Razorbacks head to Jerry World for pivotal A&M showdown

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman calls out from the sideline in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. LSU won 34-31. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Four games into the 2023 football season, the Arkansas Razorbacks are at a crossroads of sorts with a 2-2 record overall 0-1 mark in SEC play.

At 11 a.m. Saturday coach Sam Pittman’s squad faces longtime opponent Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on the SEC Network in a game that could be pivotal in charting the course this Razorback team will travel the rest of the season.

The Hogs are in the midst of a four-game stretch that is as arduous as any in the nation. Last week the Hogs came up three points short — again — against No. 13 LSU in a highly entertaining game at Baton Rouge, La.

Next week the Razorback are on the road to face No. 20 Ole Miss at Oxford, Miss. That’s followed by a trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Oct. 14 to play No. 12 Alabama.

The Hogs, who suffered a surprise 38-31 home loss to BYU on Sept. 16, find themselves in desperate need of a victory this week before their ship takes on more water than it can handle.

Some fans have already leaped overboard for the season. More will follow if they are given no hope soon. They’ll turn their attention toward basketball season, which at the moment seems more promising despite the fact that coach Eric Musselman turned over about half of his team after last season’s Sweet 16 run.

The Razorback basketball team, which began practices earlier this week, is holding its annual Red-White Showcase, Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Barnhill Arena, if you’re interested in getting an early look at the squad.

With the 11 a.m. kickoff for the A&M game, it will be interesting to see how many Hog fans make the drive to the Dallas area. If the Hogs weren’t on a two-game losing streak, my guess is many more Razorbackers would consider it a trip worth making than what will turn out Saturday.

Dallas can be a fun trip, but back-to-back losses takes the wind out of sails of many fans, who might otherwise make the trip.

The loss to BYU was a gut punch. It was unexpected.

Arkansas tight end Luke Hasz (9) pulls in a touchdown reception in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. LSU won 34-31. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Unfortunately it was the kind of loss the program has become more and more accustomed to over the last dozen years. It was a game the Razorbacks not only could have won, but should have won, but didn’t. Even in the Hogs’ best season over the last decade or so, it seems there is a loss like that.

To the program’s credit, the Hogs battled a very good LSU team last week down to the final seconds. A play or two here or there, a few less penalties, and the Razorbacks could have won the game.

As sloppy as Arkansas played against BYU, the same could be said for it. If you want to go back to last season, four of the Hogs’ six losses were decided by less than a touchdown.

Isolate each of those games, and on their own, none of the losses would feel alarming. One could make the argument that the Razorbacks were close to winning any of those games.

However, when viewed together, the picture painted is difficult to stomach. So many heartbreaking losses in less than a year would test any fanbase’s resiliency.

Asking when or if Pittman’s Hogs are going to turn the corner is a legitimate question. One hopes we’ll get an affirmative answer on Saturday. The Aggies are a 6.5-point favorite.

The Razorbacks have more history with Texas A&M than any other program currently in the SEC. When Texas joins the league next fall, that changes, but for now it’s the Aggies.

Under other circumstances, I’d be tempted to work in an Aggie joke at this point. However, the simple fact that A&M has won 10 of the last 11 games in the series — all after A&M joined the SEC — makes the series no laughing matter.

Yes, Arkansas still holds a distinct 42-34-3 advantage in the series, but as A&M coach Jimbo Fisher reminded everyone on the SEC teleconference Wednesday, the history of the series has no bearing on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

That’s actually good news for the Hogs. This team shouldn’t carry any baggage from the recent past with them into this contest. It’s how they play and react Saturday that will determine the outcome of the game, not history, even though I personally enjoy doting on the past.

As everyone who is reading this likely knows, former Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino is the Aggies’ offensive coordinator. He is an offensive mastermind and as good of a play-caller as there is in the college game.

The last great period of Razorback football came under his direction. The 2010 and 2011 Razorback seasons were special with 10-3 and 11-2 records respectively.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) carries for a big gain in the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Razorbacks’ struggling defense will have its work cut out for them against the Aggies. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams has some daunting decisions to make.

Will he go after new but still experienced Aggie starting quarterback Max Johnson with blitzes, or will he try to play straight up against a veteran A&M offense?

Johnson, who has started 17 games in his career at LSU and A&M, replaces Aggie starter Connor Weigman who is out for the rest of the season with a lower leg injury, Fisher said Wednesday. Johnson played very well upon entering the game against Auburn last week, finishing off the dominating 27-10 victory with no issues. You can even say the offense looked even more smooth with Johnson at the controls than Weigman.

Like LSU last week, the Aggies probably have the more talented roster, but in the Hogs favor is senior quarterback K.J. Jefferson, who is on the precipice of overtaking Razorback legend Matt Jones (2001-2004) as Arkansas’ career leader in touchdown responsibility.

They are currently tied with 77 touchdowns apiece. Jefferson just needs to run or pass for one more score to topple the first of several Razorback all-time quarterback records that are within his reach if he stays healthy this season.

Through four games, Jefferson has completed 76 of 108 passes for 918 yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions. That’s a sterling 70 percent completion rating. One of the interceptions came on a Hail Mary attempt right before halftime at LSU.

Several Razorback quarterbacks guided their squad to sterling seasons as seniors over the decades. Freddie Marshall (1964), Jon Brittenum (1965), Scott Bull (1975), Ron Calcagni (1978), Kevin Scanlon (1979), and Ryan Mallett (2010) all guided the Hogs to strong finishes as seniors with nine or more victories.

However, several great to good Razorback quarterbacks also helmed very disappointing senior seasons, such as Joe Ferguson (1972), Quinn Grovey (1990), Matt Jones (2004), Casey Dick (2008), Tyler Wilson (2012), and Austin Allen (2017).

The way things sit today, Jefferson could end up in either of those categories or somewhere in the middle like Bill Montgomery (1970), Tom Jones (1982), Brad Taylor (1984), Greg Thomas (1987), Barry Lunney Jr. (1995), Clint Stoerner (1999), and Brandon Allen (2015).

While Saturday’s contest is just one of eight remaining games, it just feels like a very pivotal one for the outlook of this season.

A Razorback victory on Saturday would make fans feel so much better about the outlook for the rest of the season, while a loss would likely prompt many Hog fans to begin looking forward to basketball season with more than half the football season left to play.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-2   SEC: 0-1   Streak: L2

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas (11 a.m. SEC Network)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (6:30 p.m. SEC Network)
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)