When Arkansas hired Bret Bielema in 2013, it was easy to get excited about some big, burly Hogs taking on some of the SEC's speedier squads. And both with and without Johnny Manziel, no team personifies the need for speed more than Arkansas' old SWC friends and new SEC rivals, Texas A&M.
Run versus pass, speed-it-up versus slow-it-down.
In Bielema's first battle with A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, 3-1 Arkansas was able to slow the game down and hang around for a while. It was 38-33 heading into the fourth quarter, and the 100-plays-or-bust Aggies were only able to take 74 snaps. A&M pulled away to win by 12 and hand Arkansas its second of what would be nine consecutive losses to end the season. The game hinted at both rivalry and doom for an Arkansas team that had begun the season 3-0 and finished 3-9.
The Razorbacks are again 3-1 as they take on the Aggies, this time at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, but so many other things have changed. First of all, it's a much sturdier 3-1. A 10-point win over Samford has been replaced by a 66-point thrashing of Nicholls State. A 21-point win over an awful Southern Miss has been replaced by a 21-point road win over Texas Tech. And a second-half road fade against Rutgers has been replaced by a second-half road fade in a much more forgivable loss: defending SEC champion Auburn.
We still don't know if Arkansas can throw the ball or stop opponents when it needs to, but Bielema's Hogs have impressed. They're stuck in the wrong division -- 34th and rising in the F/+ rankings but still a distant seventh in an SEC West that features six of the nation's top 11 teams. But they're improving, and they should provide a grueling test for every challenger on the slate.
They will also give us an answer to every question we have about Texas A&M. And there's a decent chance that the answers won't favor the Aggies.
Arkansas defense vs. getting off of the field
Key stat No. 1: The Arkansas defense ranks 72nd in passing-downs success rate (28.8 percent). Against Auburn and Texas Tech, it was 42.9 percent.
Key stat No. 2: Texas A&M receivers Malcome Kennedy, Ricky Seals-Jones, Edward Pope, and Josh Reynolds are averaging 11.5 yards per target (31 targets, 23 catches, 356 yards) on passing downs.
(Note: passing-downs stats to non-garbage time snaps that occur on second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, and fourth-and-5 or more.)
Arkansas ranked only 94th in Def. F/+ last season, showing promise against the pass but struggling to stop decent running games. This year, the early reviews are mixed. Auburn was able to run and pass at will -- backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson went 12-for-16 for 243 yards and two scores against the Hogs, while running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant rushed 36 times for 264 yards -- but Texas Tech and Northern Illinois completed just 61 percent of their passes at 9.4 yards per completion.
The Hogs were able to find success against Tech's passing game, mostly in bursts. After Tech tied the score at 21-21, quarterback David Webb finished the half completing just two of eight passes for 12 yards and an interception that set up a short Arkansas touchdown drive. And in the fourth quarter, with Arkansas up two scores, Webb was just 6-for-10 for 31 yards and another pick. Timely defense made the difference in the game, but in the other 2.5 quarters, Webb was 19-for-27 for 209 yards and three touchdowns, and Tech was able to consistently catch back up after falling behind schedule. Webb was 10-for-18 for 160 yards in second- or third-and-long.
Arkansas' pass rush has been mostly nonexistent this season (117th on standard downs, 63rd on passing downs), and if the Razorbacks can't get pressure on Aggie quarterback Kenny Hill, bad things will happen.
A&M's offense doesn't really change once behind schedule; the Aggies run 40 percent of the time on standard downs and 38 percent of the time on passing downs. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital's play-calling has helped to keep pressure off of young Hill (A&M throws more than almost anybody in the country on standard downs, when opponents still have to fear the run, and the Aggies run heavily on passing downs, when opponents want to blitz), and it has paid off. A&M is currently averaging 8.1 yards per play (third in the country behind only Georgia Southern and Oregon) and 55.3 points per game (second behind Baylor). Granted, they've only played one decent opponent in four games (South Carolina), but they torched the Gamecocks, too.
Arkansas will move the ball and try to keep A&M off the field, but the Hogs will still have to make stops when they get the opportunity. Otherwise, a slow pace only prolongs the inevitable.
Texas A&M defense vs. Mack trucks
Key stat No. 3: For the 106 FBS running backs with at least 40 carries in 2014, the average Opportunity Rate* is 39.8 percent. Arkansas running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are at 60.4 percent (first) and 60.0 percent (second), respectively.
Key stat No. 4: Texas A&M's defense currently ranks 22nd in rushing success rate allowed, but only 61st in Opportunity Rate allowed.
* Opportunity Rate is a look at the frequency of carries in which rushers gain at least five yards; it is intended to look at the number of open-field opportunities backs were given.
It's a safe assumption that a Bielema team is going to have an excellent running game. The Razorbacks were good at it last year even when they weren't very good at anything else. Collins and Williams combined for 1,926 yards and eight touchdowns despite minimal pass threat, and the yards didn't simply come from a high volume of carries.
So far in 2014, behind a line that features just one senior, Collins and Williams have been almost impossibly successful. The two are averaging a combined 7.8 yards per carry and are on pace for more than 2,600 rushing yards even if the Hogs don't make a bowl game. Yes, Arkansas has played three straight overmatched defenses, but the Hogs are posting numbers that would be impressive against NAIA teams.
So now Arkansas gets to take on an A&M defense that we're still trying to figure out. The Aggies ranked just 77th in Rushing S&P+ last year and haven't really been tested on the ground. In the season opener, South Carolina gave up on the run, both because of a double-digit deficit and an injury to star back Mike Davis, who finished with six carries for 15 yards. The last three games have seemingly begun with A&M up three touchdowns.
South Carolina had some success throwing the deep ball against A&M, but the Aggies still made more than enough stops to win, and in all, this young defense has passed the tests it has been given. But Arkansas represents the biggest test yet, both literally and metaphorically.
Of the 18 players listed on the Aggies' front-seven two-deep, six are true freshmen and four are sophomores. Plus, two freshmen start in the secondary as well. Arkansas will hit them and hit them and hit them. Will they hold up?
Third-and-long vs. "Allen back to pass ..."
Key stat No. 5: Arkansas has yet to allow a non-garbage time sack this year in 30 standard-downs pass attempts and 27 passing-downs pass attempts. Needless to say, a 0.0 percent sack rate ranks first in the country.
Key stat No. 6: Texas A&M's defense has a 15.8 percent sack rate on passing downs, 10th in the country. Blue-chip freshman Myles Garrett already has 5.5 sacks (third in the country) and five QB hurries.
There will come a point at which Arkansas falls behind schedule. The Arkansas run game is so good (and so persistent) that this might be a rare occurrence, but it will happen at some point.
And when it does, we'll see what happens when a thus-far impenetrable Arkansas offensive line takes on a slice-and-dice Aggie pass rush. Can Garrett and company get to quarterback Brandon Allen before he finds an open receiver?
Actually, will Allen even find an open receiver with all the time in the world? Even with minimal threat of sacks, Arkansas' top four receivers have caught just 12 of 20 passing-downs passes for 141 yards (7.1 per target). That's not awful, but it's not particularly good.
The next step in the evolution of the Arkansas offense will come when the Hogs start completing deep balls to go with their grind-you-into-dust run game. Allen has found Keon Hatcher for a couple on running downs (on standard downs, he's caught six of 11 passes for 152 yards), but that's been about it. A&M could be vulnerable to this if the Aggie pass rush isn't getting to Allen, but Allen might not be capable of delivering strikes to these receivers either.
More on Hogs-Aggies
More on Hogs-Aggies
Both teams vs. the goal line
Key stat No. 7: Arkansas' offense is averaging 5.9 points per scoring opportunity*, ninth in the country, while Texas A&M's defense allows just 2.5 points per opportunity (second).
Key stat No. 8: Texas A&M's offense averages 6.0 points per scoring opportunity (seventh), while Arkansas' defense allows 5.2 (99th).
* Scoring opportunities are drives with either a long touchdown or a first down inside the opponent's 40.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of college football is that there are countless ways to move the ball and score points. Arkansas and Texas A&M have been nearly automatic near the opponent's goal line, but they've done so with dramatically contrasting styles. A&M spreads defenses out, throws 58 percent of the time, and scores touchdowns with aplomb. Arkansas simply keeps throwing their big running backs at you, running 75 percent of the time, and finishing in the end zone just the same.
Only one of the two teams has been any good at stopping opponents from scoring, however. A&M has been tremendous at it -- to the point where some regression to the mean could be expected -- and Arkansas has not.
One assumes that Arkansas will be able to play ball-control football pretty well, and one assumes that both teams will have plenty of opportunities to score. Last year's game finished with 78 points, and while the A&M defense has potentially improved, so has the Arkansas offense.
If both teams are creating opportunities, the game could come down to who gets into the end zone and who settles for field goals or turns the ball over. I like to say that field goals are either failures or admissions of failure -- anything under 4.0 points per scoring opportunity is mediocre or worse, and obviously the most points you can score on a field goal attempt is three -- and that could be doubly true in this game.