No. 7 A&M presents big challenge, big opportunity for Hogs

The old axiom of keep winning and each game gets bigger is certainly true for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Unranked and lightly regarded in the preseason, Sam Pittman’s second Razorback squad is just days away from a spotlight showdown against old Southwest Conference foe No. 7 Texas A&M (3-0) in both squads’ Southeastern Conference opener.

They take center stage as perhaps the best game of the day in the highly coveted 2:30 p.m. Saturday slot on CBS. The nation will be watching.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Texas A&M
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25
Where: Arlington, TX

Remaining schedule

Oct. 2 — at Georgia
Oct. 9 — at Ole Miss
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 — UAPB, in Little Rock
Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

The game is recognized as the Hogs’ home game, but it’s being played deep in the heart of Texas at Arlington in AT&T Stadium.

The stadium is friendly ground for the Hogs (3-0). It’s owned by former Razorback and Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, but its turf has been unkind to Arkansas of late.

The Hogs have lost six games there to the Aggies from 2014-2019 and nine-consecutive games to the Aggies in all with losses in Fayetteville in 2012 and at College Station in 2013 and 2020 since A&M joined the SEC.

While many of the games have been close — including overtime affairs in 2014 and 2015 — the Aggies have owned the Hogs for nearly a decade.

Now, that’s not the history of the series. Even with the Aggies’ nine-game winning streak, Arkansas still leads the series 41-33-3. But honestly, neither the distant past nor the recent past has much bearing on this football game as All-SEC sophomore safety Jalen Catalon reminded us last Saturday.

It will be won or lost on its own merits.

The Razorbacks are 5.5 underdogs to the Aggies as of Tuesday morning, but in my estimation this is a pick-em game. If it means anything, the Hogs are 3-0 against the spread this year.

The Aggies, who are on a 11-game winning streak dating back to last season, have “underachieved” this season based on expectations, while the Hogs appear to be quite a bit better than originally anticipated by preseason pundits.

Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies have had hard luck with a lower-leg injury to starting quarterback Hayes King in the first half of a 10-7 victory at Colorado on Sept. 11, the same day the Hogs blew out Texas, 40- 21, at Razorback Stadium. Zach Calzada is now the Aggie starter at least until mid October when King is expected to return.

Calzada helped orchestrate the comeback win at Colorado as well as leading the Aggies to a 34-0 blowout of New Mexico last Saturday in a game where the Aggies coasted through the second half.

Calzada is working behind a retooled offensive line, but he has a bevy of talent surrounding him in the backfield and on the edges with junior running back Isaiah Spiller, sophomore runner Devon Achane, wide receiver Ainias Smith, and tight end Jalen Wydermyer as key playmakers for the Aggies.

The Aggies will test the Razorbacks’ defense that has played well this season with much better defensive line play than in recent years. However, the Aggies dote on defense. A&M is the only team in the FBS allowing less than 100 passing yard per game at 77.3 ypg. and is just one of six teams that have not given up a passing touchdown this season.

The Aggies are allowing just 3.0 yards per passing attempt. With the shutout of New Mexico, the Aggies rank first in passing, scoring and pass-efficiency defense in the nation.

The Aggies are the real deal on defense, and they are going to challenge a Razorback offense that is banged up along the offensive front with starting tackle Dalton Wagoner and starting center Ricky Stromberg missing Monday’s practice.

How Arkansas sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson handles the pressure the Aggies will throw at him will be critical to the Razorbacks’ chances of snapping their embarrassing nine-game losing streak to A&M.

Jefferson’s statistics on paper are solid enough. He’s completing right at 62 percent of his passes (39 of 63) for 211-yards-per-game average, with 632 total yards, four touchdowns against two interceptions. However, at times his passes float on him, which could be dangerous against the Aggies’ ball-hawking defense.

As Pittman has pointed out a number of times, Jefferson seems to get into the flow of the game once he is able to run the football. He just throws better once his juices are flowing.

While Jefferson has played solid football this season, perhaps his most impressive performance in the five starts of his career came last year on the road at Missouri in a tough 50-48 loss to the Tigers. Jefferson completed 18 of 33 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns, but Arkansas’ defense wore down and surrendered a late-game field goal in the loss.

The key to this game, however, will probably be which team runs the ball the best and which team defends the run best. That’s a scary proposition for the Razorbacks, who have played well overall on defense this season, but have on occasions left things undone.

One play here or there could be the difference in this ballgame, and the Aggies have the individual playmakers to turn a game around in a split second on offense and in the kicking game.

After a tough first week, the Razorbacks seem to have shorn up most of the issues with their special teams. They kept Texas running back/returner Bijan Robinson in check for most of that game, but Spiller might be even more dangerous.

Unfortunately the Razorbacks won’t have a partisan crowd backing them like they did against the Longhorns despite it being considered a home game for the Hogs. The crowd at best will be a 50/50 split, but will likely be in the Aggies’ favor.

Both A&M and Arkansas would like the series to be moved back to each other’s campuses, but the contract, which still has a few years on it, looks like it will be played out rather than bought out.

This is a huge early season game for both programs. The Aggies need to win if they expect to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, while the Razorbacks want to prove they deserve the respect they garnered from whipping Texas two short weeks ago.

Arkansas’ next four games are going to be very telling on the type of season the Razorbacks are going to have.

After the seventh-ranked Aggies on Saturday, the Hogs head to Athens to face No. 2 Georgia on Oct. 2 and then over to Oxford, Miss. to face No. 13 Ole Miss on Oct. 9. The four-game stretch culminates on Oct. 16 with a return home to Razorback Stadium for a clash with No. 23 Auburn.

These are exciting times for Hog fans. Those type of challenges are what is so fantastic and daunting about being in the SEC. The great thing is that Pittman has his Razorbacks playing with a passion and intensity that is enjoyable to watch whether the Hogs win or lose.

That in and of itself is a victory for a program that seemed to have gone off the tracks and possibly never to return from 2017-19.