Razorbacks, Jayhawks show bowl games still matter

FAYETTEVILLE — As the college football playoffs expand from four teams to 12, pressure will mount regarding the alleged irrelevance of the Liberty Bowl and other bowls not involved in the national championship process.

Experts will proclaim that nobody cares. Many already claim that many players don’t seem to care if they decide to go pro and switch to the transfer portal.

The Arkansas Razorbacks and Kansas Jayhawks provided a compelling rebuttal in their 55-53 triple overtime thriller in the Liberty Bowl, which Arkansas won in Memphis on Wednesday night.

It ended the season with nationally insignificant 7-6 and 6-7 records for Arkansas and Kansas, respectively.

Yet for third-year Coach Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks and sophomore Coach Lance Leipold’s Jayhawks, the Liberty Bowl exempts finishing 2022, which is encouraged for 2023.

Few ending a 6-7 season with four straight losses have ever felt better than Leipold’s Jayhawks.

They qualified for KU’s first bowl since 2008.

As a highlight, KU beat eventual bowl winners Houston and Duke in nonconference and then-No. 18 Oklahoma State in the Big 12, losing a 38-31 thriller to the same TCU Horned Frogs who faced today in the national championship playoffs Michigan played.

Everyone knew the Jayhawks would arrive in Memphis excited. Would that be enough against a top-flight SEC team beating Cincinnati, Ole Miss South Carolina and BYU by different ranks and losing a combined nine points to Texas A&M, LSU, Liberty and Missouri?

It wasn’t early. Arkansas led 31-7.

KU roared back to tie it 38-38 and equal Arkansas touchdowns in the two conventional overtimes.

Arkansas won the two-point game in the third overtime format on KJ Jefferson’s pass to running back Rashod Dubinion followed by KU’s failed incomplete pass on a trick play.

KU left Memphis beaten but definitely unbeaten.

Though odds-makers favored them by three, the Hogs, 9-4 in 2021, heard many snide, high preseason expectations reduced to the Liberty Bowl, reflected in their rash of converted pro opt-outs and exits of the transfer portal.

“This is one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a head coach at Arkansas,” Pittman told Postgame Radio, “because everyone but Razorback Nation thought we were getting our ass kicked. But all we had was all we need baby! These kids kicked their butts off. It wasn’t always pretty, but when the game was over it was beautiful.”

The Razorbacks’ key returnee, quarterback Jefferson, a pro-eligible junior who has announced he is returning for his senior season, made the MVP distinction. He ran 14 times for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns while passing 19 of 29 for 287 yards and 2 TDs against an interception. He also had the game-winning two-point pass and a presence that inspired young teammates to excel.

“I’m kind of excited that he came back,” Pittman drawled with deliberate understatement. “He’s a great player, he’s a better person and he’s the leader of our football team. He played his heart out for the Arkansas Razorbacks tonight.”