Arkansas vs. #14 Texas A&M: unbeaten Aggies explosive & their D-ends relentless
FAYETTEVILLE - Remember those preseason projections of an undefeated Arkansas out for revenge Week 4 against rebuilding Texas A&M?
Jr OT DAN SKIPPER
Toledo in Little Rock and Texas Tech in Fayetteville wrecked that Razorback scenario.
Now 1-2 in non-conference play after being a three-time heavy favorite, the Razorbacks are seven-point betting line underdogs at 6 p.m. Saturday against the 3-0 Texas A&M Aggies on ESPN at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The neutral site game marks the SEC opener for both teams.
Rather than taking umbrage at being underdogs for a game circled this summer as a win, most Razorbacks fans seem startled their Hogs are just seven-point 'dogs.
Those 16-12 and 35-24 tumbles to Toledo and Texas Tech don't bode well with the Aggies routing then-nationally 16th-ranked Pac 12 power Arizona State 38-17 in the opener.
And after frosting cupcakes Nevada 56-23 and Ball State 44-27, Coach Kevin Sumlin's Aggies have jumped to No. 14 in the nation.
It already seems months since Coach Bret Bielema's Hogs were ranked, though it was just two games ago they rated 18th in the AP and Coaches polls.
Yet ruefully, even as A&M prevailed 35-28 last season over Arkansas in Arlington, Sumlin recalls the struggles to catch Arkansas with a 14-0 fourth quarter to tie it 28-28 in regulation and the physical pounding Arkansas exerted on his Aggies.
A&M was 5-0 after beating Arkansas but lost the next three SEC games and finished 8-5 overall/ 3-5 in the SEC.
"That took a lot out of our football team," Sumlin said. "And they took it forward. (Arkansas finished 7-6 winning three of its last four). Nothing's changed of our view of Arkansas."
But how do the Razorbacks view themselves?
Surgery-requiring injuries, likely season-ending, to running back Jonathan Williams, receivers Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister have impaired this offense. It did reestablish the running game identity vs. Texas Tech with running back Alex Collins netting 170 yards on 28 carries.
Converting but two TDs in its last nine red zone trips has squandered sack-free quarterback Brandon Allen's passing between the 20s even without Hatcher and defenses blanketing All-SEC tight end Hunter Henry.
Arkansas will be challenged more this week to keep Allen upright.
The Aggies, paced by defensive ends Myles Garrett (5.5 sacks) and Daeshon Hall (4.0 sacks), lead the nation with 15 sacks.
A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, new to the Aggies but 1989-2008 at Tennessee and 2009-2014 at LSU, seems the perfect mastermind for Garrett and Hall.
"John puts a premium on rushing the passer in a single-gap system, which allows guys to play on the edge and play fast," Sumlin said. "I think it plays right into their hands."
Given the preseason projections for mammoth Arkansas offensive tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, it's a clash of titans of them vs. Garrett and Hall.
The Razorbacks defense and its coordinator Robb Smith were the toast of Arkansas late last season with a No. 10 national ranking in points allowed, but they were roasted by Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes last week.
The Aggies also know how flame is fleeting.
Off his four-TD passes against Arkansas after stunning then highly-rated South Carolina in the 2014 season opener, A&M quarterback Kenny Hill was deemed a Heisman Trophy candidate this time a year ago.
Hill finished the year on the A&M bench and now redshirts after transferring to TCU.
Kyle Allen supplanted Hill last season and is a fast QB with an even faster backup, freshman Kyler Murray.
Both are hard to rush because they get the ball off quickly out of the Spread, much like Tech's Mahomes, who so bedeviled the Hogs last week.
Arkansas has recroded one sack in three games and was plagued by ground and air by Tech. Arkansas faces similar weapons from A&M, but should have some week-to-week preparation carryover.
""I really do think there is probably a blessing in disguise for our defense to have the opportunity that we did for four quarters," Bielema said. "There couldn't be any better preparation for A&M as far as that goes."