An old Southwest Conference rivalry will be renewed on Saturday night, as former league mates Arkansas and TCU meet for the first time since 1991. These two programs have traveled an interesting path since their SWC days. While Arkansas landed securely in the SEC and hasn’t had to worry about conference realignment, TCU has played in four different leagues (five if you count the Big East where the Horned Frogs never played in a game) and landed in the Big 12 in 2012.
The road to a Power 5 conference wasn’t easy, but TCU emerged as a consistent top 25 program under coach Gary Patterson’s watch and is 24-3 in its last 27 games. Patterson is known is one of the nation’s best defensive minds and nearly guided this program to a College Football Playoff berth in 2014. In addition to Patterson’s ability to build a defense, he also recognized the need for change on offense. Hiring Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as the program’s co-coordinators has paid big dividends over the last two years, and the Horned Frogs now have one of the Big 12’s best attacks. This unit had to replace a handful of key contributors from last year’s unit but didn’t miss a beat in the opener against South Dakota State. Behind transfer quarterback Kenny Hill, TCU scored 59 points and averaged 7.6 yards per play.
Arkansas opened the fourth season under Bret Bielema’s direction with a 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech. While the Razorbacks were expected to win, the margin (one point) came as a surprise. The opener against the Bulldogs was quarterback Austin Allen’s first start and allowed the offense to work out some of the kinks on the offensive line. It’s critical Arkansas finds the right mix on offense heading into Saturday’s game and beyond with SEC play looming later this month.
Arkansas holds a 43-23-2 series edge over TCU. These two teams have not met since 1991 and are scheduled to play again in Fayetteville in 2017.
Arkansas at TCU
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Arkansas and TCU entered the offseason with unsettled quarterback situations, but both teams found the right answer to replace 2015 standouts Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Trevone Boykin (TCU). The Razorbacks handed the keys to the offense to Brandon’s brother Austin Allen, while the Horned Frogs chose Kenny Hill over Foster Sawyer. Hill is no mystery to Arkansas, as he started for Texas A&M against the Razorbacks in 2014 and threw for 386 yards and four scores in a 35-28 victory for the Aggies. In his first start with the Horned Frogs last Saturday, Hill torched South Dakota State for 484 total yards and five overall scores. The junior is a good fit for TCU’s scheme, as he’s able to utilize his mobility when plays break down in the pocket and distribute the ball to playmakers on the edges. The only knock on Hill’s debut last Saturday was the two in the interception column. Overcoming a couple of interceptions against South Dakota State is one thing, but Hill can’t afford to toss multiple picks against the Razorbacks.
Saturday night’s matchup will be the biggest test of Allen’s career. The junior is a traditional dropback passer and was steady in his debut (20 of 29 for 191 yards and two scores). TCU’s secondary was hit hard by injuries last season, and cornerback Ranthony Texada (six tackles in opener) is working his way back from a torn ACL. This unit gave up 333 yards in last week’s win over South Dakota State. Can Allen take advantage of the matchups with receivers Dominique Reed, Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan on the outside? And how will coordinator Dan Enos look to get the ball to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle over the middle?
2. Arkansas’ Pass Defense
Improving the pass defense was a top priority for Arkansas and coordinator Robb Smith this offseason. The addition of former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to coach the defensive backs was a huge pickup, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Razorbacks gave up 212 yards in the opener against Louisiana Tech and allowed the Bulldogs to complete 61.3 percent of their passes. Last season, Arkansas ranked 103rd nationally in pass efficiency defense, and TCU should provide a good barometer of how far this group has improved. However, depth in the secondary is an issue after this unit lost defensive back Kevin Richardson for the year due to a pectoral tear. The Horned Frogs will test this secondary with a wealth of talented playmakers. Junior college recruit Taj Williams led the team with 11 receptions in the opener against South Dakota State, with KaVontae Turpin, Jaelan Austin, John Diarse, Ty Slanina and Emanuel Porter rounding out the key targets for Hill. Stopping TCU’s passing attack starts up front. The Razorbacks need a big game from end Deatrich Wise and tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter to disrupt the timing of TCU’s passing game. If Arkansas struggles to generate pressure, the Horned Frogs have a ton of weapons that will be tough for this secondary to keep in check.
3. Battle in the Trenches
Style of play and time of possession will be critical in this matchup. Offensively, Arkansas should be able to move the ball and put points on the board. However, the Razorbacks would prefer to keep this game from turning into a shootout. With that in mind, the ground-and-pound approach and offensive line for Arkansas needs to have a big game and win the battle up front. TCU will counter with one of the best defensive lines in the Big 12, including ends James McFarland and Josh Carraway. Arkansas is replacing three starters on the line, and this unit struggled in the opener. Can it create rushing lanes for Kody Walker, Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams and protect Allen on passing downs? Or will TCU’s defensive line win the battle and force the Razorbacks to match the Horned Frogs’ tempo and overall style of play?
It’s no secret TCU and Arkansas are both capable of playing better than both programs did in Week 1. How much did both teams show in the opener with this marquee non-conference matchup ahead in Week 2? It’s a fair question, as TCU’s defense struggled, and Arkansas is capable of moving the ball better than it did on offense (4.3 yards per play against Louisiana Tech). Both quarterbacks should have their share of moments, but the overall style of play is critical. Can Arkansas win the battle up front and slow down the overall pace to limit TCU’s possessions? If the Horned Frogs jump out to an early 14-0 lead, that could be problematic for Bret Bielema’s team. The Razorbacks should have success moving the ball and keeping TCU’s offense in check (for parts of this game), but the Horned Frogs find a way to win this one in the fourth quarter.