Razorbacks seek validation against BYU’s first Big 12 run

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) reaches back to pass against Kent State during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The Arkansas Razorbacks are 2-0 out of the gate for the third year in a row under head coach Sam Pittman, but the Hogs’ 2023 season begins in earnest at 6:30 p.m. Saturday when the BYU Cougars (2-0) make their first trip to Razorback Stadium.

Flying east is about to become a way of life for coach Kalani Sitake’s Cougars as a newly minted member of the Big 12. BYU’s new conference affiliation makes the contest a bit more meaningful not just for the Razorbacks but also for the SEC.

While the SEC has been considered the very best of all the college football conferences in recent years, the league has struggled against Power Five opponents this year with a less than mediocre record of 3-6.

In a sense, the Razorbacks aren’t just seeking to improve their standing on the season but also to gain a measure of respect for the SEC that has taken it on the chin so far this season against outside opposition.

For years, the SEC West has been considered the best division in college football, but things are topsy-turvy at the moment with the three teams picked to be the top contenders in the West at SEC Media Days — Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M — sitting at the bottom of the standings with 1-1 records.

Onlookers have speculated that NIL, the transfer portal, and immediate eligibility of transfers could create a degree of parity that we have never seen before on the Power 5 level of football. Could that be what is happening in the SEC West?

It could be, but I personally think a sample size of two weeks is too small to make such a bold declaration.

However, there are certainly some quick transformations going on in the world of college football. Colorado has made demonstrable strides as a program in one off season and head coach Deion Sanders, who almost completely turned his program over with transfers.

Both Arkansas and BYU waded deeply into the waters of the transfer portal in the first half of the year with the Hogs adding nearly 30 newcomers to their program through transfers and BYU doubling that.

While neither team has played a quality opponent yet, both squads seem to have improved their defenses since Arkansas posted a 52-35 victory at Provo, Utah last season. But again both squad’s statistics are skewed from playing relatively lightweight opponents.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams has installed a more aggressive system than the read-and-react system of his predecessor Barry Odom, but will his front seven be able to get home when pressuring the quarterback of more talented programs? Also will Arkansas’ back end hold up successfully against more talented quarterbacks and receivers?

Only time will tell us, but we should know a great deal more about the Razorbacks’ defense following Saturday night’s game than we do at this point.

Likewise, Arkansas’ offense has not been the juggernaut that I expected it to be in the preseason. My expectation was that Arkansas would be a ground-and-pound squad at least in the early portion of the season, leaning on opponents with their experienced interior line and giving opponents a heavy dose of Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, a preseason All-SEC candidate.

That has not materialized. Sanders has been hurt since the first quarter of the season opener and is out for the BYU game and can at best be considered questionable for the LSU game at Baton Rouge, La. on Sept. 23.

The Razorbacks have other talented runners in A.J. Green, Rashod Dubinion, and Dominique Johnson, but with inexperienced wideouts, tight ends, and tackles on the Power 5 level, the Razorbacks have blocked more like piglets than Hogs in the running game.

Pittman explained Wednesday in his news conference that the blocking fits have been off in the run game at some spots, leading to less than the best results. The Hogs are failing to move the line of scrimmage.

He also challenged Razorback runners to be their on blockers in certain situations instead of continuing to bounce the ball outside, seeking a clear running lane.

All those issues are correctable with practice, time, and proper execution, but the Hogs have little of that to spare with the meat of their schedule staring them in their face.

There is no doubt using K.J. Jefferson considerable running prowess will loosen up defenses to a degree, but the idea coming into the season was to run Jefferson less to keep him healthy and potent for the entire season.

Jefferson missed two complete games last season and parts of other from being beat up. The Razorbacks are a far better team when their captain isn’t too beat up to be a difference-maker.

Like Arkansas, BYU has had its ups and downs offensively against two marginal opponents in a 14-0 win over Sam Houston and a 41-16 victory over Southern Utah.

The betting line on the game opened with Arkansas as a 9.5-point favorite. The number shrunk to 7.5 on Thursday. I’d expect it to be even closer by Saturday.

There just is no way of telling. Both squads should improve as the year goes by, but what kind of strides have been made in a week?

If the Razorbacks’ running game is not more potent than it has been the last two weeks, we’re going to see how the Hogs’ youngish offensive line and inexperienced tight ends and receivers play.

Can they be the supporting cast K.J. Jefferson needs them to be for the Razorbacks to be potent and show improvement on offense this season?

Secondly, are the Hogs’ perceived improvements on defense for real against a Power 5 opponent or just fool’s gold?

I’ve got no answer for you at the moment. Hopefully the Razorbacks’ play Saturday night will give all Hog fans some affirmative answers before we move into SEC play on Sept. 23 at Baton Rouge.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-0   SEC: 0-0   Streak: W2

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (6 p.m. ESPN)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)