The Week 5 slate is light on top 25 must-see matchups, but Texas A&M-Arkansas is perhaps the most intriguing game on Saturday. The SEC West is college football’s toughest division, and the strength of the West is underscored by the emergence of the Aggies as a top 10 team, while the Razorbacks are clearly headed in the right direction in coach Bret Bielema’s second year.
Arkansas lost its SEC opener to Auburn but has rallied with three consecutive victories. Bielema’s ground-and-pound offense is taking shape, as evidenced by the Razorbacks 49-28 win at Texas Tech. With a victory over Texas A&M, Arkansas will surpass its win total from last year.
For Texas A&M, this matchup is an opportunity to build on its early momentum and start the SEC play with a 2-0 mark for the first time in school history. The Aggies won a 52-28 showdown at South Carolina in the opener and have cruised to easy wins over Lamar, Rice and SMU over the last three weeks.
Arkansas owns a 41-25-3 series edge over Texas A&M. The Aggies have won the only two matchups between these programs as SEC members. However, the Razorbacks have won three out of the last five meetings in this series.
Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Texas A&M -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Texas A&M’s Rush Defense
So far, so good for Texas A&M’s rush defense. The Aggies have yet to allow a rushing touchdown and rank fifth in the SEC in rush yards allowed through four games. Texas A&M is also limiting opponents to just 3.2 yards per carry, a clear improvement off last season’s 5.4 mark. But here’s the bad news for coordinator Mark Snyder: The competition has been iffy. Lamar, Rice and SMU aren’t going to tell much about how far this defense has improved since last year, although it has to be encouraging for Snyder that the Aggies held South Carolina to just 67 yards in the opener. Of course, the Gamecocks had only 22 attempts and abandoned the run after an early lead. With the addition freshmen Myles Garrett, Qualen Cunningham, Zaycoven Henderson and Jarrett Johnson, Texas A&M’s defensive line has more depth than it has in the last few years. Is this unit up to the challenge? Because…
2. Arkansas’ Rushing Attack and QB Brandon Allen
Bret Bielema had to deal with plenty of growing pains in his first season at Fayetteville, but his vision of Razorbacks’ identity to be is starting to take shape. Arkansas has developed a punishing ground attack, averaging 7.1 yards per carry and 324.5 yards per game. Alex Collins – 7.5 yards per carry and 490 yards – headlines the backfield, but Jonathan Williams (391 yards) and Korliss Marshall (5.2 ypc) also factor into the gameplan. Even though Collins is the backfield’s most-talented player, there’s little drop in production with Williams or Marshall in his place. In addition to the talent at running back, Arkansas’ offensive line has emerged as one of the best in the SEC. Left tackle Dan Skipper and guard Denver Kirkland are two rising stars on the line, and the front five has allowed just one sack through four games. Bielema has built the offense from the inside, adding mauling linemen to companion with a power rushing attack. But a key question still remains for the Razorbacks: Can they throw it if needed? Quarterback Brandon Allen has been efficient (8 TDs, 61.4%), but this offense does not want to get behind and eliminate the threat of the run from the gameplan.
3. Texas A&M’s Explosive Offense
Even without quarterback Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and tackle Jake Matthews, the Aggies haven’t missed a beat on offense. Texas A&M is averaging 55.3 points per game and 8.1 yards per play. Quarterback Kenny Hill has been nearly perfect in replacing Manziel (13 TDs, 1 INT) and has already proved himself in a hostile environment in the opener (South Carolina). Hill is the triggerman for the high-powered offense, but Texas A&M is loaded with talent at the skill positions and has one of the top offensive lines in the nation. Make no mistake: The Aggies are going to score. But can Arkansas limit their big-play opportunities? Texas A&M has 18 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014 and will test a Razorbacks’ defense that held their last three opponents to at least 353 yards. Arkansas limited Texas Tech’s high-powered offense to just 252 yards through the air, largely due to the strength of the rushing attack and limiting the Red Raiders to just three second-half possessions. As strange as it may sound, stopping Texas A&M’s offense isn’t just a problem for the Razorbacks’ defense. Instead, it also requires a huge day by the offense, limiting the Aggies’ possessions and opportunities to make plays on offense.
This matchup is similar to Arkansas’ victory over Texas Tech. The Razorbacks need to control the pace and flow of the game to prevent the Aggies from jumping out to a big lead. Arkansas needs to have success on early downs with its rushing attack, then allow Allen and his receivers to hit on plays via play-action passes. Texas A&M’s defense has improved since last year, but expect the Razorbacks to still have success on the ground. If the Aggies score and jump out to a big lead, Arkansas is in trouble. If the Razorbacks limit Texas A&M’s possessions, and Collins, Williams and a talented offensive line control the tempo, the Aggies would be fighting an uphill battle in the second half. Expect Arkansas and Texas A&M to trade punches for four quarters, but the Aggies have too much firepower in the passing attack to keep the Razorbacks from pulling off the upset.