The Battle Line Trophy will be on the line on Black Friday, as the Arkansas Razorbacks and Missouri Tigers meet in Columbia for their annual end-of-season SEC crossover matchup.
It's definitely been a season of peaks and valleys for Arkansas. Last Saturday night's 42-27 upset victory over then-No. 14-ranked Ole Miss is a perfect example of just that, as the Razorbacks managed to bounce back in a big way from back-to-back losses to Liberty and LSU. The win over the Rebels also helped the Hogs reach bowl eligibility for the third consecutive year under head coach Sam Pittman. Now 6-5 overall and 3-4 in SEC play, Arkansas will look to keep the Battle Line Trophy in Fayetteville for another year and improve on its potential bowl options with a win on Friday.
Missouri also brought an end to a two-game skid last Saturday with a decisive 45-14 win over New Mexico State. It's not quite as impressive as a victory over Ole Miss, but a win is a win. And the 5-6 (2-5 SEC) Tigers can use all the momentum they can get heading into Friday's rivalry matchup against the Razorbacks, as they find themselves in need of one more win to guarantee bowl eligibility for the third year in a row under head coach Eli Drinkwitz. The upset-minded Tigers also wouldn't mind winning back the Battle Line Trophy on Senior Day.
Missouri holds a 9-4 lead in this not-so-storied rivalry. However, Arkansas won the most recent meeting 34-17 in Fayetteville last season, snapping a five-game losing streak to the Tigers.
Arkansas at Missouri
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Quarterback KJ Jefferson leads a dynamic Arkansas offense that averages 31 points and 465.5 yards per game. When healthy, Jefferson is among the most dangerous signal-callers in the SEC. For the season, he has completed 67.6 percent of his pass attempts for 2,149 with 20 touchdowns against just three interceptions. The highly-efficient Jefferson also ranks second in the conference in yards per attempt (8.8) and passer rating (166.2). Wide receiver Jadon Haselwood has served as Jefferson's favorite target with a team-high 52 receptions, while red-hot deep-threat Matt Landers has come on strong of late and leads the Hogs in both receiving yards (701) and touchdown catches (6).
The Arkansas passing game is solid with Jefferson behind center. But there's no question that the Razorbacks' bread-and-butter on offense lies in an explosive run game that ranks eighth in the nation, averaging 233.5 yards per game. Running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders headlines that effort and he put on a show last week against Ole Miss, gashing the Rebels for 232 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries, meaning he averaged nearly 10 yards (9.7) per attempt. Sanders leads the SEC in both yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards (1,628) to go along with 11 total touchdowns. Jefferson is second on the team with 472 rushing yards and six scores.
The Razorbacks' offense will be matched up against a somewhat stingy Missouri defense that allows 24.8 points and 338.2 yards per game. The Tigers have performed well against the pass (Tennessee game aside), giving up 209.7 yards per game through the air. Mizzou also boasts a solid pass rush that has produced 26 sacks. The Tigers have been strong up front as defensive linemen Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman have combined for 11 sacks.
The Tigers should provide a good test for Jefferson and the Arkansas passing game. But the big question is can the Mizzou defense slow down the potent Arkansas ground attack? It certainly won't be easy, but the SEC's fourth-ranked run defense, as well as the conference's leader in tackles for a loss (80), should have a fighting chance to at least temper the Hogs' run game to some degree.
When Missouri Has the Ball
It's been a challenging season for quarterback Brady Cook and a Missouri offense that is averaging a lackluster 25.2 points and 362 yards per game. Cook has been respectable in completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 2,263 yards. But his 11:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio leaves plenty to be desired, and so does his 134.7 passer rating. That said, Cook has looked better of late with 468 passing yards, five touchdowns with zero interceptions over his last two contests. He's also rushed for 177 yards during that span and is now the team's second-leading ground gainer with 409 yards and five scores. Wide receiver Dominic Lovett (50 rec., 716 yds., 3 TDs) has been Cook's go-to receiver for most of the season, with Barrett Banister (37, 408) and highly-touted true freshman Luther Burden III (35, 295, 4) chipping in more and more of late. Meanwhile, running back Cody Schrader (604 yds., 7 TDs) spearheads a fairly pedestrian Mizzou run game that churns out 151.9 yards per contest, which ranks 10th in the SEC and No. 66 in the FBS.
The Tigers will be paired against an Arkansas defense that has struggled mightily at times throughout the season, surrendering 28.7 points and 451.9 yards per game. Cook and Co. will probably find their best chance for success through the air against an Arkansas defense that ranks 12th in the SEC and No. 118 in passing yards allowed per game (276.8). The biggest obstacle for Mizzou here is a very aggressive Arkansas pass rush that has generated an SEC-best 37 sacks, led by linebacker Drew Sanders' conference-leading 8.5.
While Missouri's run game doesn't pose a huge threat, the Tigers may be in for a good day on the ground. Arkansas is giving up 175.1 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the SEC and No. 97 nationally. And the Razorbacks have been particularly leaky of late, surrendering 661 rushing yards and three scores over their last two games. It's a favorable matchup, but will Missouri be able to capitalize?
You never really know what you might get from either of these teams any given week, which makes this a tough game to predict. Missouri has more to play for with bowl eligibility on the line. And home-field advantage should be an asset for the Tigers on Senior Day. But it's difficult to see the Mizzou offense lighting up the scoreboard, even against an Arkansas defense that has been really bad at times and inconsistent at best. And while the Missouri defense has been solid for the most part, it's going to be very challenging to limit a superior Arkansas offense, led by two of the top players in the SEC in Jefferson and Sanders. The Razorbacks simply look like the better team at the moment, and they should have a slight momentum edge following last week's upset of Ole Miss. Arkansas wins on the road to bring home "The Battle Line Trophy" for the second straight year.
Prediction: Arkansas 31, Missouri 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
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