SEASON RECAP: A winning season was less than what Hog fans expected

Winning the Liberty Bowl, even by the narrowest of margins, is a positive the Hogs can build upon.
Arkansas players hoist the trophy after a three-overtime win over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. Arkansas won 55-53. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The football season that was 2022 was not what Razorbacks fans wanted or expected. There was an expectation of nine or more victories by many fans going into the season after the Hogs had their best season in more than a decade in Sam Pittman’s second year as head coach in 2021 with a 9-4 record.

A generational tidal wave of injuries concentrated in the secondary and just as importantly at quarterback made that lofty goal an impossibility against a schedule as challenging as the Razorbacks’ and in a conference as sturdy as the SEC.

The Hogs suffered two blowouts on back-to-back weekends to Alabama and Mississippi State at the height of their injury issues, and the Razorbacks lost four other games by a combined nine points to stand a mediocre 6-6 at the end of the regular season.

One of those losses was a 23-21 heartbreaker to what became a bad Texas A&M team as the Aggies accrued key injuries and despite their heralded recruiting class failed to rise to the occasion. In the weirdest play of the year, team-leader and quarterback K.J. Jefferson leaped over the line of scrimmage from the 3-yard line and lost the ball with the Hogs leading 14-7.

Aggie Tyreek Chappell picked up the fumble and began to return it. When Rocket Sanders attempted to tackle him near the 20, Chappell handed the ball off to Demani Richardson, who raced the remaining 80 yards down the sideline to tie the game at 14.

One could say the Hogs, which were 3-0 and ranked No. 10 at the time, never truly recovered the rest of the season until perhaps overtime of their 55-53 AutoZone Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas. The Razorbacks finished the season 7-6 for a winning season by the hair of their chinny chin, chin.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the season was going 1-3 in November. Jefferson was clearly playing hurt in the 23-19 loss to Liberty, but he and the Hogs came just short of pulling off a victory. Arkansas’ offensive line performed poorly in this game with coaches not figuring out the stunt that was destroying Arkansas’ running game until the fourth quarter.

With Jefferson sidelined with a shoulder injury against LSU, the Hogs struggled valiantly on a very windy day that made passing a risky option. The Tigers were able to hang on to a 13-10 victory behind a wrecking-ball performance by freshman linebacker Harold Perkins, who was the most impressive performer to compete against the Hogs this season.

The Razorbacks rebounded to play their best game of the season and earn bowl eligibility by romping and stomping over Ole Miss. Rebel fans blame head coach Lane Kiffin’s indecision over whether to take his talents to Auburn or not for the loss. But the truth is the Razorbacks just rallied to kick their rears, 42-27.

However, there possibly was some unrest in the Hogs’ locker room, too. Myles Slusher, one of the Hogs’ best defenders at safety quit the team the Sunday after the Ole Miss victory.

Body camera video of his and freshman Anthony Brown’s arrest on the night of the Liberty loss came to light. From the looks of the video, the necessity for the arrest of Brown was questionable.

Slusher reportedly went to Brown’s defense. When he placed his hands on an officer after Brown was taken to the ground and handcuffed, he was also arrested. Both were suspended from the LSU game and reinstated for Ole Miss.

Among fans the rumors were floating around that some Razorback players resented that Pittman suspended Slusher and Brown automatically upon their arrest, that Pittman “lost the locker room” with that decision.

Did that really happen? Who knows?

However, when a player gets arrested at a major college football program, he’s going to get a suspension no matter what. No matter who the coach is or what the circumstances are.

Still a mediocre Missouri team whipped the Razorbacks’ tails, 29-27 in another game where Arkansas’ offensive line looked overwhelmed, and the defense didn’t have enough answers.

Did the Hogs poor play at Missouri stem from Slusher and Brown’s arrest and suspension and Slusher’s exit from the team?

Or was it just another mediocre performance by a team that finished the season 6-6?

Only the Razorbacks, their coaches and staff know for sure.

Pittman’s first move after the Missouri loss was firing Arkansas’ strength and nutritional staffs. In a press conference in December, he indicated the Hogs’ did not maintain their conditioning during the season, saying the players looked like different people from August to the end of November. More than a few Hogs had difficulty maintaining their weight during the season. There are also rumors of mixed messaging by the training staff that Pittman didn’t care for. Who knows about that?

After the season, though, there was a mass exodus of players for various reasons. Guys like All-American linebacker Drew Sanders, all-conference center Ricky Stromberg and receiver Jadon Hazelwood left to start preparing for a career in the NFL. Many others hit the transfer portal like receiver Ketron Jackson to find greener pastures or just a new scene.

Two that perplexed or hurt Hog fans the most were safety Jalen Catalon and tight end Trey Knox.

Knox, from Murfreeseboro, Tenn., is following his two position coaches at Arkansas to South Carolina. Knox’s receivers coach and key recruiter at Arkansas Justin Stepp, was hired away from the Razorbacks last season by Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer. Stepp is a native of South Carolina. Beamer plucked Dowell Loggains, Knox’s position coach at tight end, away from Arkansas to be South Carolina’s offensive coordinator. Knox evidently followed them.

Catalon, who suffered his second season-ending shoulder injury in the Hogs’ opener against Cincinnati, is also looking at a fresh start elsewhere with two years of eligibility. Evidently Ole Miss and SMU are in the picture for Catalon. A report from a sports site that covers Texas said that Catalon wasn’t a high priority for the Longhorns.

For many Hog fans it hurts to see players like Knox and Catalon, whom they’ve admired and supported, head out to other programs, particularly SEC programs. But it cuts both ways. I’m sure Alabama fans didn’t particularly like seeing Drew Sanders in a Hog uniform this year.

Most of the other players were backups, who will possibly find more playing time elsewhere.

The Hogs can use those scholarships to enhance next year’s team at key spots where they need help or depth via the transfer portal. Expect some of those slots to be filled before school starts back for the spring semester and some to be saved for later after the team’s strengths and needs are accessed in fourth-quarter conditioning drills this winter and spring practice.

I don’t think Pittman, the Hogs, or their fans were particularly happy with a 7-6 season, but winning the Liberty Bowl, even by the narrowest of margins, is a positive the Hogs can build upon.

As of this writing Friday morning, the Razorbacks are the only SEC team to win a bowl game this season. That might be little consolation for those expecting a 10-win season, but 7-6 is infinitely better than being 6-7.

Remaining SEC Bowl Schedule

Dec. 30 at 2:30 p.m. – TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
TIAA Bank Stadium (Jacksonville, Fla.)
No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 South Carolina (ESPN)

Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. – Capital One Orange Bowl
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Clemson (ESPN)

Dec. 31 at 11 p.m. – TransPerfect Music City Bowl
Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
Iowa vs. Kentucky (ABC)

Dec. 31 at 11 a.m. – Allstate Sugar Bowl
Caesars Superdome (New Orleans, La.)
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 9 Kansas State (ESPN)

Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. – CFP Semifinal – Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, Ga.)
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 4 Ohio State (ESPN)

Jan. 2 at 11 p.m. – ReliaQuest Bowl
Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
No. 22 Mississippi State vs. Illinois (ESPN2)

Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. – Cheez-It Citrus Bowl
Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
No. 17 LSU vs. Purdue (ABC)