FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks put a wrap on the 2023 football season as of Black Friday with their 48-14 home loss to No. 9 Missouri in which the Tigers capitalized on an injury to quarterback KJ Jefferson, a dominant run game and a flurry of takeaways to pull away early in the second half.
This 4-8 campaign is the earliest an Arkansas season has come to an end during four years under Coach Sam Pittman. The 2020 Razorbacks finished 3-7 against an All-SEC schedule, but they played their regular season finale on Dec. 12 and practiced for the Texas Bowl just prior to their departure time for the Dec. 31 game, which was canceled because of TCU's covid-19 outbreak. So this will be the first Pittman team to not benefit from bowl practices.
Arkansas clearly took a step back from its previous seasons under Pittman, who is now in the midst of making player and staff evaluations and searching for an offensive coordinator in a compressed time frame.
The key dates looming on the calendar are the opening of the NCAA Transfer Portal on Dec. 4 and the opening of the early signing period on Dec. 20.
Pittman received his nod of approval for 2024 from Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek in the locker room after a 44-20 win over Florida International on Nov. 18. That win was sandwiched by rough losses to Auburn (48-10) and Missouri, so Pittman will be on one of the hottest seats in college football from the outset next fall.
In the meantime, staff changes and player movement appear on the horizon.
Pittman has already said shoring up deficiencies on the offensive line are the top priority as soon an he gets an offensive coordinator in place.
How deep the staff changes go are still to be determined, but certainly the offensive side is under the most heat. The current offensive staff consists of interim coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kenny Guiton, running backs coach Jimmy Smith, offensive line coach Cody Kennedy, tight ends coach Morgan Turner and interim receivers coach Derek Kief. Though Guiton's debut led to a rousing 39-36 overtime win at Florida, the first road win over the Gators in school history, the Hogs reverted to a tough slog on offense in their home losses to Auburn and Missouri.
The Razorbacks enter championship week No. 106 in total offense (326.5), No. 89 in rushing (139.0), No. 104 in passing (187.5) and No. 70 in scoring (26.6).
On the other side of the ball, coordinator Travis Williams turned in a solid debut in which the Razorbacks drastically improved in some areas, but seemingly ran out of gas down the home stretch with the offense struggling to stay on the field. Williams was working with carryover defensive line coach Deke Adams and fellow first-year assistants Marcus Woodson and Deron Wilson in the secondary.
Arkansas improved from last in the country in passing defense to No. 31 (202.8), a phenomenal leap and a reduction of more than 90 yards per game. The Hogs are also No. 47 in total defense (357.2), No. 73 against the run (154.4) and No. 81 in scoring allowed (27.9) entering the week.
The Razorbacks had one of their best special teams seasons in many years under Scott Fountain, who joins Smith as the only Arkansas assistants to work all four years under Pittman.
What follows is the best and worst of Arkansas football 2023.
It's slim pickings in this category with only three wins over FBS opponents, but it's an easy choice. The Razorbacks' 39-36 overtime win at Florida was its only SEC victory on the season and the first in history for the program at The Swamp. It was not a vintage Florida team under second-year Coach Billy Napier, but the Gators knew they needed it for bowl eligibility and they were denied.
KJ Jefferson and Raheim "Rocket" Sanders, the Hogs' dynamic duo entering the season, broke out with huge performances to lead the way, and the defense had a clutch field goal stand in overtime to set up Jefferson's walk-off touchdown strike to Tyrone Broden.
The man-to-man celebration by Guiton and Jefferson outside the locker room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium might have been the most emotional moment of the season
Hands down, the 7-3 home setback to Mississippi State was the bummer of the year given what was at stake. The Razorbacks needed it to snap a five-game losing streak for bowl eligibility purposes and they produced a piddling 200 total yards.
The lackluster offensive showing cost offensive coordinator Dan Enos his job. Circumstances were not in the Hogs' favor, as they were playing their eighth consecutive game and the Bulldogs were coming off an open date. Yet the Hogs' only points came off safety Alfahiym Walcott's interception on the first series of the game.
A close second would be a 48-10 home loss to Auburn coming off the euphoria of a road win at Florida, assuring the Hogs could not reach bowl eligibility and churning up speculation over Pittman's job status.
Most dominant win
Again, not much to work with. But this has to go to the Hogs' 44-20 home win over Florida International on Nov. 18.
Fueled by a 24-0 second quarter, the Razorbacks produced a season-high 510 yards. Jefferson secured school records for touchdown passes and career passing yards with his 3-touchdown effort, and freshman Isaiah Augustave (career-high 101 yards), Jefferson (90 rush yards) and junior Dominique Johnson (62 rush yards, 1 TD) all ran for 60-plus yards as the Hogs went for 323 on the ground.
Walcott led the defensive showing with a pair of interceptions, including his 33-yard return for a touchdown that seized momentum to the Razorbacks for good.
Least competitive loss
The only contenders are the 48-10 home loss to Auburn and the 48-14 home loss to Missouri, both in November. Considering Auburn was ahead 21-0 after its first three possessions in the first quarter, that doesn't sound very competitive.
In two of the Hogs' most pivotal losses -- a 38-31 setback against BYU in Week 3 and a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State after four consecutive weeks on the road -- their opponents both got game-changing breaks due to penalties.
The Cougars had the play clock expire just before they took the snap on an ill-fated fake field goal in the third quarter. Arkansas stopped the fake, but because the play was whistled dead, BYU was still in field goal range and remained in possession for Will Ferrin's 43-yard field goal. That kick drew the Cougars within 31-24 instead of giving Arkansas momentum with a 10-point third quarter lead.
The Bulldogs committed a huge blunder when quarterback Mike Wright dropped the Shotgun snap on a fourth-and-1 play from their own 40 early in the fourth quarter. The loose ball bounced around and Walcott eventually scooped it and scored what would have been a go-ahead defensive touchdown. However, the Bulldogs were flagged for a dead ball false start, nullifying the play and allowing Coach Zach Arnett to send his punt team out.
Andrew Armstrong got loose deep and brought in a 48-yard touchdown strike from Jefferson to pull Arkansas within 34-22 against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter. That pass gave Jefferson the UA lead in touchdown responsibility, breaking his tie with Matt Jones at 77.
As a runner up, Isaiah Sategna ran a skinny post from the slot, got past his defender and Jefferson rewarded him with a perfectly placed deep ball for a 32-yard touchdown against Florida International.
Late in the second quarter at LSU, quarterback Jefferson dropped a dime into Broden for a 19-yard touchdown for a 13-3 lead. Broden made a spectacular grab at the back line against tight coverage, managing to get a foot inbounds to give Arkansas the 10-point lead with 48 seconds left in the half. The play was originally ruled incomplete but it was overturned by the replay booth.
On the Hogs' fourth offensive snap against BYU, AJ Green took a stretch play handoff over right guard, got quality blocks from all his linemen and tight end Luke Hasz, swerved to the right edge, fended off a tackle attempt at the 8-yard line and scored a 55-yard touchdown.
Most impactful run
Facing first-and-20 in overtime at Florida after a holding penalty, Jefferson charged over the right side on a quarterback power, powered through a safety and added eight yards to his 20-yard run. Sanders followed with an 11-yard pickup to set up Broden's 4-yard walk touchdown reception.
Facing fourth-and-2 from the Florida International 31 late in the fourth quarter, Pittman kept his offense on the field with Arkansas ahead 24-13. Jefferson was given a quarterback run, but he told tailback Dominique Johnson to go get the first down on an RPO give. Johnson broke through the line and with no safety backup he ran 31 yards for a score and a 31-13 lead with 1:08 left in the half.
Facing fourth-and-2 from the Mississippi State 33-yard line and trailing 7-3 in the third quarter, Arkansas did not get its field goal unit in place in time for a 50- or 51-yard try for Cam Little, who was riding a hot streak of 11-consecutive field goal makes, including four from 50 yards or longer. Instead of trying the field goal or calling time out, the Razorbacks drew a delay of game penalty. Pittman admitted after the game he was indecisive in the moment, costing the special teams unit valuable seconds. Even a timeout would have been better than taking the 5-yard penalty. Max Fletcher came on to punt 35 yards to the Bulldogs' 3.
Best special teams play
BYU punter Ryan Rekhow out-punted his coverage with a 54-yard boot to the Arkansas 12 and the redshirt freshman Sategna made him play. Sategna got up a head of steam by charging past the first three Cougar defenders, then he veered right around nice sealing blocks up the middle and easily outraced defenders for an 88-yard punt return score in the first quarter.
Worst special teams play
The Razorbacks were still within range of Texas A&M at 27-16 when Fletcher unleashed a 61-yard punt that sailed beyond his gunners. Bad move. Dangerous returner Ainias Smith got steam with the head start and raced 82 yards for a clinching touchdown to make it 34-16.
Arkansas led 14-0 in the opening moments at Florida, but trailed 33-30 with 3:02 remaining after Trevor Etienne's 26-yard touchdown run.
Jefferson engineered the Hogs' most important drive of the season to tie it on Little's clutch 49-yard field goal with 44 seconds remaining. The drive featured a holding call and false start that set up a third-and-23 snap from the Florida 41. Jefferson's 10-yard completion to Broden got the Hogs within Little's range.
Worst blown lead
Ahead 14-0 against BYU in Week 3 with a chance to open 3-0, the Razorbacks could not hold the lead into the second quarter and dropped a 38-31 decision.
This was the game that started the Hogs' run of six consecutive losses so this was the initial one-score setback that set the tone for the disappointing season.
Best sack evasion
Alabama's Terrion Arnold had Jefferson dead to rights on a corner blitz in the third quarter. With Arnold hanging on him, Jefferson shook the lighter defender off, got some space and fired a short completion that Var'keyes Gumms turned into a 25-yard reception. Three plays later, Rashod Dubinion caught a 14-yard wheel route touchdown to draw Arkansas within 24-21 with 10:59 remaining.
There were lots to pick from in this category, including touchdown return interceptions by Brad Spence, Antonio Grier and Lorando Johnson. The winner is Walcott's takeaway from Florida International's Dean Patterson on a third down route near the sideline, which the safety ran back for a 33-yard score. That defensive masterpiece might have been inspired by a Jaylon Braxton play two weeks earlier.
Freshman cornerback Jaylon Braxton simply wrestled the ball away from Florida senior Ricky Pearsall on the Gators' first offensive snap of the game. Braxton tugged it free, secured the ball and raced 33 yards for a touchdown an a 14-0 Arkansas lead within the first four minutes of the Hogs' 39-36 win in overtime.
Florida caught a break when a substitution fiasco did not lead to a clock runoff in the closing seconds of regulation, but Arkansas caught an even bigger one when kicker Trey Smack missed wide right on a 44-yard field goal try with 3 seconds remaining in a 33-33 tie.
Freshman sensation Luke Hasz was coming off a two-touchdown game at LSU and emerging as one of the nation's top tight ends when he landed hard on his left shoulder on the first series against Texas A&M the following week and suffered a broken collarbone that cost him the rest of the season and cost Arkansas a valuable weapon.