Southwest Classic to separate SEC contenders from pretenders

One of the biggest if not the biggest game in all of college football Saturday features the No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks squaring off with the No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies at 2:30 p.m. in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The surprising Hogs (3-0) are technically the host squad in former Razorback and current Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ monolithic gridiron venue, but the crowd is expected to be fairly evenly split if not weighted a bit toward the Aggies (3-0), which entered this season with great expectations and perhaps a grand delusion of actually challenging reigning national champion Alabama for hegemony in the SEC West.

Both Aggie coach Jimbo Fisher and Crimson Tide taskmaster Nick Saban were caught smack talking each other during the summer talking season, but the No. 1 Crimson Tide doesn’t roll into Bryan-College Station until Oct. 9.

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

That game might have tremendous stakes, or it might just be another interesting SEC matchup depending on the outcome Saturday at Arlington.

The Aggies are less than a touchdown favorite over Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks, who would like nothing better than notching a Texas-sized “W” over the Aggies and thus spoiling A&M’s chances of wrestling an SEC West title away from Alabama.

You see, the winner of Saturday’s game remains — at least for the moment — a contender in the SEC West, while the loser falls in line with the pretenders.

That’s a heady situation for the Arkansas football program that has not only lost nine-consecutive games to the Aggies but is also trying to escape the reputation of being a dumpster-fire program that became the Razorbacks’ calling card in 2018 and 2019 under former head coach Chad Morris.

Arkansas’ 40-21 upset victory over Texas two weeks ago garnered the Hogs some national clout and a Top-20 ranking, but some are still wondering if that was just a one-week highlight performance against an old rival — a lot of emotion but no real substance.

Can the Razorbacks actually be trusted to perform at a high level week-in and week-out in the SEC?

Similarly, just who are these Aggies?

Certainly, dealing with an in-game, Week 2 quarterback injury explains a less-than-spectacular 10-7 victory at Colorado over what appears to be a mediocre or worse Buffalos squad. However, I’m not sure what mundane blowouts over Kent State (41-10) and New Mexico (34-0) says or doesn’t about A&M.

Texas A&M is No. 2 in the nation in total defense (239.3 yards per game), No. 1 against the pass (77.3) and No. 1 in scoring defense (5.7 points per game). But you have to consider their competition.

Tackles DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy and ends Tyree Johnson and Michael Clemons give the Aggies one of the best defensive fronts in the nation. All are expected to be NFL draft picks. Leal is third on the team with 13 tackles and leads the squad with 3.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks.

Their secondary is strong, too, with safeties Leon O’Neal and Demani Richardson and corners Myles Jones and Jaylen Jones also pegged to have next-level potential.

“I really love their defense,” Pittman said. “I think going into this year, part of the reason A&M was ranked so high … had to do with that defense and particularly the defensive front.”

Their offense is also talented.

The Aggies are young up front and at quarterback, but the talent is there. Junior running back Isaiah Spiller is an All-SEC-type back. Sophomore runner Devon Achane is another talented runner. Wide receiver Ainias Smith has game-breaking ability, and tight end Jalen Wydermyer is one of the best playmakers in the SEC. Zach Calzada is now the Aggie starter at quarterback until mid October when Hayes King is expected to return. Then there may or may not be a battle for the starting role.

The Razorbacks aren’t backing down from the Aggies, and aren’t intimidated by their pre-season ranking or their near decade-long streak of success against the Hogs.

“We’re going to play our game,” said Arkansas All-American candidate safety Jalen Catalon of preparing for A&M.
“Don’t worry about the streak. Don’t worry about what we’ve done. Just worry about playing our game.

“I think if we put the right focus on the right thing, that’s just winning the ball game and nothing that happened in the past, then I think we’re going to be fine. I know Coach [Barry] Odom and the whole defensive staff is going to have a great game plan for us. Just keep doing what we’ve been doing and not lose sight of what we’re trying to do. If we do that, we won’t have a problem at all.”

Graduate-senior defensive end Tre Williams echoed Catalon’s mindset.

“I heard that we (Arkansas) haven’t been 3-0 since 2016,” Williams said. “But this is a different team. This is a different coach. This is a different preparation. This is just a different hunger that we have. So I’m ready for Texas A&M.”

Fisher said on the SEC teleconference Wednesday that he is expecting a hard-hitting game.

“The versatility they bring, the physicality they bring and then the speed to be able to get the ball outside and diverse runs with the quarterback runs and the [run-pass options] and then the way they run it, it’s a heck of a system,” Fisher said. “Their offensive line is very well-coached and they have excellent ball-carriers. The quarterback is not only athletic, but he’s big and strong and hard to get on the ground. When you combine those things, it’s a heck of a combination.”

Likewise, Pittman, whose Hogs average 282.3 yards rushing per game, believes the contest will be won in the trenches.

“I think that’s going to be the tale of the game, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “Who can whip who?

“You’re going to lose a few battles on both sides of the ball, but it’s going to be about who can sustain it for 60 minutes, and who can make a play when you’ve got to make a play. I like how our guys have played all year, so I don’t know why we would be concerned about that Saturday.”

One concern is the health of the Hogs’ offensive line starters Ricky Stromberg (center) and Dalton Wagner (right tackle). Neither practiced early in the week after exiting the Georgia Southern game with injuries.

In their absence starting, right guard Beaux Limmer shifted to left guard and starting left guard Brady Latham moved to right tackle, while Ty Clary and Luke Jones came in to play center and right guard, respectively. That’s expected to be the Hogs’ starting lineup for the Aggies with Myron Cunningham at his regular left tackle spot, unless either Stromberg or Wagoner heal more quickly than expected.

Historically, Arkansas owns a 41-33-3 series lead over the Aggies. Perhaps the biggest game in the series history was the 1975 game that decided the Southwest Conference championship. The No. 10 Hogs whipped the No. 2 and undefeated Aggies, 31-6, on a cold, blustery day at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and went on to represent the SEC in the Cotton Bowl, where Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks defeated Georgia, 31-10.

The key play of the game came with 34 seconds left in the first half when squat Arkansas receiver Teddy Barnes — “The immortal Teddy Barnes” as Broyles would refer to him on his coaches show the following Sunday — leaped to catch at bomb from quarterback Scott Bull between two Aggie defenders to give the Hogs’ a 7-0 halftime lead. From there, the Razorbacks rolled in the second half.

That day Arkansas defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, a native of Port Arthur, Texas, gave what reportedly was one of the most rousing pre-game speeches in the history of the program to help rev up the Razorbacks’ engine for the upset.

While it’s still too early to truly have a handle on either team, this SEC opener will set the course for the rest of the season for both squads. The winner will have considerable bragging rights moving forward, while the loser will have to get on the mend quickly and struggle forward. There is no time for regrets in SEC play.