Bowl games can be hard to predict, especially in today's football world. Players enter the portal at the season ends and are no longer on the team. Or players have declared for the NFL draft and sit the game out to protect their new career. Then there are times when a team entered the season with big aspirations, only to stumble as the year went on, and end up in a bowl game with a middling Big 12 team three days after Christmas.
Enter Arkansas, a team who college football enthusiasts may remember starting the year with an outside shot at making some noise in the SEC, like what Tennessee was actually able to do. Going back to 2021, the Razorbacks exceeded expectations and went 9-4, notching wins over Texas A&M, LSU, and Penn State while giving Alabama a scare in a one score game. That propelled them to start 2022 with a #19 ranking in the AP Top 25. A 3-0 start actually moved Arkansas to #10 three weeks later. Yes, this year's Razorbacks were a top 10 at one point in this season.
You likely already know Arkansas ended up 6-6 and unranked, so naturally their story goes off the rails after that. They evened out their record by losing three straight. One was to Bama, but the others were to a Texas A&M team that ended up a laughingstock in the SEC, and the other was a 40-17 beatdown at the hands of good but not great Mississippi State (RIP Pirate). Later, after losing to Liberty (foreshadowing?) and LSU, they found themselves 6-5, with only a game against their SEC "rival" Missouri remaining. A mediocre Missouri squad eked out a 2 point victory in Columbia, propelling Mizzou into a bowl game in which they were terrified to play Kansas, to the point where they reportedly refused to do it. Missouri instead ended up losing to powerhouse Wake Forest, in a bowl game about which I do not care enough to look up the name. Arkansas, obviously, landed in the Liberty Bowl facing Kansas. After being a top 10 with high expectations in September, it's possible this Arkansas squad will be less than fully inspired to play the Jayhawks in Memphis.
At the beginning, I mentioned players in the current landscape entering the portal and leaving the team prior to these bowl games, or sitting out to prepare themselves for the draft and avoid injury. Kansas wasn't entirely unaffected by these issues, with several 2nd stringers disappearing from the depth chart into the portal, but Arkansas has been hit much harder. With the wheels falling off the season, a whopping 20 players are in the transfer portal, while three high level players are sitting out ahead of the draft. Obviously not all the 20 players transferring were difference makers, but all in all 10 players who were listed as starters on the Arkansas depth chart headed into the Missouri game no longer appear at all, including their top pass rusher and top receiver.
This makes for an interesting dynamic headed into today's bowl game. Arkansas, though their interest in playing this game against this team may be in some question, knows what they're facing in this Kansas squad. The Jayhawks will be healthiest they've been since October, with no big time players missing. We don't know exactly what Arkansas will look like, with 10 of 22 game 12 starters already gone. Still, it's unlikely the Razorbacks will reinvent themselves now, and will likely only make slight tweaks and play the "next man up" game.
Arkansas ran the ball roughly 63% of the time this year, so Kansas should be ready to fight in the ground game. That's not exactly welcome news to Kansas, for whom the front seven have almost undoubtedly been the weak point of the team, particularly up the middle. Sophomore running back Raheim Sanders is not among the departing Razorbacks, and he'll bring his 1,426 rushing yards into today's battle. Expect to hear that name a lot as Arkansas will try and lean on anything familiar in this game that's working.
Junior QB KJ Jefferson is another Razorback who is still in the game, and despite Arkansas' run-first mentality, he's had a very strong season. Jefferson threw for 2,361 yards with 22 TDs and just four picks, completing 68% of his passes and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. If Arkansas had been a passing team and Jefferson maintained that level of efficiency, he'd likely be a household name. Throw in that his legs are dangerous, adding 510 yards and 7 TDs on the ground, and you have an Arkansas backfield that is still very much capable of eating up a Kansas defense that has had few highlights this year.
Defensively, Arkansas doesn't look quite as scary. They lose more production on that side of the ball from players not participating, and frankly, they weren't great at full strength. Arkansas ranked 120th nationally in giving up 6.43 yards/play this year (Kansas was 105th), and wasn't great against either the run or the pass. That said, if we look to Football Outsiders' F+ rankings (usually I use Bill Connely's SP+, but ESPN's website is garbage and I can't access it despite paying for the privilege), Arkansas is not just a mediocre 6-6 team. This measure ranks them 25th nationally, at least at full strength, with the 25th ranked offense and 60th ranked defense. And while some good players are missing, remember that this is an SEC team that's gone up against some elite competition. While it's comforting to know Kansas doesn't have to play their full-strength squad, don't expect the Razorbacks to be a pushover.
I'm tempted to go a few different ways with this. A questionable defense going up against a fully healthy Kansas offense, plus extra time for Kotelnicki to prepare? That sounds like a dream matchup. On the other hand, KU's track record against powerful offenses who can successfully run the ball in a number of ways is...well, do you remember the Texas game? It's not an entirely fair comparison because Kansas had zero fully healthy QBs ready to go in that matchup, but it still happened, and this Arkansas offense is very similar to Texas' in terms of overall efficiency and rushing success.
The spread for this game opened closer to 8, but as Arkansas' defections became known, it's dwindled to 1.5. Part of me thinks that this game is p for the Kansas offense to go off, and win by scoring a bunch of points and daring the Razorbacks to keep up. But a louder part of me remembers sitting in the stands for the Texas game, and watching games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Kansas State, where the other team's offense was so effective against KU's anemic defense that the pressure was consistently on the offense to score every time they touched the ball. Unfortunately, that's what I think we'll see today. Much like Deuce Vaughn and Bijan Robinson before them, I think Jefferson and Sanders will see a ton of open field ahead of them when they get the ball today, and if they're regularly hitting home runs offensively, the pressure shifts to the Jayhawk defense, which has rarely been up to the challenge this year.
Arkansas 41, Kansas 31