Arkansas and Missouri are set to meet as SEC opponents for the first time on Friday, and there’s plenty at stake between these two border rivals. The Razorbacks are one of the SEC’s hottest teams entering Week 14 after back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and LSU. The Tigers have won five in a row and can clinch the SEC East title with a win over Arkansas.
Coach Bret Bielema’s rebuilding project in Fayetteville appears to be ahead of schedule with a 6-5 mark in 2014. The Razorbacks went winless in SEC play last year, but Bielema’s squad has been one of the most-improved teams in the nation this season. Arkansas started 3-1 and lost to Texas A&M, Arkansas and Mississippi State by a combined 15 points. On the other sideline, Missouri has quietly moved up in the rankings since a 34-0 loss to Georgia. The Tigers have claimed five victories in a row and are 4-0 in conference road tests in 2014.
Arkansas and Missouri have played only five previous times. The Tigers own a 3-2 series edge. Two of the previous meetings occurred in bowl games. The last matchup between Missouri and Arkansas took place in the 2008 Cotton Bowl.
Arkansas at Missouri
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET (Friday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Arkansas -2
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: Test the Missouri Run Defense
Statistically, the Missouri defense is one of the best in the SEC against the run. Through 11 contests, the Tigers rank fifth in the conference, limiting opponents to 123.8 yards per game. But let’s take a look at Missouri’s last five opponents: Tennessee, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida. None of those teams rank inside of the top six in the SEC in rush offense and four of those rank at the bottom of the conference. The Tigers had trouble stopping Georgia (210 yards) and Indiana (241 yards) earlier this year, so there’s plenty of reasoning to suggest Arkansas needs to challenge this defensive front. Ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray are two of the best in the nation at getting to the quarterback, but the Razorbacks will test how strong this group is against the run. Jonathan Williams (1,013 yards) leads the team, but sophomore Alex Collins (965 yards) isn’t far behind. Williams and Collins are running behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines, which helped Arkansas rush for 163 yards against Mississippi State and 159 against Ole Miss.
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
One of the under-the-radar reasons for Missouri’s five-game winning streak has been its success in the turnover department. The Tigers have lost only two turnovers in their last five games and are +9 on the season. Arkansas has forced 14 turnovers in seven SEC contests this year, including eight over its last three games. In addition to their success at taking the ball away, the Razorbacks have shut out back-to-back opponents and limited Mississippi State to just 17 points on Nov. 1. First-year coordinator Robb Smith has Arkansas’ defense performing at a high level, but the balance of Missouri’s offense will test this unit. The Tigers have passed for 2,014 yards and rushed for 1,954 yards this year. Quarterback Maty Mauk needs to improve his efficiency (52.7), but the sophomore has 21 touchdowns to only 10 picks this year. Mauk has a solid group of receivers, and junior running back Russell Hansbrough averages a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. If Missouri takes care of the ball and continues to play with balance, the Tigers will clinch a trip to Atlanta.
This matchup is a new rivalry created by conference realignment and provides plenty of intrigue this weekend. Arkansas has momentum and could finish with a 7-5 record and improve its bowl spot with a win. On the other sideline, Missouri needs to beat the Razorbacks to clinch a spot in Atlanta for the second consecutive year. There’s some uncertainty for Arkansas at quarterback, as Brandon Allen suffered a hip injury against Ole Miss and was limited in practice early in the week. Regardless of whether or not Allen plays, the formula for the Razorbacks won’t change. If Arkansas continues its recent performance on defense and has success on the ground, Bielema’s team can play spoiler. However, Missouri has too much to play for and edges the Razorbacks at home to return to Atlanta.