A key SEC game is on tap for Week 4 of the college football season, as Arkansas and Texas A&M square off in the 78th edition of the Southwest Classic in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, this Saturday. For the first time since 2016, the Razorbacks and Aggies are both ranked going into this matchup. Intrigue is never in short supply when these two conference rivals meet, but there's added importance this year. Arkansas is going for a sweep of the top programs in Texas after beating the Longhorns in Week 2. Also, the Razorbacks are looking for their first win in this series since the Aggies joined the SEC. Texas A&M entered the year as the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West, and a win here would solidify that place, especially with a showdown looming on Oct. 9.
After showing marked improvement in coach Sam Pittman's debut last year, Arkansas has continued that upward trend in 2021. The Razorbacks started the season with a 38-17 victory over Rice, thoroughly dominated Texas 40-21 in Week 2 and knocked off Georgia Southern 45-10 last Saturday. As a result, Pittman's squad has vaulted into the Top 25 and is on track to easily exceed preseason expectations, which placed the Razorbacks closer to the bottom of the SEC's West Division.
Texas A&M came up one spot short of making the CFB Playoff last year, so the goal for '21 was pretty simple. If the Aggies could run the table in the brutal SEC West or finish 11-1 with a loss to only Alabama, a spot in the playoff would be within reach once again. Coach Jimbo Fisher clearly has this program trending up, but Texas A&M has already had to navigate a couple of roadblocks early in the year. Starting quarterback Haynes King is out indefinitely due to a leg injury suffered versus Colorado, and a revamped offensive line is a work in progress. The Aggies handled Kent State in Week 1, but King's injury and a tough Colorado defense forced the team into a last-minute win in Denver on Sept. 11. Texas A&M knocked off New Mexico 34-0 last week to move to 3-0.
Arkansas holds a 41-33-3 series edge over Texas A&M. The Aggies have won nine in a row over the Razorbacks, but five of those games were decided by one score. The Razorbacks last defeated Texas A&M in 2011.
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Texas A&M -5.5
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
With a revamped offensive line and new starter at quarterback to replace Kellen Mond, Texas A&M's offense wasn't going to fire on all cylinders to start the season. However, through three games, this unit is averaging a solid 6.2 yards per play. But with King's injury, this group now has another obstacle to navigate before a key stretch of games in the SEC while also still trying to get all of the right pieces in place to match last year's success.
The good news for Fisher: New starter Zach Calzada has played well over the last five quarters. After being pressed into action when King was injured in the first half versus Colorado, Calzada needed time to settle into the offense and get comfortable with game speed. After a strong fourth quarter in a comeback win against the Buffaloes, he connected on 19 of 33 passes for 275 yards and three scores in last week's 34-0 victory against New Mexico. Having time to work as the No. 1 quarterback in practice, as well as actual game reps have helped Calzada's development over the last two weeks, but Arkansas will be a much tougher challenge than the offense faced last week. The Razorbacks rank third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, which is partially due to the passing attacks faced so far in '21. Calzada's top target should be tight end Jalen Wydermyer (12 grabs), with all-purpose threat Ainias Smith, Chase Lane, and Demond Demas the top weapons at receiver.
The Razorbacks enter Saturday's game giving up only 3.97 yards a play and rank fifth in the SEC by holding teams to 16 points a contest. As mentioned above, games against Rice and Georgia Southern are skewing those numbers a bit, but coordinator Barry Odom helped this group limit Texas to 256 yards, with 150 coming when the game was no longer in doubt late in the second half. Improved depth in the trenches is critical to the overall improvement here, and the Razorbacks also boast one of the nation's best linebackers in senior Grant Morgan.
Fisher's game plan or the overall approach by Texas A&M won't come as a surprise for Arkansas. The Aggies want to establish the rushing attack for 35-40 attempts a game to control the clock and take the pressure off of the young quarterback. Isaiah Spiller headlines the backfield, but Fisher is also going to deploy Devon Achane and Smith. Despite running behind an offensive line under construction, both Spiller and Achane are averaging better than six yards per attempt this fall.
Fisher has to strike a balance between getting Calzada comfortable and letting his defense control the game, as well as allowing his quarterback make plays to prevent Arkansas from keying too much on the run. If the Razorbacks can stuff the Texas A&M ground game like it did Texas, then the defense will force the contest to come down to Calzada's right arm in just his second start.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
The strengths and weaknesses of all offenses in college football are still coming into focus with just three weeks of the season completed, but the data so far provides plenty of insight into what Arkansas needs to do to win on Saturday. The Razorbacks have attempted the fewest throws (65) of any team in the SEC and rank third in the conference in rushing attempts (46.3) per contest. The ground game is averaging 6.1 yards per rush — including a 7.1 mark versus Texas — and five players have already accumulated more than 100 yards. Trelon Smith (216 yards) leads the way, but Rocket Sanders (137), Dominique Johnson (132), and AJ Green (104) will get their opportunities.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson is settling into the starting job after throwing for a career-high 366 yards in last week's win over Georgia Southern. Accuracy was a question mark for Jefferson entering this year, but he's connected on 61.9 percent of throws so far in '21. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound quarterback is averaging 7.5 yards per carry (24 att.) this fall, and there's little doubt his mobility will come into play on Saturday and is crucial to Arkansas' hopes of a win.
Treylon Burks (13 catches for 206 yards) is Jefferson's No. 1 target, but with Texas A&M likely to key on stopping him, the Hogs are going to need Tyson Morris, De'Vion Warren, and Warren Thompson to make plays downfield. The Aggies have yet to allow a touchdown pass and are holding teams to just a completion percentage of 47.4 through three weeks.
The battle between the Arkansas offense and Texas A&M defense should look very similar to the matchup on the other side of the ball. The Razorbacks clearly want to run and Jefferson's mobility and usage in the ground game are an added x-factor for the Aggies to contain. However, Arkansas is dealing with two crucial injuries up front, as center Ricky Stromberg and tackle Dalton Wagner may not play. Although Texas A&M gave up 226 rushing yards in the opener and 171 to Colorado, this unit is capable of dominating the game.
Points and offensive production are likely to be at a premium in a game of similar styles. Both Arkansas and Texas A&M want to establish the run to take the pressure off inexperienced quarterbacks. Calzada improved from coming in relief against Colorado to his first start against New Mexico, but Arkansas ranks third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just one touchdown through the air in '21. If the Aggies shut down the run, can Jefferson make enough plays with his arm for the Razorbacks to win? Those questions will be answered here, as a tight game is expected. Texas A&M has dominated this rivalry since coming to the SEC, but this one is a coin flip and represents another big opportunity for Pittman and the Arkansas program to score a big win over a conference rival. Whichever team gets better production out of the ground attack and mistake-free play out of the quarterbacks to go with a few takeaways on defense should come out on top.
Prediction: Texas A&M 24, Arkansas 20
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