This Saturday’s 8 p.m., ESPN-televised matchup between No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 17 Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is exactly what both schools imagined when the series featuring former Southwest Conference brethren was originally drawn up.
It’s a marquee, prime-time matchup that will spell success or distress for the month of September for both squads.
The winner of the game might not be in the catbird seat in the SEC West. Isn’t that spot always reserved for Alabama?
But, the winner will still be undefeated overall and in league play as the calendar flips to October, meaning all their goals and aspirations will still be intact for the season.
The loser won’t mathematically be out of the division race, but it becomes an uphill climb with Western Division heavyweights Alabama and LSU still on both team’s horizon.
The Hogs (3-0) and the Aggies (3-0, 1-0 SEC) were both charter members of the Southwest Conference, and the Razorbacks hold an 41-23-3 advantage in the all-time series, but Texas A&M has won the last four games since joining the Southeastern Conference.
The first two were played on each other’s campuses, which is where the Aggies would prefer to play the Hogs. The last two were at the home of Cowboys, who are owned by Arkansas alum Jerry Jones, who started at guard for the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team. A&M liked the idea of the game being held in Dallas before the Aggies joined the SEC, but not so much now.
The past two seasons, Arkansas held 14-point advantages in the fourth quarter, but wilted both times, allowing the Aggies to tie each game and win both in overtime, 35-28 in 2014 and 28-21 in 2015.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has been vocal about how bad he wants to beat the Aggies throughout the summer. He and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin are friends, and it irks Bielema that his buddy/rival owns a three-game advantage in the series.
Sumlin acknowledges his friendship with Bielema, but he has stopped short of rubbing in his team’s advantage in the series, at least publicly. But you know he enjoys the fact his Aggies have held sway so far in the series.
It has to be difficult on old-time Hog fans to see the Aggies defeat Arkansas season after season. While the Aggies were a respectable opponent for the Razorbacks when they were in the SWC together, Arkansas generally whipped the Aggies from the time Frank Broyles took over the program in 1958 until he guided Arkansas into the SEC in 1992 as the school’s longtime athletic director.
Similarly, it has to wear on Hog fans that the Johnny-come-lately Aggies, who left the Big 12 to join the SEC in 2012, tend to command more respect in the SEC than the Razorbacks do after playing in the league now for 24 years. Historically, the Razorbacks are the better football.
However, history is just something that happened in the past. It has no bearing on Saturday’s game.
Thus far the Aggies have been impressive. They opened the season with a 31-24 upset of UCLA. The Bruins had been a media darling in the summer, but Texas A&M doused that talk quickly.
The next week they rolled over Prairie View A&M like they should have with a 67-0 victory. Last week, A&M earned a fine road win, 29-16, at Auburn.
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers, ironically, are struggling offensively this season, but Auburn looks salty on defense with a strong front seven. Any road victory in the SEC is something to proud of.
On the other hand, the Razorbacks appear to be improving. I write “appear,” because there’s not much you can really tell from the Hogs’ 42-3 victory over Texas State.
Other than getting a bit sloppy and giving up a third-quarter field goal, the Razorbacks played a spotless game against a vastly inferior opponent. It was better than scrimmaging the scout team, but it certainly is no gauge on how the Razorbacks will perform this week against the Aggies.
The Razorbacks did play fairly well and show a great deal of resiliency in their 41-38 victory at then-No. 15 TCU. Arkansas built a 20-7 lead, but then gave up three TDs to the Horned Frogs, falling behind 28-20 with two minutes to play. The Razorbacks did rally to tie the game at 28 before finally winning in double over time.
TCU (2-1) bounced back over the weekend to defeat 0-3 Iowa, 41-20, for a comparison. Arkansas’ win over TCU looks solid, but it doesn’t appear that the Horned Frogs are as stout as the Aggies.
The big question moving through this week about Arkansas is the offensive line. The Razorbacks moved junior Frank Ragnow from center to right guard. Bielema said Ragnow is the Hogs’ best option at center, right guard and tackle, but there is only one of him.
Junior transfer Jake Raulerson started the first two games at guard but shared duties at center with sophomore Zach Rogers against Texas State. Redshirt freshman Colton Jackson started against the Bobcats like he did in Arkansas’ first two games, but rotated with Brian Wallace.
Bielema said after the game that those players might continue to rotate at the position; however, it would be best for the Razorbacks if a single player could nail down the starting role at each position.
The Aggies have an imposing front seven, featuring one of the best pass rushers in the nation in Myles Garrett. The 6-5, 262-pound junior is an All-American candidate and a likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring.
He’s a player the Hogs must account for to keep Razorback quarterback Austin Allen on his feet.
Garrett and his defensive mates make Saturday’s game the biggest challenge thus far this season for the Razorbacks. It’s going to be interesting to see if Arkansas is up to it. If the Razorbacks can keep Allen out of duress, their chances of winning on Saturday increase exponentially.