SEC West.
Keep in mind that Arkansas, even when not playing anywhere close to its best, was able to give LSU – the eventual SEC champions – a tough game last year. Keep in mind that the Hogs, though not nearly as talented as Alabama, were able to produce a big scoring run and make Alabama sweat for at least a few minutes of last year’s game in Fayetteville. Even in a year that went wrong, Arkansas was still competitive with the best of the SEC West.
This season, Alabama faces significant questions at quarterback, while LSU – deservedly the favorite in the SEC West – still has to show that it can withstand the pressure and scrutiny which come with being the big dog in the division once again. Auburn might be good under coach Hugh Freeze, but the Tigers might need at least one year to align everything the way they want. Ole Miss regressed in 2022, and Mississippi State has a lot of questions to answer. Texas A&M, despite beating Arkansas, had a disastrous 2022 campaign. It’s not a year in which the SEC West is operating at or near the height of its powers. Arkansas does not inhabit a situation in which it is certain to finish in the lower half of the division. The state of play is a lot more fluid than a lot of experts might immediately admit.
Into the void steps K.J. Jefferson, who knows he needs to conclude his college playing career in a better, happier, more decisive way than what we saw at the end of 2022. K.J. Jefferson and the Arkansas offense have a chance to get it right in 2023. A quarterback and his teammates have spent all offseason knowing they need to be better. More than that, they know they need to be mentally tougher instead of crumbling in the face of adversity. Harsh or not, fair or foul, that’s what happened with Arkansas football in 2022. The leaders on this team need to make sure that in 2023, the Razorbacks are ready to shrug off the worst in-game moments, which will improve the chances that the Hogs will avoid the worst win-loss outcomes and can return to being the nine- or 10-win program this team is capable of becoming under Sam Pittman.