Former conference foes renew acquaintances in Houston
Editor's note: On Tuesday afternoon, Texas Bowl organizers announced that Thursday's scheduled game between Arkansas and TCU has been canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Horned Frogs' program.
Familiar Southwest Conference foes are set to take the NRG Stadium gridiron against one another for the 71st time in the Mercari Texas Bowl pitting the SEC's Arkansas Razorbacks against the Big 12's TCU Horned Frogs. The Razorbacks have a commanding 44-24-2 lead in the head-to-head series, but the Frogs picked up a victory in their last meeting, a 28-7 win in Fayetteville during the 2017 season.
One could argue that since TCU's last appearance in Fayetteville, the Hogs' college football world has been turned upside down. Arkansas won just seven other games since that encounter three seasons ago with only one conference victory (Ole Miss — 2017) in that stretch. So the 2020 season for the Razorbacks (3-7) under new head coach Sam Pittman has been a resurgence of sorts and has helped breathe new life into the program. Arkansas notched three conference wins for the first time since the 2016 campaign as this team showed the fight that had been missing under the former coaching staff.
Life in Fort Worth for TCU head coach Gary Patterson has not been easy either, as his team has been on its own roller-coaster ride since going 11-3 in 2017. The Horned Frogs are 18-17 in the last three seasons, including a 6-4 (5-4 in Big 12 play) record this fall that looks better when you factor in a 1-3 start.
As for this game, the Razorbacks are seeking to put an end to a four-game losing streak to build some momentum headed into the offseason. The Horned Frogs want to extend their three-game winning streak by notching another win over their old SWC foes.
Mercari Texas Bowl: Arkansas (3-7) vs. TCU (6-4)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Spread: TCU -5
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Much of the Razorbacks' competitiveness throughout the season has come from Florida graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks. The senior dual-threat signal-caller ended the regular season sixth in the SEC in passing yards (2,107) by completing 68.5 percent of his attempts with a solid 17:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Missing out on the Missouri contest and limited against Alabama (ribs), Franks was able to throw for a touchdown in every game played this season sans vs. the Crimson Tide. If Franks has any limitations against TCU, KJ Jefferson will take over. Jefferson put up 274 passing yards with three touchdowns while rushing for one score in Arkansas' 50-48 loss to Missouri a couple of weeks ago.
The top playmaker on the Razorbacks' roster is sophomore receiver Treylon Burks. Burks turned in a breakout year hauling in 51 passes for 820 yards (currently third in the SEC), with seven touchdowns to earn second-team all-conference honors. Out of the backfield, Trelon Smith became a surprise leader on the team after Rakeem Boyd battled injuries and then opted out after facing Florida in mid-November. Smith turned it on late with 100-yard rushing games against Florida and Missouri.
Going against the spread-oriented attacks in the Big 12, TCU's defense was stingy with the yards. The Horned Frogs limited teams to 350.9 yards per game, a mix of 127.5 on the ground and 223.4 in the air. TCU has been fantastic this season on third down, holding teams to a 32.9 percent success rate. The standouts on this side of the ball are cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, safety Trevon Moehrig, and linebacker Garret Wallow, each first-team All-Big 12 selections. Moehrig is a Jim Thrope Award finalist and an ESPN All-American as well.
When TCU Has the Ball
As college teams look to pass first, TCU has gone back to a tried-and-true approach of dominating with the running game. The Frogs are rolling for 214.7 rushing yards per game led by dual-threat quarterback Max Duggan and running backs Darwin Barlow and Zach Evans. Dugan was among the Big 12 leaders in rushing yards (526) and finished the regular season second in touchdowns on the ground (10).
When Duggan drops back to pass, he's not one to fill up the stat sheet in a prolific way. Yet to top the 300-yard passing mark this season, the sophomore had a season-high 276 yards against Oklahoma and tossed three touchdowns against both Iowa State and Kansas, but still only finished with 10 total. His top targets are Quentin Johnston and Taye Barber, who have combined for 53 receptions, 805 yards and four touchdowns.
Going against four prolific offenses to finish out the regular season, Arkansas' defense ended battered and bruised allowing 48 points per outing during that stretch. One of the reasons for the late fall was the toll of injuries and COVID-19 protocols. The Hogs are expecting all their key players back on the field with only All-SEC linebacker Grant Morgan's status in question. Other top performers on this side of the ball include first-team All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon and second-team defensive lineman Jonathan Marshall.
Both teams will benefit from not lining up against high-profile offenses in this Texas Bowl. Expect to see a different-looking Arkansas defense going against a run-first team in TCU. Instead of dropping eight to defend against the pass which contributed to the Razorbacks giving up 192.1 rushing yards per game, a greater focus will be in the trenches. But can the Hogs stop the Horned Frogs on the ground?
TCU's offense enters this game on a roll, but was that a product of peaking at the right time or the caliber of opponent played? The offense has been either great, posting 50-plus points on the board, good at 30 points, or bad at 14 per. Which TCU offense shows up on Thursday?
Prediction: Arkansas 28, TCU 21
— 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.