FAYETTEVILLE — Find two teams in the SEC that are more similar than Arkansas and Texas A&M. Try it.
Maybe it’s possible. But I can’t do it. Believe me, I’ve looked. The Hogs and Aggies are not exactly mirror images; their schemes differ, their coaching styles differ. They are awfully similar, though.
Ahead of this weekend’s game, arguably the best game in the SEC during a weekend filled with solid choices, we take a look at how similar the two teams are and where exactly one may have an edge — even if only a slight one.
Austin Allen leads the SEC in completion percentage and passer rating and he owns the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the conference. Granted, the sample size isn’t large as the Razorbacks have played only three games. Still, no one figured Allen would take control of Arkansas as quickly as he has. His composure during the TCU game a couple weeks ago was off the charts in the late moments and he hasn’t made a mistake since a couple picks against Louisiana Tech in Week 1.
Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight poses a dual threat. Knight is the type of quarterback Arkansas has had trouble with the last two years. Knight has run for more than 150 yards — which is more than anyone on Arkansas not named Rawleigh Williams III — and 3 touchdowns, and his 830 passing yards are third in the SEC. Where he sticks is with accuracy. His completion percentage (53) is second worst among SEC starters. Against an Arkansas secondary thus far prone to making and giving up big plays, it’s maybe one of the top three things to watch.
Williams III is a workhorse and, so far, it’s been a great thing for Arkansas. He and Nick Chubb are tied for most carries in the league with 71 and Williams has the third-most rushing yards in the conference. Texas A&M’s rushing defense is middle of the SEC pack, but it’s been at the bottom two the last couple years, and the Aggies haven’t played a running back as good as what Williams can bring. Thing is, if Williams can’t get going, no one is sure whether one of his reserves can. Both Kody Walker and Devwah Whaley, especially Whaley, have shown flashes, but they have both handled limited carries thus far.
Travyeon Williams and Keith Ford split the duties in the Texas A&M backfield and beyond them and Knight, no one else is expected to get much action, save a trick play or end around here or there. Williams, the freshman, is a scat-back type who can make big plays (more than 8 yards per carry this year) while Ford, a transfer from Oklahoma, is more traditional and the goal-line presence. All together, there is a lot unproven on both sides.
Arkansas is loaded and balanced at wide receiver. Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan have separated themselves as the primaries. The teammates have combined for 26 of the team’s 53 catches this year. Dominique Reed still lurks with speed — likely the fastest player in the SEC and possibly college football — and arguments can be made that Jeremy Sprinkle is the best tight end in the country. Junior slot man Jared Cornelius returns this week after sitting out against Texas State with a sore back. Loads of options here.
The question is whether those options are superior to Texas A&M’s. Christian Kirk is a star on the outside for the Aggies. He has 18 catches and 2 touchdowns and has the highest NFL upside of anyone on the roster, save maybe one defender (whom we’ll get to later). Josh Reynolds has actually upped Kirk’s production on the opposite side with 229 yards, though his have come on just 13 catches. Hard to say if that’s a good thing or bad thing for the Arkansas secondary. Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones provide alternative options and are plenty dangerous, too.
Advantage: Texas A&M
This must be a strength for Arkansas to win this weekend. Right tackle remains in flux with Colton Jackson and Brian Wallace swapping reps. Jake Raulerson was moved from center to right guard last week, switching with Frank Ragnow. Hjalte Froholdt still only has three career starts at left guard. The focus is on the outside, where Jackson, Wallace and left tackle Dan Skipper will need everything they can bring to stop A&M’s Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, the best combo of ends in the league.
Texas A&M returned just one starter from its offensive line last year, yet the Aggies have still run for more than 200 yards in each game. They’ve also only given up 3 total sacks. No one on the line particularly stands out, but the crew has been effective and mauling enough so far. They have not, however, seen a defensive front as good as what Arkansas will bring.
Edge: Texas A&M
Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter, at end and 3-technique, have at least a half-sack every game so far this season. The unit has been a strength in both pass rushing and stopping the run. Only one of those was worthy last season. Arkansas is halfway, in fact, to its total number of sacks from last year (20). The unit rotates as many as eight guys with some regularity, too, so it’s deep and talented. Might be enough to take advantage of A&M’s inexperience on the offensive line.
Garrett is the best defensive end in the country. Not a stretch. He has 3 sacks in three games, including 2 against Auburn last week. Opposite him is Hall, who doesn’t have a sack yet but has 4 tackles- for-losses. The Aggies defensive line is play-making and scary. Expect double-teams on Garrett, perhaps even more often than not.
Advantage: Texas A&M
Brooks Ellis. Dre Greenlaw. Dre Greenlaw. Brooks Ellis. It would not be a stretch to call the duo one of the top three linebacking one-two punches in the SEC. Thing is, no one remains behind them. De’Jon Harris and Dwayne Eugene saw a bit of run last week in the Hogs’ blowout of Texas State, but beyond that fourth quarter, not a single linebacker who will travel this week has a seen snap on the defensive side.
Shaan Washington is a cross between Greenlaw and Ellis. He’s heady and athletic, but he’s not as athletic as Greenlaw or as keen as Ellis. Still, he’s a good player on a decent unit. With Otaro Alaka and Claude George, basically a lieutenant in the corps, alongside, the Aggies aren’t necessarily star-studded but definitely capable.
Advantage: Wash, but let’s say Arkansas, assuming no one gets hurt.
Arkansas rolls with five defensive backs on literally almost every possession: three cornerbacks — Ryan Pulley, Jared Collins and Henre’ Toliver — and two safeties. They’re prone to giving up the big play (see TCU’s fourth quarter two weeks ago), but have also shut down opponents at times. Not just shut them down, but straight negated advantages.
Three members of the secondary make up three of the Aggies’ top four tackling spots. That means they’re quality tacklers, but it also means they take chances and/or ball carriers are able to get to the exterior and second level. The crew does have four interceptions, too, though all four came against UCLA.
Another week, another week of nothing special. Toby Baker is this unit’s best player and perhaps the best punter in the conference. Everywhere else? Average or gross. Arkansas is bottom of the league in defending punt and kickoff returns and only mid-pack in returns. Never mind kicking. Five touchbacks on 17 kickoffs.
Nick Harvey has taken a punt back to the house and Kirk is averaging 10 yards per return. That alone gives A&M the edge. Throw in Daniel LaCamera’s 9 of 10 in field goals, and this isn’t close.
Advantage: Texas A&M
So that’s a 4-4 tie. Sort of how the teams’ games have ended in regulation the last couple seasons. Could we see another OT?