Will the real Arkansas Razorbacks and Texas A&M Aggies please stand up?
That’s the question I have going into Saturday’s 6 p.m. SEC Western Division showdown between the Aggies and Hogs on the neutral playing field of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
What is real when we talk about the No. 10 Razorbacks and the No. 23 Aggies?
The Aggies were supposed to vie for the SEC West this season as No. 2 Alabama’s top challenger. Armed with the nation’s top recruiting class — all somewhat legally paid for through Name, Image, and Likeness deals — Jimbo Fisher’s squad opened the season ranked No. 6 with a mind to defend their coach and his honor for shots fired by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
Publicly, both laughed off the early summer saber rattling at SEC Media Days in July, but behind closed doors, you know Fisher is still fuming about his former boss’s candor, and no doubt Saban probably isn’t all that happy about Fisher airing out some dirty laundry from the past.
Shouldn’t Fisher have been more worried about his team this summer, which felt the sting of an early-season loss to Appalachian State, 17-14, at Kyle Field when the Aggies’ offense bogged down under initial QB1 Haynes King? LSU transfer Max Johnson started and played well enough for the Aggies to whip Miami, 17-9, thanks to a stout showing by A&M’s defense.
Next up for the No. 10 Razorbacks
Opponent: Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Oct. 1 – Alabama
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri
Conversely, Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0 SEC) needed a 21-point, fourth-quarter comeback to dispatch pesky Missouri State, 38-27, who certainly “didn’t’ come to paint” last Saturday at Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks suffered three turnovers — fumbles by starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson and starting tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, and an interception by Jefferson off an on-target pass that bounced out of the usually trusty hands of tight end Trey Knox — to bolster Bobby Petrino’s play-calling prowess.
Petrino did an excellent job of scheming up the Hogs, and Razorbacks embarrassingly missed what seemed like a metric ton of tackles against their feisty foes from the north who led going into the fourth quarter.
A splendid 84-yard punt return for a touchdown by Bryce Stephens and an equally exhilarating 73-yard shovel pass reception by Sanders for a touchdown averted disaster for the Hogs, but serious questions remain for a Razorback defense that leads the nation in sacks through three games with 17, but are the worst in the nation at defending the pass, surrendering a whopping 353 ypg. through the air.
“We’ve got some areas that we have to fix, and to put it in a nutshell, we have to cover better, we have to tackle better and we have to hold onto the football,” Pittman said.
“And I don’t care who you’re playing, they had over 200 … YAC yards [yards after catch] after we should have got them on the ground. Now, you have to credit their players as well. But we have to tackle better, we have to cover better, and we have to hang onto the football.”
The Aggies are ultra-talented defensively. They are strong at all three levels, but their secondary is a standout group. A&M put the squeeze on a solid Miami squad last week, and will look to do the same to the Hogs.
It’s no secret the Razorbacks want to pound at the Aggies with their running game, but offensive coordinator Kendall Briles’ offense does have more bells and whistles that the Hogs have shown this season. Will he pull out the stops this week and allow Jefferson to let fire more often, or will the Hogs continue to ground and pound?
My guess is Arkansas will be more proactive with its passing game on first down than at any point this season to subvert the Aggies’ expectations. Look for Jefferson and Razorback receivers Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers to stretch the Aggies early before Sanders and the rest of the Razorback backfield go to work.
No doubt, Fisher and the Aggies will test the Razorbacks’ so-far generous secondary. Can Max Johnson take advantage before Arkansas pass rushers Drew Sanders, Zach Williams, Jordan Dominick, and Landon Jackson come crashing in?
Outside of quarterback, the Aggies have the most talented skilled players the Hogs have seen this year. Running back Devon Achane and receivers Ainias Smith and Evan Stewart are game-breakers on offense and special teams. They have the skill and speed to flip a game in one play.
The Aggies’ weakest link might be their relative inexperience up front on the offensive line. It will be interesting to see how the Hogs’ challenge their inexperience, and whether or not Johnson can exploit what the Hogs give up on the back end with his arm.
Neither team can afford to turn the ball over in what is expected to be a close game. Some are predicting this game to be relatively low scoring; however, I have a feeling it might be a thriller like Arkansas’ game with Ole Miss last year when the Rebels survived a 52-51 offensive onslaught.
This time, though, I’m guessing Jefferson will lead the Hogs to a victory instead of coming up a bit short.
Such a Razorback victory on Saturday would set up a top-10 showdown with No. 2 Alabama that will be the biggest game at Razorback Stadium in a decade, and one of the top five games ever played in the venerable stadium.