Victory over Missouri would make the difference between good and mediocre UA season

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman gestures to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The outcome of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ game Friday with the Missouri Tigers at Columbia will go a long way in determining if this season will be a good one for the Hogs or just mediocre.

Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Friday on CBS.

A victory Friday coupled with a win in whichever bowl the SEC and ESPN elects to place the Razorbacks, would lift Arkansas to the eight-win plateau. That would be a good year for Hogs, and it’s the best this injury-plagued season could turn out.

It’s not what the Razorbacks or their fans dreamt off before the season started, but considering the circumstances of recent Razorback history, it would be a solid accomplishment for this program, considering where it was just under four years ago when Sam Pittman took it over.

Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson threw out 10 wins as a goal in the off-season, and that’s what fans had in mind, too. Had the Hogs stayed relatively healthy this season that goal might have been attainable.

A head-scratching late September 23-21 loss to Texas A&M really burns. Back-to-back losses to Liberty, 21-19, and and LSU, 13-10, when Jefferson was ailing with a bruised clavicle are tough to swallow, too.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Missouri
When: 2:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25
Where: Memorial Stadium, Columbia, Mo.

Had Jefferson been healthy against Liberty and LSU and for that matter Mississippi State, the outcomes of those games might have been different, but then again maybe not?

That type of pondering is frustrating and fruitless. That’s why Pittman wants his Hogs’ focused on the moment and not the past or future.

It’s imperative to concentrate on the Missouri Tigers and the challenge they present.

It’s no secret that the Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4 SEC) have not won at Columbia since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2014 and not at all in Missouri since topping them 11-6 at St. Louis in 1944. The Hogs would like to stop that streak. The Razorbacks would also like to retain the Battle-Line Trophy, which they secured last year with a 34-17 victory over the Tigers in Fayetteville. The Hogs have lost their other two trophy games to the Aggies and LSU this season.

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, who shunned an opportunity for the Arkansas job in favor of Missouri, is taking a motivational cue from Pittman and trying to inspire his Tigers to win back that trophy. A victory would also make the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 SEC) bowl eligible but Drinkwitz is placing a focus on the trophy as a motivational tool.

“This week is all about rivalry week, Arkansas, the Battle Line Trophy,” said Drinkwitz, a graduate of Alma High and Arkansas Tech. “Whatever happens after that happens. We’re just focused on trying to win that trophy.”

So there is incentive on both sides of this game.

Arkansas’ all-time leading tackler Bumper Pool is not expected to play on Saturday after enduring a great deal of pain with a number of injuries throughout the course of this season. Chris “Pooh” Paul (6-1, 230) is expected to start in his place. Freshman Jordan Crook (6-0, 232) might garner more playing time, too.

For Hog fans, this might be the last time to watch a number of Razorbacks who will have eligibility remaining after this season. Pittman said in his press conference Monday that any player opting to leave early for the NFL would not participate in whatever bowl the Razorbacks are invited.

The most likely candidate to make that jump is linebacker Drew Sanders, who transferred in from Alabama last winter. Lost in the up-and-down of the Hogs’ season is just how well the 6-5, 233-pound junior from Denton, Texas, has played.

Sanders is having an All-American-type season. If he doesn’t garner the honor, it will be more for the lackluster season the Hogs have had than his play.

Sanders leads the Razorbacks in total tackles (96), tackles for loss (12.5-45), sacks (8.5-39), forced fumbles (3) and quarterback hurries (6). Additionally, he leads the SEC in sacks, sacks per game (0.77), ties for the lead in forced fumbles and ranks third in total tackles. He was named as one of the finalists for the Butkus Award, which is awarded to the nation’s top linebacker.

Jefferson has two years of eligibility left, but he could attempt a leap to the NFL. However, after suffering through an injury-plagued season, his draft status is probably uncertain. He might have to go the free-agent route. A healthy year next season would likely improve his chances of being drafted. Jefferson said Tuesday in a teleconference that his focus is on Missouri at the moment not the NFL. His decision will come later.

Pittman said he would share draft-status information with his individual players next week after the regular-season is over and when roster evaluations will be made. Some seniors with a year of Covid eligibility remaining will be invited to play another year while others might not be.

Next week will be a circus for college football, with players transferring left and right through the portal. Pittman said Monday that the Razorback team that closes out the regular season Friday won’t be the same one that plays in whatever bowl the SEC assigns the Razorbacks.

All Razorback starters but first-round NFL pick Treylon Burks played in the Outback Bowl last year, but if you remember Penn State, the Hogs’ opponent, had a half dozen players opt out of playing in the bowl, which the Razorback won 24-10.

Arkansas could face a similar situation to what Penn State did last year.

This Week’s Games (Nov. 24-26)

6 p.m. Thursday – Miss. St. at Ole Miss (ESPN)
2:30 p.m. Friday – Arkansas at Missouri (CBS)
6:30 p.m. Friday – Florida at Florida St. (ABC)
11 a.m. Saturday – Georgia Tech at Georgia (ESPN)
11 a.m. Saturday – South Carolina at Clemson (ABC)
2 p.m. Saturday – Louisville at Kentucky (SEC Network)
2:30 p.m. Saturday – Auburn at Alabama (CBS)
6 p.m. Saturday – LSU at Texas A&M (ESPN)
6:30 p.m. Saturday – Tennessee at Vanderbilt (SEC Network)

SEC West Standings

Ole Miss8-34-3
Miss. St.7-43-4
Texas A&M4-71-6

SEC East Standings

S. Carolina7-44-4