Unsettled offensive line ominous as No. 17 Razorbacks face No. 10 Aggies

Frank Ragnow / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The summer game we all play of attempting to peg our favorite team’s most critical game is fun. It’s a great way to while away some time before the season actually starts. Yet, it’s a fruitless endeavor.

The truth is that the “Official Manual of Coach Speech” — which every coach receives upon gaining a major-college head coaching position — is absolutely right. The next game is always the most important, particularly when a team is undefeated.

Two weeks ago, many of us were so sure that Arkansas’ game with TCU was the lynchpin game of the season. It was the Razorbacks’ ticket to respectability.

As it turns out, it was for that moment. By upsetting No. 15 TCU, the Hogs jumped into the national rankings and gained a measure of respect by knocking off Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs on their own turf. It was a fine victory and a fantastic football game.

However, it’s in the rearview mirror now as Hog fans gear up for the No, 17 Razorbacks’ shot at No. 10 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game will be televised at 8 p.m. by ESPN.

Saturday’s clash with the Aggies eclipses that little ol’ game with the Horned Frogs. It’s huge for both teams for the opportunities a victory presents for the winner and the consequences it leaves for the loser.

The winner remains a legitimate contender for the SEC West title, and with that, is still in the hunt for the overall SEC title and a shot at a play-off spot.

The loser’s season isn’t over by any means. There is a lot of football left on the table. The SEC could be a bloodbath this season with each contender possibly sporting a loss or two before everything shakes out. However, a loss this early in the season would narrow a team’s chances at a division title considerably.

Win or lose come Sunday, this game will be in the rearview mirror just like the TCU game is now.

With a Razorback victory, Hog fans will all be pointing to a showdown with No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 8 as the biggest game of the season. And should the Hogs beat the Crimson Tide, the stakes would only grow as long as they keep winning.

See how futile it is trying to predict the biggest game of the year before hand. It’s fun, but it’s a fantasy.

Reality is the next game up, and this Saturday’s contest truly is big for the Hogs and the Aggies, but particularly for the Razorbacks.

As hard as it may be to believe for old timers like me, the Aggies have dominated the Razorbacks since joining the SEC. While the games have been competitive, particularly the last two with A&M taking overtime victories, Bret Bielema’s Hogs have whiffed against the Aggies the past three seasons, and the bad news is this A&M squad appears to be Kevin Sumlin’s best since A&M’s first year in the SEC when Johnny Manziel razzle dazzled his way to the Heisman.

While there’s no Aggie on the team like Manziel, A&M boasts a better-rounded offensive cast, several of whom will have their names called in upcoming NFL drafts. Trevor Knight, who transferred from Oklahoma after being beat out by Baker Mayfield, isn’t the player Manziel was, but he is a better leader, and he knows how to use his weapons, particularly A&M’s all-star cast of receivers, featuring Josh Reynolds, Christian Kirk, Rickey Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil.

However, the Aggies have always been able to light up the scoreboard under Sumlin. The difference this season is the Aggies’ defense. In his second year as defensive coordinator, John Chavis is working the same magic he weaved at Tennessee and LSU. Of course, magic is the wrong word. There’s nothing mystical about the Aggies’ success. It’s really just outstanding coaching blending with exceptional talent.

Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall are exceptional defensive ends, but safeties Donovan Wilson and Armani Watts have NFL futures, too.

The crux of this game is Arkansas’ running attack. If the Hogs can generate a running game, it opens the door to its play-action passing. The Razorbacks are at their best offensively when they are able to force defenses to sell out to stop the run. That doesn’t mean the Razorbacks have to run more than they pass, but it does mean they have to force the Aggies to respect their run game and not just pin their ears back.

This appears to be a game where Austin Allen will be on the move whether by design or necessity. He won’t be able to hold the ball, and he has to realize throwing it away is the preference over taking a sack.

It is significant that Arkansas moved its best lineman Frank Ragnow from center guard last week. He, left tackle Dan Skipper, left guard Hjalte Froholdt, and whichever Hogs join them at center and right tackle need to play their games of the season thus far to give the Razorbacks a legitimate chance.

If the Razorbacks can move the ball and pick up first downs, Arkansas’ defense should have a fighting chance of keeping the regulation score in the 20s or low 30s, which is where it needs to be for Arkansas, a 5 to 6.5 point underdog, to have a shot.

Field position is key for the Hogs. The Razorbacks must tackle well on special teams or it could be a long day for the defense. The Razorbacks have to play clean football, too. The Razorbacks have to avoid penalties, turnovers and mental mistakes at all cost. All of this is Football 101. It’s fundamental,

So much of that outcome of this game hinges on the play of Arkansas’ offensive line. It does not bode well for the Hogs with their offensive front remaining unsettled as the squad enters SEC play.

While Bielema touted a rotation at center and right tackle this week, there is no doubt he would prefer either Jake Raulerson or Zack Rogers to nail down the starting center role and for Colton Jackson or Brian Wallace to do the same at right tackle.

With two starting spots unsettled on the offensive line, it’s hard for me to feel too confident in the Razorbacks’ chances against an A&M squad that appears to be coming into its own.

Prediction: Arkansas 27, Texas A&M 23