For the fourth consecutive season, Arkansas and Texas A&M are set to meet at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas for an important showdown in the SEC West. While neither program is likely to contend for the SEC West title in 2017, this game will play a huge role in shaping the outlook for both coaches.
Texas A&M enters this game with a 2-1 record, but the start of the 2017 season has featured its share of ups and downs. The Aggies blew a 44-10 lead against UCLA and lost 45-44 in the opener. Coach Kevin Sumlin’s team struggled to put away Nicholls in Week 2 and trailed Louisiana at halftime in Week 3. Sumlin is 46-22 since taking over in College Station, but the program may have hit its ceiling under this coaching staff. The Aggies have finished 8-5 in three consecutive seasons but have not recorded a winning mark in SEC play since 2012. The road isn’t going to get any easier for Sumlin for the remainder of 2017. Texas A&M still has to play South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State and LSU. A loss against Arkansas wouldn’t leave Sumlin with much in the margin for error in getting to a bowl game or improving on last year’s eight wins. Not ideal for a coach who entered 2017 on the hot seat.
The pressure on Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn’t nearly as great as the hot seat talk surrounding Sumlin. Bielema inherited a program that was in disarray and brought steady improvement after a 3-9 campaign in 2013. However, after winning eight games in 2015, the Razorbacks slipped to 7-6 last fall. Arkansas opened the season with an easy win over Florida A&M but stumbled at home to TCU 28-7 in Week 2. Barring a complete collapse, Bielema is likely safe for 2018. However, he’s never defeated Texas A&M, and the path to six wins would get a little dicey without a victory on Saturday.
Arkansas owns a 41-29-3 series edge over Texas A&M. The Aggies are 5-0 against the Razorbacks since joining the SEC.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas A&M -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas’ Passing Attack
Is this the week Arkansas’ passing game gets on track? Quarterback Austin Allen was considered to be a candidate for first-team All-SEC honors in 2017 but has just 273 passing yards and two touchdowns through two games. Allen is completing 54.8 percent of his throws – down from 61.1 in 2016 – and has completed only two throws of 30 or more yards.
While Allen’s numbers aren’t what most expected, it’s hard to blame the senior quarterback for the issues on offense. Arkansas is starting two former walk-ons on the offensive line and struggled to provide adequate protection through the first two games. Additionally, Allen lost four out of his top five receiving threats from last season, and projected No. 1 target Jared Cornelius was slowed by injury to start 2017. However, Cornelius should be at full strength for this game, giving Allen his No. 1 target on the outside. Junior college recruit Jonathan Nance (six catches) is the team’s leading receiver through two games, with tight ends Cheyenne O’Grady and Austin Cantrell and receivers Deon Stewart and Jordan Jones rounding out the key weapons.
Even though the slow start in the passing game contributed to the loss against TCU, Arkansas could get back on track versus Texas A&M. The Aggies are 13th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and are down two key players – Donovan Wilson and Nick Harvey - with season-ending injuries. As if that wasn’t enough, the status of Charles Oliver is uncertain for Week 4. Additionally, Texas A&M has been vulnerable to big plays via the air. Through three games, the Aggies have surrendered four passing plays of 40 or more yards.
Although Allen is off to a slow start, a big game could be in the works on Saturday. Texas A&M’s secondary isn’t a shutdown group, and Cornelius is ready to assume a bigger role in the offense. Look for Arkansas to attack this group early and often. Can the Razorbacks give Allen enough time to throw? And if they do, will the Arkansas receivers step up after struggling against TCU?
2. Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
With Nick Starkel sidelined for the remainder of 2017 due to injury, Jake Hubenak and true freshman Kellen Mond are Sumlin’s options under center. Hubenak was been limited due to injury last week, with Mond earning starts in back-to-back contests. As expected, the true freshman has had flashes of promise, mixed with plays of inexperience. Mond is completing just 50 percent of his passes for 433 yards and four scores. He’s also added 48 yards and a touchdown on the ground. After completing just 12 of 21 throws against Nicholls and 3 of 17 against UCLA, Mond looked sharper in the passing game versus Louisiana. Junior Christian Kirk (14 catches) is one of the best in the SEC, but he’s not the only option in the receiving corps. Damion Ratley, Jhamon Ausbon, Roshauud Paul and Clyde Chriss are all promising targets for Mond. In other words, Texas A&M may have some inexperience and new faces stepping into prominent roles. However, there’s no shortage of pass catchers or talent at his disposal.
While Mond seems to be getting better with each snap, he faces an interesting matchup on Saturday. After Arkansas gave up 31.1 points a game and surrendered 6.8 yards per play last year, Bielema promoted former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to call the defensive signals. Rhoads is helping to transition the defense to a 3-4 scheme, and so far, the results have been positive. The Razorbacks are allowing only 4.03 yards per play and 3.8 yards per carry – down from 5.9 in 2016. Dual-threat quarterbacks gave the 2016 Arkansas defense plenty of fits, but the 3-4 scheme should allow Rhoads to get more hybrid looks and speed onto the field to take on Mond’s mobility. However, the Razorbacks have just four sacks in two games, and the secondary suffered a significant setback after an injury to standout cornerback Ryan Pulley.
Mond is inexperienced, but he’s got plenty of weapons to target. Can the freshman successfully distribute the ball and avoid turnovers? On paper, a sluggish pass rush and a secondary without its top cornerback should provide plenty of chances for Mond on Saturday. Can Rhoads and the Arkansas defense throw a few different looks at Mond to create turnovers?
3. Battle in the Trenches and Running Backs
While much of the focus in this game is going to rest on the quarterbacks, the battle in the trenches is more likely to decide the winner on Saturday. Both teams have question marks up front, as Texas A&M has already surrendered 11 sacks in three games, and Arkansas has allowed five through two contests. In addition to pass protection, both teams want to establish the run. So far, the edge in that department goes to the Aggies. Texas A&M ranks second in the SEC in rushing offense, and Arkansas checks in sixth. However, the Razorbacks managed only 129 yards on 31 attempts against TCU.
When the Razorbacks have the ball, expect to see a steady diet of Devwah Whaley (92 yards) and freshman Chase Hayden (121), with South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams also jumping into the mix. Texas A&M ranks third in the SEC versus the run, but this unit has yet to be challenged by a backfield like the one Arkansas brings to AT&T Stadium. In addition to opening up holes for the ground game, the front five needs to do a better job in pass protection to give Allen time to go through his progressions downfield.
On the other sideline, the Aggies will have Trayveon Williams (256 yards) back after missing last week’s game due to injury. The sophomore is explosive (7.8 ypc) and is joined by Keith Ford (130 yards) and Kendall Bussey (204) in the rotation. Stopping the run was an issue for Arkansas last season, and TCU posted 195 yards and four rushing scores on this unit in Week 2. With a young quarterback making his first start in SEC action, Texas A&M figures to lean heavily on Williams and Ford to keep the chains moving. Additionally, Mond’s mobility is another aspect Rhoads and the Arkansas defense must account for.
Both coaches really need this game. Sumlin is squarely on the hot seat, and a loss on Saturday puts Texas A&M at 2-2 with a tough schedule still to come. Bielema’s seat is warm, but he’s in a better position than Sumlin to return in 2018. Arkansas has yet to defeat Texas A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. However, two out of the last three matchups went to overtime. The Razorbacks have an edge at quarterback, but can their defense slow down the Texas A&M ground game? Which team will gain the edge up front? Expect another close one on Saturday. This one is a coin flip.