The Arkansas Razorbacks will host the Missouri Tigers on Friday afternoon for their annual end-of-season, cross-division matchup. This budding border-state, SEC-created rivalry is still in its infancy, having spanned just 12 games. And it's been fairly one-sided to this point, with Missouri holding a 9-3 edge all-time. The Tigers also have won each of the last five meetings, including a thrilling 50-48 come-from-behind victory last season in Columbia. But is this the year the Razorbacks turn the tides?
Both teams enter Friday's matchup having already secured bowl eligibility. However, only one team can exit with the "Battle Line Trophy," bragging rights, and a .500 record in SEC play. The winning squad will likely improve on its postseason destination as well. So, there is plenty on the line.
Missouri (6-5, 3-4 SEC) could have easily tucked tail and given up completely following a disappointing 2-3 start to the season. But thanks to second-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz, star running back Tyler Badie, and a much-improved defense down the stretch, the resilient Tigers continued to battle through adversity. That sparked a turnaround resulting in back-to-back SEC wins and victories in three of their last four contests to become bowl eligible. That includes last Saturday night's thrilling 24-23 victory over Florida in overtime. The upset-minded Tigers are making their way to Fayetteville in search of their sixth consecutive win against the Razorbacks.
Arkansas (7-4, 3-4) also has had its difficult moments, including last Saturday's heartbreaking 42-35 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, snapping the Razorbacks' three-game win streak. Nevertheless, it's been a remarkable season overall for the Hogs and head coach Sam Pittman, who has brought this program back from the abyss in just two short seasons at the helm. Pittman has already helped Arkansas claim the Southwest Classic Trophy and the Golden Boot by virtue of wins over rivals Texas A&M and LSU. The question is — Can he get the Razorbacks over the hump against Mizzou to complete the trifecta and claim the Battle Line Trophy for the first time in six years?
Missouri at No. 25 Arkansas
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arkansas -14.5
When Missouri Has the Ball
Star running back Tyler Badie is the catalyst behind a Mizzou attack that averages 420.8 yards and 30.8 points per game. He has been virtually unstoppable this season — leading the SEC in rushing yards with 1,385 and touchdowns with 17. Badie also sits atop the conference and ranks second nationally with 1,720 yards from scrimmage.
Quarterback Connor Bazelak was expected to do most of the heavy lifting for this offense heading into the season, but that hasn't come to fruition for the second-year signal-caller. Bazelak has had his moments — completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards and 16 touchdowns. But he hasn't put up the kind of numbers that this offense truly needs to flourish, and his 10 interceptions are certainly an eyesore on the stat sheet. That said, Bazelak is still enough of a threat with his arm to keep opposing defenses honest and help open up the ground attack for Badie, who also acts as Bazelak's favorite target in the passing game with a team-high 53 receptions. The offensive line does its part as well, as the group has allowed just 15 sacks in 10 games while leading the way for Badie.
Mizzou will be paired against an Arkansas defense that is giving 376.4 yards and 24.6 points per game. The Razorbacks have been fairly average when it comes to stopping the run, allowing 147.6 yards per contest, which ranks eighth in the SEC and 65th nationally. That bodes well for Badie, who ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries in the dramatic win against the Hogs last season. The Razorbacks have struggled mightily against elite passing teams. That was on full display last Saturday as Alabama's Bryce Young racked up 559 yards and five scores through the air. Fortunately, Missouri is not an elite passing team, and the Razorbacks should fare much better in that regard on Friday.
In terms of impact players for the Arkansas defense, there are several — linebacker Bumper Pool leads the team and is second in the SEC in tackles (107), while position mate Hayden Henry leads the Hogs in tackles for a loss (9.5). Defensive lineman Tre Williams has a team-best six sacks (tied for seventh), and defensive back Montaric Brown is tied for the second in the conference with four interceptions.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Quarterback KJ Jefferson is the driving force behind a potent offense that generates 442.4 yards and 31.3 points per contest. Jefferson has had a stellar campaign — completing 66.0 percent of his pass attempts for 2,316 yards with 20 touchdowns against just three interceptions. And he's gotten plenty of assistance from a standout supporting cast — chief among them is All-SEC wide receiver and go-to target Treylon Burks (59 rec., 975 yds., 10 TDs). Burks got banged up near the end of the loss to Alabama, but he's expected to play on Friday.
There's no question that the Razorbacks boast a dangerous passing attack behind the arm of Jefferson, but the strength of this offense is a rushing attack that churns out 222.3 yards per game, which ranks second in the SEC and 13th nationally. Unlike Missouri, the Hogs' ground attack relies on a collective effort. Running back Trelon Smith leads the team with 555 rushing yards to go along with four touchdowns. Jefferson is next with 496 yards and five scores. Running back Dominique Johnson isn't too far behind with 479 yards, and he has scored seven times on the ground. And Raheim Sanders has chipped in 478 rushing yards and a touchdown.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage lies a Missouri defense that has been among the most generous in the nation, giving up 447.3 yards and 34.7 points per game. The Tigers also rank last in the SEC in third-down defense and stopping teams in the red zone. At first glance, Missouri has fared reasonably well against the pass, allowing 211.9 yards per contest. But in terms of passing yards allowed per attempt (7.8), Mizzou ranks second to last in the conference. Then there's the Tigers much-maligned run defense, which ranks dead last in the SEC and 125th nationally. That is still a major liability against a strong running team like Arkansas on the road.
However, Missouri has reversed its fortunes in that regard of late. In fact, the Tigers have boasted one of the best run defenses in the conference over the last two weeks, limiting South Carolina and Florida to 150 yards combined at a clip of just 2.05 yards per carry. Safety Martez Manuel leads the Tigers with 70 tackles. Linebacker Blaze Alldredge has a team-high 11 tackles for a loss, which ties him for sixth in the SEC. Defensive lineman Isaiah McGuire has a team-best 4.5 sacks, and safety Jaylon Carlies leads the Tigers (and is tied for second in the conference) with four picks.
Missouri enters this game with probably as much momentum as it has had all season. And if the defense continues to hold up as well as it has the last two weeks, the Tigers will have a good shot at pulling off the upset and extending their streak against the Razorbacks to six games. That being said, there are still question marks for a Missouri team that has struggled away from home, going 1-3 on the road this season with the only win coming against Vanderbilt.
There's also little doubt that Arkansas is the superior football team in this matchup. It's Senior Day for the home Hogs, and there's also a revenge factor at play, which should provide the extra motivation the Razorbacks need to end their five-game drought against the Tigers to claim the Battle Line Trophy.
Prediction: Arkansas 37, Missouri 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.