Aggies out to test the Razorbacks conviction in SEC opener

Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen calls an audible against the Texas A&M Aggies in the second half of the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 27, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.

Can the Arkansas Razorbacks defeat No. 14 Texas A&M Aggies in both squads’ Southeastern Conference opener at 6 p.m. Saturday in AT&T Stadium?

We know Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t think so. He told us that last Saturday night. After his Red Raiders administered a tail kicking to Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks, Kingsbury predicted the Aggies, coached by his mentor Kevin Sumlin, would make it three butt-kickings in a row for the Hogs.

It seems most of those who cover the Hogs feels the same way. Out of more than a half dozen printed or vocalized predictions I’ve seen, only one favors the Razorbacks.

After a summer brimming with belief in the Razorbacks, back-to-back losses to Toledo and Texas Tech has seemingly destroyed all confidence in the Hogs. And it’s hard to blame folks for losing faith. Toledo and the Red Raiders weren’t expected to be Hog-beaters much less world-beaters.

A&M is a different story. Late in the preseason, national pundits jumped on the Aggie bandwagon with leading ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit picking A&M to win the SEC, and nothing has happened to make people want to jump off in Sumlin’s fourth season at College Station.

The Aggies have continued to put up big numbers offensively, while playing an improved brand of defense under the direction of John Chavis. Chavis, known as The Chief, masterminded Tennessee defenses for Phillip Fulmer during the Vols’ hey days and coaxed even stronger performances at LSU under Les Miles until exiting last winter.

The Aggies whipped trendy Pac-10 preseason pick Arizona State, 38-17, in their season opener before wearing out Ball State, 56-23, and Nevada, 44-27, the past two weeks. The games weren’t as close as the last two blowout scores suggest. Now, the Aggies are seeking to dine on some pork.

Like with the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks left a sore spot with Sumlin and the Aggies last year. Though A&M came back to win the game 35-28 in overtime, the Razorbacks’ physical play left the Aggies beat up after they left Arlington. Instead of stewing about it like Kingsbury, Sumlin made changes to the way his team conditions and trains because of that game, and it seems to have paid off.

So, while calling this contest a revenge game for the Aggies isn’t exactly accurate, Sumlin and his staff do have respect for the Razorbacks and the way they played a year ago. That respect should translate to the players.

“For us, this is the beginning of conference play,” Sumlin said in a news conference earlier this week. “That’s the reality of it. Nothing has changed from our point of view of how we feel about or view Arkansas. As the first game of the SEC and playing where we play, it is going to be a big time atmosphere and a game that both of us need to win.”

Everything is still in play for the Aggies from a Western Division and overall SEC title as well as a shot at the national championship. Don’t even consider the Aggies overlooking the Razorbacks.

Obviously, the Hogs won’t overlook the Aggies. The question, though, is whether or not the Razorbacks have enough to beat the Aggies? Do they have enough talent, enough desire and enough passion to get the job done?

Carroll Washington #21 of the Arkansas Razorbacks intercepts a pass intended for Josh Reynolds #11 of the Texas A&M Aggies in the second half of the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 27, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.

In the summer, the matchup looked like a toss-up between opponents with contrasting styles. While A&M may have been considered to have more talent, most thought the Hogs were in the same neighborhood. Obviously, that thought has come into question based on Arkansas’ play so far.

Bielema announced in the summer that the Hogs would for the most part forego two-a-day practices to keep his team fresh and healthy for the season. It’s easy to point a finger at that decision based on the circumstances.

A rash of injuries has left the Razorbacks shorthanded at the skill positions. All three of Arkansas’ starting receivers — Keon Hatcher (foot), Jared Cornelius (arm) and Cody Hollister (foot) — are out for the foreseeable future and two of the Hogs’ top three running backs — Jonathan Williams (ankle) and Kody Walker (hand) — weren’t able to play last week. Walker might play with a cast this week, but it will likely be a game-time decision.

Between the 20s Arkansas has moved the ball, but inside the red zone the Hogs have tripped over their feet with penalties and poor execution across the board. Defensively, the Razorbacks have been O.K. on first and second downs, but Arkansas has given up play after play on third down, which was uncharacteristic of the squad last season. Tackling has been a huge issue. Poor angles taken by defenders in space have hurt the Hogs, and wrapping up runners and receivers has also been a confounding challenge. Much of what the Hogs did a year ago to be successful defensively seems to have been lost.

On top of that, the Razorbacks don’t seem to be playing with the same urgency and passion as they did a year ago. Granted it’s hard to exhibit enthusiasm when you’re getting beat, but the Razorbacks took their lumps before turning their season around last November but still seemed to exhibit more intensity that we’ve seen so far this season. Some have said they are playing down to their competition. Again this is a perception that might not be reality, but then again something seems to be missing that was there last year.

Did Bielema’s decision to not have two-a-days become a mixed message to his Hogs? Did they misconstrue the decision and become complacent because of it? Were they too immature as players to handle a form of practice used widely by the NFL? Can a college team that does not have an engrained belief in itself handle that kind of responsibility?

Those are questions Bielema can ask himself when the season is done if he desires. Right now, he hasn’t got time for them. He and his staff have to prepare his the Razorbacks for the game ahead of them.

With A&M and Texas Tech running very similar offenses, one can assume the Razorbacks’ game plan will be similar to last week’s. It’s vital each and every week for the Razorbacks to run the football successfully. Everything the Razorbacks want to do is predicated upon doing so.

The Aggies defense is very quick up front with perhaps the nation’s best tandem of pass rushing defensive ends in Myles Garrett (6-5, 262) and Daeshone Hall (6-6, 250). As a team, the Aggies lead the nation in sacks with 15 three games into the season. A lot of squads won’t come up with 15 sacks in an entire season.

The way to neutralize or at least control such an imposing pass rush or speed in general is first to run right at the Aggies. Secondly the Hogs must avoid third-and-long situations. More than ever, the Razorbacks need to get a big push up front from its blockers, and starting running back Alex Collins must hit the point of attack. The more freelancing he attempts to do in the backfield, the more struggles he is likely to have with A&M’s swift ends and linebackers.

Defensively, the Razorbacks must tackle at the point of the catch. Like any good spread offense, the Aggies are going to pitch and catch, but the first defender there must latch on to receiver. Making a kill-shot tackle is every player’s dream, but it’s like swinging for the fences in baseball. The more you do it; the more you strike out.

With all that said, I do believe the Razorbacks can defeat the Aggies. I’ll even predict that they’ll do it, 31-24, but my conviction behind that prediction is sorely lacking.