3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Texas A&M -5.5, Over/Under: 48
Get ready for a bloodbath, folks, as the insanely-stacked SEC West begins warring against each other, as the (No. 7) Texas A&M Aggies travel to Fayetteville to battle the surprising (No. 16) Arkansas Razorbacks in the conference opener for both schools. If you listen closely, that sound that you hear coming out of College Station is Texas A&M (3-0, 0-0 in SEC) knocking on the door of college football’s elite, with (Head Coach) Jimbo Fisher positioning them for ascension in his fourth year with the program. Then again, this is exactly what was expected out of the 55-year old, who has recruited like a madman over the past four years, stocking the Aggies with a wealth of the requisite size, length, and athleticism that can really only be found within the Southeastern Conference. Last season felt like a breakthrough season for A&M, who finished the campaign 9-1 with a 41-27 trouncing of North Carolina in the Orange Bowl, parlaying to a lofty ranking of Fourth in the Final AP Poll, the highest that the school has enjoyed since winning the National Championship all the way back in 1939. However, this program has been in this position before, only to stumble back down the proverbial mountainside, with Fisher’s task proving that what he is building is indeed sustainable. Coming into this season, the Aggies had two major concerns: the first was turning over a number of starters on what was one of the finest Offensive Lines in the country, with the second replacing (three-year Starting Quarterback) Kellen Mond, who was selected 66th Overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Though the Line lost four starters, the early returns have eased that concern, as the running game continues to churn out positive yardage, averaging 185.3 yards per game on a healthy 5.3 yards per carry, with a loaded Backfield feasting on their opportunities. (Junior Tailback) Isaiah Spiller (40 CAR, 250 YDS, 6.3 Y/A, 1 TD) entered 2021 as the most decorated returning rusher in the league, and has picked up where he left off with 250 yards and a score, while (Sophomore) Devon Achane (30 CAR, 203 YDS, 6.8 Y/A, 2 TD) has carried over the momentum from last year’s Orange Bowl, in which he earned Player of the Game honors with his breakout 140-yard performance. The rushing attack gained ten ore more yards on seventy different runs in 2020, which translates to a stellar 18.6 explosion rate on the ground, which was tops in the conference and sixth in the country. With that said, the situation under Center has been rather murky, particularly given the health of Mond’s initial successor, Haynes King (62.9%, 300 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 2 TD, 3 INT). A dangerous threat with his legs, the Redshirt Freshman struggled as a passer, tossing three interceptions in an otherwise comfortable 41-10 thumping of Kent State in the Season Opener, before lasting just a few plays before suffering a broken ankle early in what would become a tightly-contested affair at former Big XII rival, Colorado, whom Fisher’s troops narrowly evaded in a 10-7 affair. With King expected to be out of commission until the middle of October (at the earliest), it’s now up to (Redshirt Sophomore) Zack Calzada (51.4%, 458 YDS, 6.4 Y/A, 4 TD, 2 INT) to fill the void left by Mond. Simply put, Calzada is a very different Quarterback than King, possessing a rocket for an arm and not to mention a stouter frame. By all accounts, he handled himself well in Denver, growing more confident as the affair progressed, eventually finding Spiller for an 18-yard touchdown late in the Fourth Quarter to break the deadlock and move to 2-0. Last weekend required no such heroics, as he went on to complete 19-of-33 attempts for 275 yards, a career-high three touchdowns and an interception in a 34-0 shutout of New Mexico, , in which he spread the wealth to seven different targets. However, as he continues to grow within the Offense, Fisher can rest easy for the time being knowing that his team’s Defense is certainly good enough that his young Quarterback won’t need to outscore many opponents. Texas A&M returns nine starters on this side of the football, including it’s entire Secondary and most of what is one of the most feared Defensive Lines in the SEC. As they did against the Buffaloes, this unit has proven perfectly capable of carrying the Aggies in big games; they relegated Colorado to a scant 260 total yards and fourteen first downs, including a combined 4-of-16 on third and fourth down, with one sack and interception apiece. At 6-4, 290 lbs, (Junior Defensive End) DeMarvin Leal (13 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 PD) looks like the next monster Lineman to arrive to the NFL by way of College Station, and in three games he has already matched his sack total of last season (2.5). (Fellow Linemen) Jayden Peevy (11 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PD) and Michael Clemons (8 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 SK) took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, with (Cornerback) Myles Jones (2 TKL) doing the same as a super senior. Fisher will be counting on this unit to make the difference against Arkansas, whom despite besting in a spirited 42-31 affair last Fall, allowed 461 total yards with 222 of that figure coming on the ground.
Meanwhile, the term ascension applies to not only Texas A&M, but their opponent today as well, for Arkansas (3-0, 0-0 in SEC) is proving to be well ahead of the curve at this stage of the campaign. Ushering in a new Coaching Staff during a pandemic was always going to be a challenging task for the Razorbacks, but by all metrics their 3-7 finish in (Head Coach) Sam Pittman’s first season in Fayetteville was a MAJOR improvement over what came before him. Simply put, this program was circling the drain before the arrival of the 59-year old, belly-up after back-to-back 2-10 showings marred by a harrowing TWENTY consecutive conference losses. Credit to Pittman, who completely changed his team’s mindset, turning them into a nasty, physical group that has routinely proven to play both hard and aggressively late into games. Arkansas upset (No. 16) Mississippi State (21-14), along with Mississippi (33-21) and Tennessee (24-13) last season, and if not for some truly-questionable late officiating they very well could have toppled the likes of Missouri (48-50), LSU (24-27), and (No. 13) Auburn (28-30) to boot. Furthermore, the Offense improved mightily from averaging a dismal -1.33 net yards per play in 2019 to a far more respectable 1.45 in 2020, which was the biggest leap in the SEC and eleventh-best in the nation. Now with a proper Offseason to further get his message across and evaluate his roster, it appears that Pittman has these hogs well ahead of schedule. While comfortable victories over the likes of Rice (38-17) and Georgia Southern (45-10) aren’t going to garner much attention, upsetting (then-No. 15) Texas absolutely did (40-21), even if the Longhorns are starting over with a new Coaching Staff of their own. Indeed, if this particular matchup served as a barometer as to where these respective programs are in the early stages of the season, then the Razorbacks are clearly ahead by a country mile; Pittman’s charges ran off sixteen unanswered points to start the game, and would lead 33-7 heading into the Fourth Quarter where they would let their foot up off the proverbial gas pedal, finishing the affair with sizeable advantages in a slew of categories such as total yards (471-256) and rushing yards (333-138). The Coaching Staff placed an emphasis on getting better in the trenches this season, particularly in terms of run-blocking and this performance showed the fruits of their labor, as five different players rushed for forty or more yards, led by (Junior Tailback) Trelon Smith (42 CAR, 216 YDS, 5.1 Y/A, 3 TD) and (Sophomore Quarterback) K.J. Jefferson (61.9%, 632 YDS, 10.0 Y/A, 4 TD, 2 INT), who amassed seventy-five and seventy-three yards respectively, with the former logging a touchdown. Speaking of Jefferson, the development of the athletic signal-caller will go a long way towards deciding just how far Arkansas can ascend in 2021. The feeling last season was that (Offensive Coordinator) Kendal Briles never quite had what he wanted at Quarterback, and was forced to manufacture much of what we saw specifically for (former Quarterback) Felepie Franks, who was much more of a pocket passer than his successor. The train of thought is that a more mobile option at Quarterback will in turn bring a number of new dimensions to the attack, which is why Pittman and Briles are so high on Jefferson; he’s currently the team’s second-leading rusher behind the aforementioned Smith, racking up 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns on a stellar 7.5 yards per carry. After completing just 48.8% of his attempts for 295 yards and three touchdowns in limited reps last year, the Redshirt Sophomore has clearly grown as a passer, completing a much more efficient 61.9% of his passes for 632 yards on a healthy 10.0 yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and two interceptions thus far. On the opposite side of the football, the Defense has also shown some sorely-needed growth. In 2020, the Razorbacks struggled like hell to disrupt opposing Quarterbacks, allowing them to complete a comfortable 66.35 of their passes for 259.6 yards with eighteen touchdowns opposed to thirteen interceptions. Three games into this season and they’ve relegated opposing passers to a mere 142.0 yards through the air on 50.0% passing, with only one touchdown permitted and three interceptions to their credit. The key has been pressure, for after a season in which Pittman seemed content simply dropping players into coverage, he’s shown a tendency to get on the front foot and attack his opponents; more exotic fronts have led to more sacks, with Arkansas amassing seven sacks thus far, led by (Senior Defensive Lineman) Tre Williams (11 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 SK). With that said, today’s showdown with Texas A&M should provide Pittman with a proper litmus test, for bullying the likes of the Owls, Eagles, and (at this point) even the Longhorns is one thing, but a true contender within the SEC is another matter altogether. Indeed, a win over the Aggies would go a long way towards legitimizing the Razorbacks as program to watch moving forward, for they haven’t bested them in nine meetings, with their last victory coming all way back in 2011.