Dallas Colleges: Arkansas Razorbacks
Sadly, college football's version of the NCAA tournament doesn't reach anywhere near 64 teams. There's no 5-12 matchup to roll the dice on. There's no play-in game to whet your appetite.
But that doesn't mean there can't be a Cinderella on the gridiron.
Teams can come out of nowhere to reach the big game. It happens all the time. Remember when Boise State toppled Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl? Only two years ago, Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-2 and in Pasadena, California for the BCS National Championship Game. You could even argue that Ohio State winning the playoff after losing both its starting quarterbacks and barely beating out a Big 12 team to get in was something of a fairy tale.
So the question becomes who will be 2015's Cinderellas? Does the shoe fit anywhere in the SEC?
Tennessee: As one SEC coach told me recently, "Tennessee, where were they two years ago?" The answer, of course, was nowhere. Phillip Fulmer was long gone. The ghost of Lane Kiffin still hung somewhere over Rocky Top. And Derek Dooley was still a favorite punching bag. Butch Jones was only getting started and in 2013 he and the Vols finished with an unspectacular 5-7 record. Now, they're on the cusp. They're still young, granted, but after reaching and winning a bowl game with almost no experience on either the offensive or defensive lines last season, you have to recognize there's potential there. In a lackluster SEC East, the road to Atlanta isn't exactly treacherous. Win there and you're likely in the playoff. From there, it's all about the roll of the dice.
Arkansas: The same question that SEC coach had about Tennessee two years ago applies to Arkansas as well. Houston Nutt was long gone. The ghost of Bobby Petrino still hung somewhere over Razorback Stadium. And John L. Smith was still a favorite punching bag. In 2013, Bret Bielema was only getting started. The Hogs went winless in the SEC and people questioned whether Bielema's brand of smash-mouth football from Wisconsin could work at Arkansas. Now that message has changed after the team took an almost inexplicable jump forward. Despite a difficult schedule, Arkansas won eight games, including a bowl win over Texas. Their road to Atlanta is more difficult in the West against the likes of Alabama and LSU, but with a veteran quarterback and two of the best running backs in the country, there's a formula there that could lead to even more success.
Texas A&M: Don't picture John Chavis wearing a glass slipper. Instead imagine him as the glass slipper. Stay with me here because Chavis is the key. If he can work the same magic he did building LSU into a defensive powerhouse at Texas A&M, then the sky's the limit. There's talent there with players like Myles Garrett and Daylon Mack. And on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin has an embarrassment of riches. One top-ranked quarterback will win the job, whether that's Kyle Allen or Kyler Murray. Whoever is under center will then have a couple potential stars at receiver in Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. If the offense keeps putting up points like it has in the past and Chavis brings the defense out from the dumps, then the Aggies could make some noise in 2015.
HOUSTON -- The postgame handshake was brief. No small-talk chatter or back-slapping. No horns-down twitches, either.
Charlie Strong walked up, gave Bret Bielema a firm handshake, turned and walked off.
"I got beat," Strong said soon after, "so what are you going to do, go talk and tell jokes?"
Bielema stared at the exiting Texas coach for a moment. He looked a bit startled by their two-second meeting, but what should he have expected? The two head coaches were heading in different directions.
Strong went over to a news conference room inside NRG Stadium and let loose with seven losses worth of anger and frustration before conceding Texas has "a long ways to go" after a rough first year of rebuilding.
Surely Bielema can sympathize, right? Until Nov. 15, the second-year coach had played 13 SEC games and lost them all. Suddenly, thanks to two upsets and the Monday night destruction of the Longhorns, Arkansas will start being hyped as hot for 2015.
"We have a lot of guys coming back that, if they continue to have the growth they did a year ago, we're gonna be able to do some special things," Bielema said.
His Razorbacks defense already had shutouts of Ole Miss and LSU on its résumé, yet found a way to top that. Arkansas held Texas to the least productive offensive performance of the entire 2014 college football season: an FBS-worst 59 total yards and 2 rushing yards on 43 plays.
The Hogs' control of the game was absolute. They pounded away up front, controlling the ball for more than 41 minutes and never giving Texas a hint of a real chance. Body blows early and often -- tough runs, easy passes, easier defensive stops -- was all it took.
When it was over, Bielema heaped praise on his seniors, on his players' leadership and focus. He touted his junior quarterback and bowl MVP winner, Brandon Allen. He pointed to just how exciting the future looks now.
The roughest days appear to be over at Arkansas. The elusive moment every rebuilding coach chases -- that over-the-hump victory, the high-profile display of dominance and promise -- heck, Bielema has had three of them in the past 60 days.
For Strong, the hill to climb is steeper. A brutal offseason is about to begin in Austin, Texas, and it's completely necessary.
"At some point, we've got to develop and get the pride back into this program," Strong said. "Texas has got to mean something. Right now, it doesn't mean much. You have to play with passion, play with energy and have to have an edge to you. We don't have that right now."
When Strong's most vocal player, senior corner Quandre Diggs, says Texas still has players who don't deserve their spot in the locker room, you know this team is tired of messing around. A fifth loss of 20-plus points -- the most in one season in school history -- raises the pressure.
Strong doesn't have a senior-to-be to hype up at quarterback. He has sophomore Tyrone Swoopes, who accounted for 25 total yards of offense (and minus-21 yards if you include his fourth-quarter interception return yardage); he has an offseason-long controversy that will require wide-open competition; and he has departing seniors, a patchwork offensive line, a dearth of playmakers. A lot more questions than answers.
Given that context, it's easy to see why Strong had no time to blather with Bielema. Texas badly wanted this season to end. And Arkansas just can’t wait for the next one to begin.
Well, after that photo went viral, people started calling it awesome, and then fake. Posts about it being photoshopped littered the Internet, and then Arkansas radio host Bo Mattingly tweeted that he talked to Bielema after practice about the "Horns down" move. Bielema denied doing it.
Ran into Bret Bielema at practice and he says he did not do the "horns down" in photo with Charlie Strong. Appears to have been photoshopped— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) December 27, 2014
OK, case closed ... right?
Here we have more evidence about the hand gesture through this Vine:
Right at the end you can clearly see Bielema move his fingers into the shape of the "Horns down" sign. Now, whether this was intentional or not, we don't know. Maybe, he had no clue what he was doing. Maybe, it was a brilliant troll move by a coach who isn't new to having fun or throwing a little shade toward his opponents.
Regardless, it's fun water-cooler talk before the Razorbacks take on the Longhorns in the Texas Bowl on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.
There is plenty at stake when these 6-6 teams square off at Houston's NRG Stadium on Monday night. Pretty simple, really: One team goes home with a winning record, the other doesn't. Which team will embrace the momentum-building moment?
ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf and Max Olson break down the matchup.
How Arkansas can control the game: Run the ball and control the clock. This has been Arkansas’ strength all season. The Razorbacks have 14 touchdown drives of five minutes or longer, second most in the FBS behind only Georgia Tech. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each have more than 1,000 yards rushing. No other FBS team can say that. When the Razorbacks are gashing the opponent on the ground, they are hard to stop. -- Ostendorf
How Texas can control the game: Charlie Strong wins games with his stout defense, and when this group forces turnovers it can be awfully tough to beat. Texas had the Big 12's No. 1 total defense and pass defense, and the pressure that Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Cedric Reed get up front ought to make running the ball a challenge at times. It's a bend-don't-break defense that will keep this game relatively low-scoring. -- Olson
Arkansas' X-factor: Trey Flowers has been a quarterback’s nightmare this season. The senior defensive end has 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries. When he’s not chasing him down, he’s batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. He has been the heart and soul of an Arkansas defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game in the month of November, and this will be his final game in a Razorbacks’ uniform. -- Ostendorf
Texas' X-factor: The play of Tyrone Swoopes, obviously. His five-turnover showing against TCU gave the Longhorns no shot and raised doubts among the fan base about whether he's "the guy" for the future. Swoopes can kill those questions with a bounce-back showing. He had one of the finest performances of his career (305 yards, two TDs, 72 percent passing) against Oklahoma State right before facing the Frogs. Can he bring his best against the Hogs? -- Olson
What a win would mean for the Razorbacks: The rebuilding process at Arkansas took a big step this season under second-year coach Bret Bielema. The Hogs won an SEC game, nearly knocked off the eventual conference champion, and now they are playing in a bowl game. A win could propel them into next season and validate them as a contender in 2015. -- Ostendorf
What a win would mean for Texas: The Longhorns got their recruiting momentum rolling last week with a commitment from elite linebacker Malik Jefferson. This 'W' can get the rest of the program rolling. An important win would aid an important offseason for growth, and the Horns badly need to move past the buzzkill of getting beat up by TCU. -- Olson
DEC. 29, 9 P.M. ET, NRG STADIUM, HOUSTON (ESPN)
Season highlights: The Razorbacks finally handed Bret Bielema his first SEC win on Nov. 15 when they shut out LSU 17-0, ending the program’s 17-game conference losing streak. As soon as the game ended, Arkansas players rushed across the field en masse to hoist the Golden Boot trophy that goes to the LSU-Arkansas winner. It was a moment of pure bliss for a program that desperately wanted to prove it was moving in the right direction under its second-year coach.
Season lowlights: Arkansas kept suffering near-misses early in the season, falling in overtime against Texas A&M, being beaten 14-13 by Alabama and losing by a touchdown to Mississippi State. The Razorbacks’ one awful performance during the season came against Georgia, when they trailed 38-6 at halftime before eventually falling 45-32.
Player to watch: Jonathan Williams. Teaming with Alex Collins to give Arkansas one of the SEC’s best rushing attacks, Williams led the team with 1,085 rushing yards and ran for 11 touchdowns. Collins isn’t far behind with 1,024 rushing yards and 12 scores. Between that duo and a tough offensive line, the Razorbacks have a ground game that is difficult for any opponent to stop.
Motivation factor: Arkansas was 3-4 after the Georgia loss and had games remaining against UAB, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri. That didn’t look like a positive sign, as the Razorbacks needed three more wins to play in a bowl game. They finally broke through by shutting out both LSU and Ole Miss, with the second of those wins achieving bowl eligibility and Arkansas’ first postseason appearance since 2011.
-- David Ching
Season highlights: Charlie Strong never promised a playoff contender in Year 1. He did promise Texas would play some defense. He turned the Longhorns' D into a top-15 unit nationally in yards per play, pass defense, sacks and goal-line stops. The Horns developed one of the nation’s top linemen, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, and assembled a defense that was responsible for allowing 23.4 points per game in Big 12 play. During a three-game win streak to clinch bowl eligibility, Texas finally put it all together and emerged as a physical, tough-to-beat squad.
Season lowlights: It’s been a rocky road. Texas lost quarterback David Ash to a career-ending concussion. Center Dominic Espinosa and nose tackle Desmond Jackson were lost for the season in nonconference play. Expected starting offensive tackles Desmond Harrison (suspension) and Kennedy Estelle (dismissal) were gone too. Their absences set Texas up to fail early and lose five of its first eight games. Close calls against UCLA and Oklahoma were encouraging. Blowout losses to BYU, Baylor and Kansas State were embarrassing. So was Texas’ 48-10 implosion against TCU on Thanksgiving.
Player to watch: Is Tyrone Swoopes playing for his job in the bowl? Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson won’t say that, but they have repeatedly said they need more competition at the quarterback position. They will find some this offseason, and Swoopes will be challenged to take a big step in the spring. Can he bounce back from his five-turnover performance against TCU and end an up-and-down first season as a starter on a positive note?
Motivation factor: Significant, especially for the future. Giving star seniors like Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, Cedric Reed and John Harris a win on the way out would be great. They have endured plenty at UT through all the coaching changes. But Texas also has another shot to do what it couldn’t against the Horned Frogs. A big win means momentum for offseason workouts, recruiting and further affirmation that Strong has Texas heading in the right direction.
-- Max Olson
We knew the SEC would get one team into the inaugural College Football Playoff when Alabama beat Missouri on Saturday. Nailing down the destinations for the conference's other 11 bowl-eligible teams is much more difficult.
Here are our best guesses in the final hours before we will know for sure:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Auburn
TaxSlayer Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Arkansas
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
Belk Bowl: Georgia
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Tennessee
Birmingham Bowl: Florida
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: South Carolina
Furman at South Carolina, SEC Network: Poor Furman, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to play South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been stewing the past two weeks about their loss at Kentucky. You think they will play with something to prove Saturday at home? For Mike Davis, Dylan Thompson and that offense, it’s a chance to put up a bunch of points and gain some much-needed confidence. For the defense, it’s a chance to take a step in the right direction and actually stop an opponent with some consistency. In reality, this game might as well be a scrimmage for South Carolina. But nonetheless, it’s an important springboard into the second half of the schedule, when the Gamecocks can either continue to circle the drain or rebound and regain the respect they have lost this season.
No. 10 Georgia at Arkansas, SEC Network: Time to find out the answer to the question that has been on the mind of SEC fans everywhere: How would Arkansas do in the dreadful East Division? The Hogs have played well this season, but haven't been able to overcome Texas A&M and Alabama. Against Georgia, will Bret Bielema’s squad break through? The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are riding high after a dominant performance at Missouri in which the absence of Todd Gurley was hardly felt in the final outcome. They now lead the East, and the race hardly appears close. Leonard Floyd and that defense will be put to the test, though. And Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason won’t face as porous a secondary as Missouri’s this time around.
Missouri at Florida, ESPN2: Watch out for turnovers. Florida and Missouri have combined to give the ball away 11 times in October alone. Just last week, Maty Mauk threw four interceptions against Georgia, and Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel had two costly interceptions against LSU. In other words, both defenses should be licking their chops. The difference in this game, however, could be the running backs. If Florida can establish the run and negate the pressure from Missouri’s Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Gators should be in good shape. However, if Missouri can get Russell Hansbrough & Co. going, the pressure should fall off Mauk’s shoulders. It’s a lot of what-ifs, but for two teams headed in the wrong direction, should that really surprise you?
Tennessee at No. 3 Ole Miss, ESPN: The Vols have been knocking on the door this season, but the divide between competitive football and winning football has been tough to cross. Will they do it against No. 3-ranked Ole Miss? On the road? Now that’s asking a lot of Butch Jones' young squad, which is high on talent (Jalen Hurd, Cameron Sutton, etc.) but low on experience. The Rebs, meanwhile, have both confidence and experience on their side. If anyone thought their home win against Alabama was a fluke, they changed their mind after watching them go on the road and destroy Texas A&M. So long as quarterback Bo Wallace continues to take care of the football and that defense stays healthy, it’s hard to imagine Ole Miss having a hiccup game.
Kentucky at LSU, SEC Network: This game feels a lot like a battle of youth and momentum. On the one side, you have Kentucky, which has surprised many with the way it jumped out to a 5-1 record, most recently beating South Carolina at home. Patrick Towles has played well and the defense has been aggressive. But the Cats are young and don’t have pedigree on their side. On the other hand, you have LSU, which has gone from a dark horse playoff contender to unranked and outside the conversation in the West. But don’t count out Les Miles’ squad just yet. After beating Florida in The Swamp, the Tigers could have confidence going for them. And considering all the young talent in Baton Rouge, that is a scary thought.
For starters, there's a new SEC team headed to the playoff, and no, it's not Mississippi State or Ole Miss, though both are knocking on the door. It's Auburn, the league's defending champion, which played its best game of the season against LSU on Saturday.
The Tigers' in-state rival, Alabama, dropped from the No. 1 spot after its loss to Ole Miss, but Texas A&M took an even bigger fall after the Aggies were dominated at Mississippi State.
The lone team to fall out of our projections this week is Tennessee, which likely cost itself a bowl game with Saturday's 10-9 loss to Florida. The Volunteers are going to have a hard time winning four more games with the schedule they have remaining. Meanwhile, SEC East counterpart Kentucky made a big jump and needs just two wins to become bowl eligible.
Here is our full SEC list entering the seventh week of the season:
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Auburn
Capital One Orange Bowl: Mississippi State
Cotton Bowl: Ole Miss
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Alabama
Citrus Bowl: Georgia
TaxSlayer Bowl: Missouri
Outback Bowl: Texas A&M
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Kentucky
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: LSU
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Arkansas
Birmingham Bowl: South Carolina
With that said, who is running the ball best? Let’s look and see.
The Crimson Tide might not have the same eye-popping statistics, but between T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, there’s plenty of production. As a team, Alabama has the 18th-most productive running game in the country in terms of yards per game (258.5).
But it’s not just quantity with these two programs. Alabama and Arkansas have been the two most efficient running games in the SEC, with the Tide averaging 5.68 yards per carry and the Razorbacks averaging 6.91. Alabama and Arkansas are the only two teams in the conference to have more than half of its rushes result in 5 or more yards gained. At the same time, both teams rank in the top five in the conference in lowest percentage of rush attempts gaining zero or negative yards.
Arkansas has 42 runs of 10 or more yards this season, ranking fifth nationally in that category.
Mississippi fans should be worried about their running game this weekend. There’s not much to feel good about when you look at the statistics.
The Rebs have the highest percentage of rushes resulting in zero or negative yards (28.0), the fourth-fewest total rushing yards (643) and are tied for the fewest number of rushes for 10 or more yards (13) in the SEC.
Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss’ lead tailback, has been all or nothing this season. Of his 30 total carries, eight times he’s been stopped before crossing the line of scrimmage and nine times he’s gained 0-5 yards. He’s had a few big runs (20, 23 and 71 yards), but does the good outweigh the bad?
Lest we pick on the Rebs too much, Ole Miss isn’t the only underachieving running offense in the SEC. Tennessee, thanks to its youthful offensive line, has the fewest rushing yards (507) in the conference. It’s no wonder that Tennessee and Vanderbilt are the only teams in the SEC with less than 600 rushing yards and under 3.7 yards per carry.
The least physical running teams, in terms of the fewest yards after contact, are Florida (240), Vanderbilt (245) and South Carolina (296).
The teams with the biggest fumbling problems: LSU and Vanderbilt, which boot the ball on 3 percent of their carries.
And the best
You thought we would go this entire post without mentioning Todd Gurley ’s name? Wrong. Let’s take a quick look at the top individual performers in the SEC.
- Most productive: Collins leads the way with 621 yards rushing, followed by Gurley (610), Jonathan Williams (486), Josh Robinson (485) and Cameron Artis-Payne (468)
- Most explosive: Gurley has the most runs of 20 or more yards (8), followed by Collins (7), Robinson (6), Artis-Payne (4), Russell Hansbrough (4) and Leonard Fournette (4)
- Most physical: Gurley has the most yards after contact (299), followed by Collins (284), Robinson (248), Williams 224) and Hansbrough (219)
- Most elusive: Collins has the most yards before contact (337), followed by Gurley (311), Artis-Payne (268), Williams (262) and Ralph Webb (252)
- Most likely to score: Tra Carson has the highest touchdown-per-rush percentage (12.5), followed by Jonathan Williams (12.1), Trey Williams (10.5), Jaylen Walton (10.3) and Darrel Williams (9.1)
Arkansas, the SEC’s No. 1 rushing team, was every bit the challenge the Aggies – an improved bunch but still working to shake the reputation as the SEC’s worst rush defense last year – expected and then some. But when it was all said and done, it was the Aggies’ front that made the biggest play of the game, a fourth-and-1 stuff of running back Alex Collins to secure a 35-28 overtime victory, a moment that served as a microcosm of the progress the Aggies’ defense is experiencing.
“There's a lot of things from this game that we can learn from,” coach Kevin Sumlin said Saturday. “But there's also … some confidence that we can draw from it, because that team's good at what they do running the football.”
The raw numbers read as such: Arkansas finished with 285 rushing yards on 47 carries, eye-popping by any measure. But take away 51 yards from that total, because those belong to the special teams after the Razorbacks converted an incredible fake punt that resulted in a touchdown run by Sam Irwin-Hill.
So that leaves the Aggies’ defense allowing 234 rushing yards on 46 carries, an average of 5.08 yards per carry. Ideal? Not at all. But it’s an improvement from last season’s mark (5.38 yards per carry) and significantly better than what the Aggies allowed against Arkansas last season (6.7 yards per carry, though the Hogs ran just 30 times in last year’s meeting).
This year’s Arkansas team is better and more experienced. And in the first half, things didn’t look terribly different for the Aggies, who yielded 143 non-fake punt rushing yards on 21 totes, an average of 6.8 yards per carry. That total included a 50-yard touchdown run by Collins.
“I thought [Arkansas offensive coordinator] Jim Chaney had an excellent plan,” Sumlin said. “They formationed and got us in some different situations to create some real problems, some gaps. And then they went unbalanced a lot.
“It's a nightmare for what they do. They don't just line up and run over you. They formation you, unbalance, tight ends, motion. And all that time, when you're doing that, you know, you have to fit the gaps properly. And all it takes is one guy to be out of one gap, and -- those backs are good.”
As the game progressed, so did the Aggies’ run defense. It allowed only 30 yards on nine carries in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter and overtime it kept the Razorbacks to 71 yards on 16 carries, a much more reasonable 4.43 average. Of those 71 yards, 46 came on a three-play sequence on an Arkansas drive midway through the fourth. But the Aggies cleaned things up after that.
They began to react better to everything the Razorbacks threw at them.
“It was by eye control,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “Coach talks about eye control. Keep your eye on the key. There are a couple times when you saw in the big plays where nobody was covering a guy. Somebody took their eyes off their key. Once we fixed that problem, everybody was on the same page. Everybody was doing their job.”
The final possession of the game was a snapshot of that. A year ago, when the Aggies' defenders were less experienced, it would be hard to believe that they could turn a team over on downs in a critical situation with as talented a backfield as the Hogs have with Collins and Jonathan Williams and as big an offensive line as they have.
But on its final possession, Arkansas ran the ball three times: a gain of 2 for Williams, then a loss of 1 for him before the final play, when Obioha met Collins and stopped him for no gain to secure victory. That stop was aided by the entire line holding up at the point of attack when the ball was snapped, a moment that surely made defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and defensive line coach Terry Price proud.
“The running back bounced to my side,” Obioha said. “I did what my coaches taught me to do. I cross-face and made a play. It was a play that ended the game and gave us a W. It was just a great play.”
It wasn’t their first taste of success this year -- the Aggies held South Carolina to only 67 yards on 22 carries on Aug. 28. But the Aggies raced out to a lead and made the Gamecocks play catch up, plus star running back Mike Davis wasn’t at full strength.
Arkansas wasn’t about to abandon the run and provided two healthy, gifted backs and a large offensive line to challenge Texas A&M up front in a way that hadn’t been this year. The Aggies showed they still have plenty of room for improvement, but their timely play Saturday give them reason for optimism as the SEC schedule stiffens.
“You saw what we can do out there,” Obioha said. “We could stop one of the best rushing attacks in the country when we're all on the same page.”
How the game was won: The Aggies stopped Arkansas running back Alex Collins on a fourth-and-1 in the first overtime, getting a stop when they had to have it. Texas A&M had to scratch and claw after being harassed by Arkansas’ defense all day, but it was able to escape by the skin of its teeth thanks to huge fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Kenny Hill (an 86-yarder to Edward Pope and a 59-yarder to Joshua Reynolds) that turned a 14-point deficit to a tie ballgame and eventually set up overtime. Hill threw a 25-yard strike to Malcome Kennedy to start overtime, and the defense did the rest to secure the win in OT, piggybacking a strong fourth-quarter effort the Aggies gave to keep the Razorbacks from extending the lead.
Gameball goes to: Hill. He had his struggles, from errant throws, including an interception and had to weather the storm as the Aggies looked out of sorts offensively for much of the day. But he made the big throws when the Aggies had to have them late in the game and led the come-from-behind victory. He finished with 386 passing yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-41 passing.
What it means: Texas A&M’s playoff hopes and high ranking are safe for now, but it has a lot of work to do. Arkansas exploited many of the Aggies’ flaws today. The Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC), meanwhile, are as improved as advertised. Bret Bielema’s bunch has to feel sick after this one, leading by two scores (and having a chance to go up three when a penalty nullified the score). They had control of the game but let it slip away. The SEC West is on alert though, as Arkansas is a pushover no longer.
Playoff implication: The Aggies’ hopes remain alive as they move to 5-0 (2-0 in the SEC).
What's next: Another huge test for Texas A&M at No. 14 Mississippi State in Starkville a week from today. Dak Prescott and Co. are coming off an open date following their landmark win at LSU on Sept. 20.
Arkansas’ offensive philosophy is no secret. The Razorbacks want to run the ball -- a lot.
Using that power-football identity, the Hogs are showing themselves to be a much-improved team in Bret Bielema’s second season in Fayetteville. After the Razorbacks’ obliterated Texas Tech in Lubbock earlier this month to the tune of 438 rushing yards and 49 points, Bielema described his team thusly:
“This is Arkansas football, hog-ball, hog-strong, whatever you want to say it, this is what we are,” Bielema told reporters afterward. “I know at times it ain't that pretty, but it's a heck of a lot of fun.”
The Razorbacks are hoping to have more fun at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when they meet No. 6 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It will serve as the season’s first true test for the Aggies’ run defense.
Arkansas averages 45 rushes per game. Against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks ran the ball a whopping 68 times. Even in their season-opening loss to Auburn, they averaged 5.3 yards per carry. The Aggies, while having performed admirably in Columbia, South Carolina, still must to prove they can stop what the Razorbacks, who have the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC (324.5 yards per game), want to do.
“They're going to make you defend the run and try to go over the top and get behind you with the deep balls and keep the chains moving with the intermediate passing game,” Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. “It's no secret what we're going to see Saturday.”
When the teams met last season, the Razorbacks ran the ball quite well. They compiled 201 rushing yards on 30 carries, a healthy 6.7 yards-per-carry average. The Aggies were young and thin on defense then, and while they are still relatively young, the difference in their depth and experience on defense this season is night and day thanks to the baptism many of those players received a year ago and the addition of a top-five nationally ranked 2014 recruiting class that brought in a host of immediate-impact defensive players.
But in 2013, circumstances led to a disastrous season on defense for A&M, especially against the run. The Aggies were last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (222.3) and 110th in the nation. This season, they're better (124.7 yards per game, sixth in the SEC and 42nd nationally).
Snyder knows what lies ahead. That’s why an emphasis was placed on defending this style long ago.
“We've been working on this for quite a while,” Snyder said. “We worked on it during spring, through fall camp, obviously we had a couple weeks getting ready for South Carolina. Obviously, some of that recall is going to have to come back for some of our guys. This won't be the first offense we've faced that likes to run the ball. We thought we'd get a good dose of that in the first game this year. But they're awfully good.”
Bielema, whose offense returns virtually all of its production from a season ago, expects an improved Texas A&M outfit on defense.
“They're better and they're a more disciplined group,” Bielema said Monday. “They're still a multiple front. ... Mark Snyder is a tremendous X's-and-O's guy. Really good football coach. ... Now it's another year with him and that program, doing what he likes to do, and you can definitely see the rewards of it.”
The Razorbacks boast a large offensive line: At an average of 328.4 pounds per player, their starting offensive line is bigger than any starting NFL offensive line was in Week 1 of pro football. That group is paired with a two-headed monster at running back in Alex Collins (490 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, five touchdowns) and Jonathan Williams (391 rushing yards, 8.1 yards per carry, seven scores).
Those two, combined with the play of the Razorbacks’ offensive front, have been the core of the Razorbacks' success. The improvement of quarterback Brandon Allen has helped the Razorbacks take the next step offensively, and the elevated play helps loosen things up for the running game.
“They don't abandon their run game at all,” Texas A&M junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “If they have two straight losses on the run game and it's third-and-18, they might still run the ball. They don't abandon their run game. They have a big, physical offensive line and I know their head coach used to be at Wisconsin. They would run the ball all the way up there; he has a Big Ten mentality, old-school football, ‘I might put eight offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage this play.’ It's just kind of crazy stuff and they just love their run game."
How Texas A&M handles both of those elements Saturday will determine whether the Aggies truly are an improved defense this season or if there is still much work to be done as the schedule toughens.
“Bret knows what he's doing,” Snyder said. “I spent 10 years in the Big Ten going against Coach [Barry] Alvarez, that's where he got it from. So we have to build a wall and stop the run and have great eyes on the back end.”
The Aggies sound like they’re ready for the test.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “[Against] South Carolina we were preparing for that kind of a game and they did run it, but we got ahead so we kind of forced them to throw. I don't think we've really seen our fill of running game to this point in the season. I think we're really ready for it.”
Troy at No. 13 Georgia, SEC Network: Georgia is coming off a 38-35 loss at South Carolina and is looking for a resounding victory here. The last time these teams met (2007), Georgia won 44-34. This Troy team, however, is 0-3 and allowing 40 points per game while averaging only 20.7. Look for the Bulldogs to jump out early in this one.
3:30 p.m. ET
No. 6 Texas A&M at SMU, ABC/ESPN2: The Aggies come in at 3-0 and they’ve been rolling so far this season. SMU has been a mess, 0-2 and with a new coach: June Jones resigned last week; Tom Mason is serving as the interim head coach and is making his debut. Perhaps the Mustangs are fired up and have a renewed energy, but even if they do, the Aggies are in position for a convincing victory. These teams' past three meetings, dating to 2011, have resulted in a 35.3-point average margin of victory for A&M.
4 p.m. ET
Indiana at No. 18 Missouri, SEC Network: The Tigers are quietly getting it done and look to close out their nonconference schedule 4-0. If they do, it would be the eighth 4-0 start under Gary Pinkel and seventh in nine seasons. Maty Mauk is coming off a four-touchdown-pass performance and Shane Ray is coming off a two-sack, four-tackles-for-loss performance.
7 p.m. ET
Northern Illinois at Arkansas, ESPNU: A victory would give the Razorbacks as many wins this season (three) as they had in all of 2013. That would be a big step forward for Bret Bielema's crew. Northern Illinois is a quality road team, having won 17 in a row in opponents' home stadiums, including one at Northwestern on Sept. 6. Arkansas brings in a second-best-in-the-nation 362 rushing yards per game.
Mississippi State at No. 8 LSU, ESPN: Saturday nights in Death Valley are always fun -- typically for the Tigers. They're 43-2 under Les Miles in Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium. This is a big "prove-it" game for Mississippi State, a team that's 3-0 and trying to take a big step into SEC West contention. Last year's meeting between these two was competitive until a 28-point fourth quarter by LSU.
7:30 p.m. ET
No. 14 South Carolina at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: The Gamecocks got a huge win versus Georgia and are looking to go to 2-1 in league play with a victory here. South Carolina jumped out to a big lead over Vandy the last time these teams met and it's likely to happen again if the Commodores don't get on track quickly. They've struggled mightily out of the gate and had to rally to beat UMass last week. Patton Robinette will start at QB; will coach Derek Mason stick with him this time?
It’s that simple.
Given the nation’s toughest schedule (there are currently six ranked teams on Arkansas’ schedule, including four top-10 opponents), the Hogs have to sweep the nonconference slate and pull at least two upsets in SEC games. It certainly isn’t impossible, and there is no doubt this Arkansas team is better than last season’s, but finding three conference wins on this slate isn’t exactly easy.
Though Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his players aren’t ready to call this a make-or-break game, they all understand how important it is for the confidence and psyche of this team going forward.
"I’m excited to see exactly where we can go with this chance," Bielema said. "It’s an opportunity for your guys to gather confidence, and that’s something this program needs really needs a lot of."
Added senior defensive end Trey Flowers: "Getting a win over a pretty good team will put us up there and help us move forward for the rest of the season."
Yes, it would.
The thing about this Arkansas team is we didn’t know if it could be physical enough to survive this season. Last season, the Hogs were continuously pushed around during their 0-8 SEC journey, and little was done on the surface to tell us anything would be different in 2014.
Well, look at the tape from the first two games, because change has come. Yes, Arkansas lost steam in the second half of its opening loss to Auburn (45-21), but the Hogs kept it very tight in the first two quarters and actually erased a 21-7 deficit.
Last week’s 73-7 drubbing of Nicholls State might be scoffed at by some, but it was a chance for this team to get better and iron out some of the deficiencies it saw in the second half against Auburn.
"This year, we go into every game knowing we can win every game -- we can play with the best of them out there," quarterback Brandon Allen said. "It all comes down to us executing and playing clean football. We’ve shown that when we do that we can play with anyone, we can beat anyone on any day."
That game also stood as a very important notch on the win belt.
The truth is that we still don’t know a ton about this team. Though it might be better -- and Bielema said he sees more talent and development in his locker room now -- it’s still an enigma.
With the coaching turnover this program has dealt with in recent years, it’s only natural for Arkansas to still be behind the rest of the SEC West. But improvements have been made in the first two weeks.
The offensive and defensive lines have played with a tougher demeanor. The running game went from a two-headed monster with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to adding a third weapon in speedster Korliss Marshall. And Allen looks more confident and comfortable in Arkansas’ offense, something this team desperately needs.
So can this team survive a schedule that includes consecutive games in the middle of the season against Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia -- all current top-seven teams -- and make it to the postseason? What about with a November that houses Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri?
Those are legitimate questions for a program that still has a lot of building to do in all areas.
Allen wouldn’t say that a Texas Tech win holds the key to Arkansas’ postseason, but he knows it would go a long way toward empowering the Hogs before the teeth of conference season approaches.
"I think it’s going to be huge, especially when you go into SEC play where you’re going to play a tough opponent every week," he said. "Anytime you can have the momentum and the swagger on our side, it’s only going to help us play better and compete with some of the best teams in the country."
That is the kind of confidence this team didn’t have last season, and as the loses piled up, players' spirits disappeared. However, in the months since last year’s dismal showing, attitudes have changed, and Arkansas players feel they can -- and will -- surprise a lot of people this fall, starting Saturday.
"We’re capable of doing something special," Flowers said. "A lot of people are looking down on us. Our backs are pretty much against the wall and they gave us the toughest schedule. Those are the cards we were dealt, but we’re capable of doing some big things around our league, shock a few people and get some big wins."