ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kenny Hill threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns, with a 25-yarder to Malcome Kennedy on the first play of overtime, and sixth-ranked Texas A&M rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat Arkansas 35-28 on Saturday.
The Aggies (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) trailed 28-14 going into the fourth quarter before Hill threw two long scoring passes -- 86 yards to Edward Pope and 59 yards to Josh Reynolds, the later with 2:08 left only two plays after Arkansas missed a field goal.
After Hill's quick strike in overtime, Arkansas faced fourth-and-1 when a handoff went to Alex Collins, who finished with 131 yards rushing. But Collins was stuffed at the line by defensive end Julien Obioha to end the game.
Hill completed 21 of 41 passes.
Texas A&M is 5-0 for the first time since 2001. Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) has lost 14 consecutive SEC games.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, SEC Network: The nation’s longest active conference losing streak will be on the line, and that 17-game skid could very well come to an end if Kentucky beats Vanderbilt. The Wildcats are coming off an impressive, yet heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida on the road and are heavy favorites at home this weekend. The Commodores, however, have won the last three meetings.
Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN: Who can forget the overtime thriller these teams played in Knoxville last year? It was memorable not only for the outcome but also for all of the injuries Georgia suffered in a 34-31 victory. The Bulldogs are much healthier this season and are hungry to prove they’re still the team to beat in the East despite a 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 13. This will be the first SEC game for a young Tennessee team that is looking to make some noise in Butch Jones’ second season. A victory in Athens would do just that.
Arkansas vs. No. 6 Texas A&M, CBS: After the opening weekend, it didn’t look as if this would be much of a game. Texas A&M looked unstoppable at South Carolina, and the Razorbacks fell apart in the second half against Auburn. Four weeks later, it’s now the marquee matchup. Bret Bielema’s squad has played much better since that opening game, dominating its last three opponents. With Kenny Hill at quarterback for the Aggies and the Hogs' three-headed monster at running back, expect a shootout in Cowboys Stadium.
Louisiana Tech at No. 5 Auburn, SEC Network: Not to overlook Louisiana Tech, but this might be the calm before the storm in Auburn’s schedule. Seven of the Tigers' final eight opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25, beginning next Saturday with a home game against No. 17 LSU. But first things first: The Tigers need to take care of business against Louisiana Tech. A victory for Auburn would mark the 300th win at Jordan-Hare Stadium, which opened in 1939.
Missouri at No. 13 South Carolina, ESPN: Not unlike Georgia-Tennessee, this matchup stirs memories to last year’s game and the fourth-quarter comeback by Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks. It was Missouri’s only regular-season loss. The Tigers' first loss this year came much sooner with a home loss to Indiana last weekend, but all could be forgotten with a victory at South Carolina on Saturday night. The winner has a leg up in the SEC East. Oh yeah, did we mention "College Gameday" will be there?
New Mexico State at No. 17 LSU, SEC Network: How does LSU pick up the pieces after last Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State? The bigger question might be which quarterback will play better, Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? The best remedy for LSU after a loss might be to get away from the SEC. The Tigers have won a FBS record 48 consecutive regular-season nonconference games, including a 38-0 record under current coach Les Miles.
Memphis at No. 10 Ole Miss, ESPN3: Don’t look now, but Ole Miss has crept into the top 10, and fans are already eager for next Saturday's home showdown against Alabama. You'd better go ahead and get your spot in the Grove now. That’s not the mindset of Hugh Freeze and his team, though. They know they will have their hands full as Memphis (2-1) comes to town, and they’re doing their best not to look ahead to the Crimson Tide.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- As if Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones weren't tortured enough about not drafting Johnny Manziel, the Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback will be in Jones' building Saturday -- and rooting against Jones' alma mater.
Manziel's Browns are off this week.
In addition to Manziel being on hand, sources close to the team said the Aggies are expected to have freshman receiver Speedy Noil against the 3-1 Razorbacks.
Noil injured his left knee during the Sept. 13 win over Rice. Those close to the team said Noil required minor surgery but has made a "miraculous" recovery. He returned to practice this week and was "making cuts" a little more than a week after surgery, one source said.
Asked earlier in the week about Noil's availability, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said simply, "We'll see."
Hill, Texas A&M’s sophomore sensation, has both boxes checked off his résumé. The first one -- a state title -- he checked off on Dec. 17, 2011 at then-Dallas Cowboys Stadium (now called AT&T Stadium), the same place he and the No. 6 Aggies (4-0) will meet a rising Arkansas (3-1) team on Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
For obvious reasons, it’s one of Hill’s favorite venues to play.
“I love playing there,” Hill said.
It’s Hill’s second time in the Metroplex in as many weeks. Last week the Aggies traveled to SMU for a 58-6 win at Ford Stadium. But the venue often dubbed “Jerry World” holds special meaning after Hill guided the Dragons to a 36-29 title-game win over Hightower High School (Missouri City, Texas) in his junior season.
Hill was named the offensive most valuable player of that game, accounting for 345 combined rushing and passing yards and four total touchdowns. His Texas A&M teammate, Sabian Holmes (then a senior for the Dragons), also turned in a shining performance for Carroll, catching 11 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Kevin Sumlin, who had officially accepted the Texas A&M head coaching job just the week before, was well aware of Hill’s exploits and a state championship only added to his appeal as a recruit.
“A lot of people argue that being a quarterback at Southlake is as [pressurized] a deal as there is because of the expectation to not only be successful as a quarterback, but to win and win it all,” Sumlin said. “To watch him win it all as a junior, it was a big deal in our eyes.”
Sumlin remembered something Joe Tiller, the longtime Purdue coaching great who Sumlin played for and coached under, once told him about recruiting quarterbacks.
“’Always recruit a guy who wins in high school,’” Sumlin recalls. “’Because when he doesn’t, it becomes somebody else’s fault. If he’s that talented, why aren’t they winning?’ I kind of listened to that.”
Hill eventually committed to Texas A&M in April 2012 and signed with the Aggies in February 2013.
Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson said he has never compared his quarterbacks to their predecessors (the Dragons sent a succession of six quarterbacks to Division I schools prior to Hill taking the reins) and has always tried to instill confidence in them by telling them to “Go be a baller.” Hill did just that.
"There is pressure, no doubt about it,” Wasson said. “But pressure is a good thing. We always say pressure is a good thing, stress is a bad thing. Knowing how to cope with it and handle it is important.”
Hill, who carries a cool, calm demeanor (Texas A&M quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital called his relaxed demeanor “creepy” before the season-opening win at South Carolina) handled that pressure just fine, performing exceptionally in the biggest of moments for a prep quarterback, doing so in an NFL stadium in front of a crowd of 42,822.
"I remember a few specific plays, but mostly it was the atmosphere,” Hill said this week, recalling the title game. “There were 43,000 or something like that there. To play in that kind of environment was pretty cool. And after we won, I just remember we went pretty crazy. We were so happy."
And as someone who grew up in the Dallas area, the chance to play in the Cowboys’ state-of-the-art home was a memorable one.
“I used to watch the Cowboys all the time growing up in Dallas,” Hill said. “To play on the same field as them is sick.”
The Aggies are hopeful Hill can create more positive memories on Saturday vs. the Razorbacks.
After inheriting an Ole Miss program that won two games in 2011 and had suffered 14 consecutive losses against SEC opponents, coach Hugh Freeze guided the Rebels to a 7-6 record in his first season in 2012.
In February 2013, Ole Miss signed the country's No. 5-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, and landed several blue-chip prospects, including defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner.
With those freshmen playing significant roles, the Rebels went 8-5 in 2013, upsetting then-No. 6 LSU 27-24 along the way, and won a bowl game for the second season in a row.
Yet, as Ole Miss entered Freeze's third season in August, it was still staring up at Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Such is life in the rugged SEC West.
We're about to find out how much the upstarts have closed the gap on the recent heavyweights in college football's best division. Heading into this weekend's games, six of the seven SEC West teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll: No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 17 LSU.
The other team, Arkansas, lost to defending SEC champion Auburn 45-21 in its opener, but then won its next three games by an average of 42 points.
"I can't remember a time when there were that many good teams in one division," said former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who guided the Crimson Tide to the 1992 national championship. "Texas A&M probably wishes it was on the other side. It's a really strong division right now."
Consider the strength of the SEC West through the first month of the 2014 season:
• SEC West teams are 22-0 against teams not in the division and are winning those games by an average margin of 34 points. SEC West teams are a combined 24-2, with the only losses coming against each other. Along with Auburn's victory over Arkansas, Mississippi State upset LSU 34-29 on the road last week.
• The SEC West has a 99.3 rating on a 0-100 scale in ESPN's division power rankings, which is 33 points higher than any other division in college football.
• Each of the SEC West teams rank in the top 20 of ESPN's Football Power Index, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC have combined. The top three teams in the FPI are from the SEC West: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 3 Auburn.
• Five SEC West teams (Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M) rank in the Top 25 among FBS teams in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Texas A&M is No. 2 in scoring offense (55.3 points per game) and No. 8 in scoring defense (11.8 points). Arkansas is No. 3 in scoring offense (48.8 points), and the Razorbacks and Aggies are on pace to break the SEC scoring record set by Florida (46.6 points) in 1996.
A month into the season, the weight of the SEC seems to have shifted dramatically back to the West. Every SEC East team has already suffered at least one loss, including defending division champion Missouri and preseason favorites Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. SEC East teams are 0-3 against SEC West foes.
"I think these things kind of run in cycles," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They run in cycles from team to team and they run in cycles from division to division. I just think this happens to be one of those years where it seems like the West has a lot of really good teams. I think our league is just really, really strong from top to bottom. There's a lot of balance, and I just think our side of it seems to be especially strong this year."
Starting this weekend, the SEC West teams will start to cannibalize themselves. Texas A&M plays Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, and then plays three consecutive games against ranked opponents from the SEC West. After hosting Memphis on Saturday, Ole Miss plays four ranked SEC West foes in its next five games, and the Razorbacks will face ranked opponents in six of their next seven games.
Auburn might play the most arduous schedule of anyone, with six consecutive games against ranked SEC opponents after Saturday's home game against Louisiana Tech. After playing that murderer's row, the Tigers close the regular season with a home game against FCS foe Samford on Nov. 22 before a road trip to Alabama for the Iron Bowl the next week.
How difficult will the stretch run be in the SEC West? ESPN Insider's Brian Fremeau, who created the Fremeau Efficiency Index, gives each of the five remaining undefeated SEC West teams less than a 5 percent chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. Fremeau predicts defending national champion Florida State has a 41.8 percent chance of finishing undefeated, with Oregon (18.2 percent) and Oklahoma (13.2 percent) having the best opportunities to go unbeaten among the other Power 5 conference teams.
According to FPI projections, there's a 56 percent chance the SEC champion will have at least two losses. The Big 12 and ACC champions are each projected to have one or fewer losses.
"If you're going to win and be in the playoff, you've got to be a good football team anyway," Stallings said. "The bad thing is they're going to knock each other off. I don't know who's choosing the teams for the playoff, but the [SEC West] teams could lose two games by a couple of points and still be a better team than an undefeated or one-loss team from another league."
Over the next 10 weeks, the SEC West will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Over the next few weeks, we'll start to learn whether an upstart like Arkansas, Ole Miss or Mississippi State is ready to take a stand against Alabama and Auburn.
"We've made progress," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "We've done certain things better. I think, without a doubt, our guys have a lot more confidence than they maybe had a year ago. But until you've done it on a big stage and against a quality opponent like we're going to see Saturday, it's really just talk."
2. East showdown: Between the retrospectives on South Carolina’s overtime win at eventual SEC East champ Missouri last season and rundowns of the ESPN College GameDay hoopla that will parade into Gamecocks country this weekend -- Kenny Chesney is the guest picker, y’all! -- let’s also remember that South Carolina and Missouri will play a pretty big game on Saturday. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward says his defense is developing a better pass rush, and it will need to with Maty Mauk and Missouri’s passing game coming to town. The Tigers have tinkered with their starting offensive line, but their sophomore quarterback can sling it around. And the Tigers are pretty good on kick returns, too, which has been a problem for South Carolina of late.
3. Volunteers-Bulldogs: How’s this for a statement on the changing philosophies in college football. Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek says it’s unusual these days to scheme for Georgia’s relatively traditional pro-style offense. Of course, former UGA assistant Jancek has seen more of Mike Bobo’s offense than most, but the Bulldogs have also shaken things up a bit schematically since Jancek left the staff after the 2009 season. Saturday’s game pits two teams who have relied heavily on freshman contributors so far. It should be an interesting matchup between a Tennessee program that’s on the rise and one from Georgia that seems to rank among the favorites to win its third SEC East title in four seasons.
Around the SEC:
" As it turns out, LSU coach Les Miles has an appreciation for baseball’s advanced statistical analysis. Who wants to hear him break down sabermetrics?
" After an underwhelming performance against Kansas State last week, Auburn hopes to get its running game back on track against Louisiana Tech.
" Although he still weighs 360 pounds, Kentucky defensive tackle Matt Elam says he’s dropped 30 pounds since he arrived on campus.
" Alabama’s defense has worked lately on toughening up.
" Associated Press writers Steve Megargee and David Brandt give us a list of matchups and items to watch in this weekend’s SEC games.
Tweets of the day
Notre Dame and Texas A&M will play a home-and-home series in 2024 and 2025, the schools announced Thursday, the latest schedule boost to two programs that have plotted out quality opponents aggressively in light of the College Football Playoff.
The Fighting Irish and the Aggies will meet Aug. 31, 2024, in College Station, Texas, before facing off Sept. 27, 2025, in South Bend, Indiana. They have not faced each other in the regular season since a two-game series in 2000 and 2001.
"These two contests between Notre Dame and Texas A&M figure to be excellent intersectional attractions," Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement. "We had set a goal of adding representation from the Southeastern Conference to our future schedules, and we've accomplished that with the addition of this series, as well as the one with Georgia."
The announcement comes three weeks to the day that Notre Dame announced it would play a home-and-home series with Ohio State in 2022 and 2023, and three months to the day that the Irish announced they would play Georgia in a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2019.
The dates with the Bulldogs will mark Notre Dame's first regular-season games against an SEC opponent since it beat Tennessee at home in 2005, which was the second of a home-and-home series with the Volunteers. The Irish also have future home-and-home dates lined up with Texas (2015-16) and Michigan State (2016-17).
The Aggies have a future home-and-home scheduled with UCLA (2016-17) and will play Arizona State in the 2015 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff in Houston.
- Landon Collins, S, Alabama: The junior leads the Crimson Tide in tackles (32) and passes defended (2), and he's done all that in a secondary that hasn't had much stability. Collins' talent is unquestionable. He showed against Florida how disruptive a force he can be, whether that's in the passing game or playing near the line of scrimmage.
- Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: We all knew how good the junior wideout could be. Heck, he broke Julio Jones' freshman records at Alabama two years ago. Now that he's fully healthy again, Cooper is defying all expectations, leading the country in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to pick up large chunks of yards after the catch is uncanny.
- Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: He's a beast. There's no two ways about it. The junior has settled any debate heading into the season: He's the best running back in the country. In a one-dimensional offense, he shoulders the load. He averages 134 rushing yards per game. And he's explosive, with 13 runs of 10 or more yards through three games.
- Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny who? The redshirt sophomore has made Aggies fans forget the mercurial Johnny Manziel. Hill's raw QBR (94.0) is the best of any quarterback in the country with at least three starts -- ahead of Oregon Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota. Hill's 13 passing TDs to one interception is ridiculous.
- Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: The Tigers' defense hasn't been the best this season, but it has nothing to do with the pass rush. Ray, a junior from Missouri, has played lights out. He leads the league in sacks with six and is tied for ninth in total tackles with 22.
- Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: He was being billed as a possible contender for the Heisman Trophy, but Davis hasn't played up to those expectations yet. Nagging injuries have kept the junior tailback from reaching his potential once again. His 264 yards rushing ranks 10th in the SEC.
- Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Don't put all of Cooper's 201 yards and three touchdowns on Hargreaves. The sophomore cornerback wasn't covering him the whole time, and when he did give up a TD in the second half, he was worn out from his offense's inability to stay on the field. Nonetheless, Hargreaves should be considered one of the best corners in the SEC.
- O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There had to be an A.P.B. put out on Howard earlier in the season. The dynamic sophomore wasn't getting the football. He had no catches in the first three games. The only time he'd been targeted, it resulted in an interception. Last Saturday was a move in the right direction -- two receptions for 22 yards -- but Howard has to find a way to become a bigger part of Alabama's offense.
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: So much for a true freshman contending for the Heisman. But who really expected that would happen? Fournette has played well but not great. His 200 yards on 38 carries (5.3 average) is respectable but not noteworthy. Let's give the kid some time, why don't we?
- Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: What was all that talk we heard this offseason about Marshall developing into a better passer? It hasn't happened yet. The senior's completion percentage is still stuck well below the 60 percent benchmark. His QB rating (126.8) is worse than it was last season (143.2).
- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: For all the talk about Georgia and Alabama's running backs, it's been Arkansas with the most productive duo in the SEC. Collins leads the league in rushing yards (490) and Williams leads the league in rushing touchdowns (7).
- Travin Dural, WR, LSU: If it weren't for Cooper, we'd be drooling over LSU's explosive sophomore. He was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry last season, but not anymore. Dural is second in the league in receiving yards (494) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (4) despite getting the ball just 18 times, compared to Cooper's 43 or Malcome Kennedy's 30 receptions.
- Myles Garrett, DL, Texas A&M: The true freshman defensive end was brought to Aggieland to rush the passer, and he's done just that. The former five-star prospect has lived up to his talent, ranking second in the SEC with 5.5 sacks.
- Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Whether it's with his arm, his feet or even his hands, Mississippi State's junior quarterback is getting the job done. In addition to having the fourth-highest QB rating in the SEC (178.4), Prescott is tied for the league lead in scoring with 90 total points.
- Duke Williams, WR, Auburn: The former junior college transfer arrived at Auburn to much fanfare, and he quickly lived up to the hype. A physical 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's become Marshall's favorite target. The Louisiana native is fifth in the SEC in receptions (21), sixth in receiving yards (324) and ninth in yards per catch (15.4).
Why South Carolina wins: Neither team has looked too impressive so far, but the Gamecocks are a quality team at home, the season-opening loss to Texas A&M notwithstanding. (They’ve won 20 of their last 21 at Williams-Brice Stadium.) The Gamecocks have been tested by three top-25 teams (Texas A&M, Georgia, East Carolina) while Missouri has not (and lost at home to Indiana). The Tigers are also shuffling their offensive line after losing a starter to injury. South Carolina 30, Missouri 20 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Missouri wins: Before you say anything, I know. How can you lose to Indiana? Well, the Hoosiers would probably put up 30-plus points on this South Carolina defense. I can only imagine the kind of game Maty Mauk is going to have. Also, expect the Missouri defense to play better with star DE Markus Golden back in the lineup. How about this for redemption? Andrew Baggett kicks the game-winning field goal. Missouri 34, South Carolina 31 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Georgia wins big: Tennessee is coming off a bye, and there's no doubt the Vols are improved, but their defense is not ready to stop Georgia. Against Oklahoma, Tennessee gave up an average of 7.4 yards per carry to freshman running back Samaje Perine. Georgia's Heisman Trophy candidate, Todd Gurley, is averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and backup Sony Michel averages 10.3 yards per carry. More gloom and doom for the Vols: Once the ground game gets going, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason will hurt you with the play-action game. He's completing 71.2 percent of his passes this season. Georgia 42, Tennessee 20 -- Jeff Barlis
Why Tennessee keeps it close: This might be a bit of an overreaction to Georgia's loss to South Carolina. It was on the road. And it was decided by less than an inch. But Hutson Mason hasn't showed me he can complement Todd Gurley enough. And the Bulldogs' secondary isn't especially inspiring. Tennessee finds a way to make a few explosive plays though the air (Justin Worley is spoiled at receiver), and the Vols keep it tight well into the fourth quarter. Georgia 23, Tennessee 20 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Texas A&M wins big: I like what Bret Bielema is building at Arkansas. His brand of offense -- big, physical, nasty -- is refreshing and increasingly unique. But while I don't expect Texas A&M's defense to be especially stout against the run, I think DC Mark Snyder will find a way to force Brandon Allen to throw. If that's the case and Kenny Hill continues his trill ways, this one goes the Aggies' way in a hurry. Texas A&M 42, Arkansas 20 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Arkansas keeps it close: It's clear the Hogs are better than they were, with the 324.5 rushing yards per game and 17 total rushing touchdowns as proof. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have been fantastic, and the Aggies haven't faced an opponent remotely close to this one when it comes to the running game. I'm just not sure that the A&M line can hold up against it. But Kenny "Trill" Hill will find a way to zip throws through that shaky Arkansas secondary, and I'm just not ready to put a game on Brandon Allen's shoulders. It's just not enough in Jerry's World. Texas A&M 38, Arkansas 31 -- Edward Aschoff
More unanimous picks
Auburn over Louisiana Tech: This is Auburn’s only gimme for the next two months, so count on Gus Malzahn to get his starters out early with games against LSU and Mississippi State up next. Auburn 48, Louisiana Tech 14
LSU over New Mexico State: Because last week was a total embarrassment for LSU, New Mexico State probably won’t enjoy this visit to Tiger Stadium as Les Miles’ club tries to rebuild its confidence before returning to SEC play. LSU 40, New Mexico State 17
Kentucky over Vanderbilt: Maybe Florida’s blowout loss to Alabama made Kentucky’s overtime defeat in The Swamp look a bit less impressive, but it's still enough to expect Mark Stoops’ team to beat rebuilding Vandy. Kentucky 24, Vanderbilt 21
Ole Miss over Memphis: Like most of the other games in this renewed border rivalry -- Ole Miss holds a 47-10-2 advantage -- this one will end with the Rebels winning comfortably. Ole Miss 42, Memphis 20
Unanimous summaries and scores by David Ching
Jeff Barlis 38-4
Chris Low 38-4
Edward Aschoff 37-5
David Ching 37-5
Sam Khan Jr. 36-6
Greg Ostendorf 36-6
Alex Scarborough 34-8
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.”
Week 6 Picks
12:00 PM ET Florida Tennessee 12:00 PM ET 6 Texas A&M 12 Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET 3 Alabama 11 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt 13 Georgia 7:00 PM ET 15 LSU 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET South Carolina Kentucky