The right to hoist the Battle Line Trophy is on the line come Friday in Little Rock when the Arkansas Razorbacks play host to the Missouri Tigers. Even in a disappointing season for both squads, there is more than pride on the line. With a national TV audience observing, the Hogs (2-9, 0-7 SEC) are attempting to avoid back-to-back two-win seasons, and the Tigers (5-6, 2-5) are seeking to reach the six-win plateau, even though their bowl hopes have been dashed by the NCAA. On Tuesday, the NCAA upheld Missouri's bowl ban for this season.
For about a quarter-plus last week, the Razorbacks frustrated then-No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge, before LSU pushed a 7-6 lead to a 56-6 cushion and coasted to a 56-20 victory. The loss was the eighth straight for the Hogs.
Missouri limps into this one riding a five-game losing streak of its own. The Tigers head south to Arkansas’ capital city reeling from a disappointing 24-20 home loss to SEC East foe Tennessee. After being down 17-10 at halftime, the Tigers roared back to tie the game at the midway point of the third quarter when receiver Micah Wilson hit running back Tyler Badie on a 15-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano would respond at the end of the third with a 17-yard pass to Marquez Callaway for what would prove to be the winning score.
Missouri vs. Arkansas
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 29 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: War Memorial Stadium (Little Rock, Ark.)
Spread: Missouri -12
When Missouri Has the Ball
Missouri’s most recent win coincided with the most recent productive game from graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant (Clemson). Bryant’s last big outing came on Oct. 12 against Ole Miss, when he passed for 329 yards with a touchdown. Since then, he has averaged 160 passing yards per game over the span of four contests (he sat out the matchup against Georgia due to injury). On the bright side for Missouri fans, Arkansas is allowing 233 passing yards per game.
After a strong showing over the first seven games, the Tigers ground game has dropped way off in production. In the last three affairs, Mizzou has been held to 67 yards per game on the ground against Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. There were signs of life in the run game against the Volunteers — 99 yards — but neither Larry Rountree III nor Badie fared better than 3.9 yards per carry. Rountree leads the team in yards (741) and scores (8) but has not gone over the 100-yard mark since the Ole Miss win.
Allowing 260 yards rushing to LSU a week ago has dropped the Hogs to a national FBS ranking of 125 out of 130 teams. With the team missing tackles and assignments and getting no support from an offense that can't sustain drives, the opposition is picking up 229 rushing yards per game. The standout on defense for the Razorbacks is linebacker De’Jon Harris. Harris is flirting with leading the conference in tackles again, tallying 90, four behind LSU’s Jacob Phillips. Applying pressure against the opposing quarterbacks has been a problem for the Hogs all season, but leading the charge is senior defensive tackle McTelvin Agim. Junior strong safety Kamren Curl leads the secondary with two interceptions.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Before Arkansas lost 45-19 at home to Western Kentucky, and subsequently fired head coach Chad Morris, a rotation between senior Ben Hicks and junior Nick Starkel in the pocket had given way to a youth movement in freshmen John Stephen Jones and KJ Jefferson. Jones got the start against WKU but was not on point. Jefferson got the nod against LSU but was replaced by Starkel, and then a fifth quarterback took over, junior Jack Lindsey. Jefferson is expected to start again with Starkel and Lindsey assured to see snaps unless Jefferson tears it up.
The lack of a passing game hurt Arkansas’ chances of moving the ball last week against LSU and cost tailback Rakeem Boyd a spot on the SEC leaderboard in total rush yards. Boyd enters this week slotted fourth with 1,038 yards and eight scores. Against the Tigers, he was given a team-high 13 totes, turning in 33 net yards. After the team's top target, tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, was dismissed from the team seven games into the season, receivers Mike Woods, Treylon Burks and Trey Knox have become the key targets for whoever is slinging the pigskin for the Hogs.
The Tigers' rush defense has been up and down all season, twice giving up 297 yards on the ground (Wyoming and Kentucky) but also limiting teams to 61 yards or fewer five times. A pass defense that had been stout all year has crumbled over the last two games. Florida threw for 330 yards with two scores, and Tennessee amassed 415 yards with two touchdowns. The player Arkansas has to watch out for is Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton. Bolton has replaced Cale Garrett as the heart of this unit with a team-high 91 tackles.
After a grueling stretch of games, one can understand why the Tigers are ragged, especially knowing there is no opportunity for a bowl game. When the Hogs dropped a winnable 24-20 game on the road to Kentucky, it seemed that any remaining fire was extinguished. Knowing that a new staff is coming to town soon, can this team rally to show off for its new coach and avoid posting the worst two-year run in school history since 1931-32?
Prediction: Missouri 34, Arkansas 28
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.