Fresh off a 17-9 win over then-No.13 Miami, the No.23 Texas A&M Aggies’ schedule does not get any easier as they begin SEC play Saturday against No.10 Arkansas. It will be the 79th meeting between the schools and the 11th time the game takes place at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
While A&M’s win over Miami quieted many doubts swirling around the program, the Aggies failed to fully correct some of the problems on offense exposed in the surprising home loss to Appalachian State a week prior.
A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher acknowledged the improvement needed before the SEC opener at his weekly press conference while praising his team for handling adversity.
“Still got work to do by far,” Fisher said. “Nowhere close to perfect in anywhere we are. But I love the competitiveness. Love the togetherness. Love the guys pulling together. I mean, coming off a tough week, come off a tough loss, guys bonded together, blocked out the noise, went and played.”
Against Appalachian State, the Aggies mustered only 14 points and 186 total yards facing a defense that had given up 63 points and 567 total yards to North Carolina the week before. Against Miami, A&M improved marginally to 17 points scored and 264 total yards of offense.
Through three games, Texas A&M ranks last in the SEC and 110th nationally in total offense with 315.7 yards per game. The Aggies are also last in the SEC in scoring at 20.7 points per game, ranking 109th nationally.
Coach Fisher made a change at quarterback after the Appalachian State loss, starting Max Johnson against Miami instead of season-opening starter Haynes King. While Johnson, an LSU transfer, did not have huge numbers, completing 10-of-20 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, he avoided any interceptions and looked poised while leading the offense.
“He managed the game,” Fisher said. “A big game wasn’t too big. He made good third-down throws. He led us and had good poise. Hopefully, we can grow around him, he can continue to grow, and we can grow around him and keep playing better.”
The good news for A&M is that while their weakness is on the offensive side of the ball, the Arkansas defense has struggled this season.
The Razorbacks are allowing an FBS-high 353 passing yards per game and were even torched by FCS team Missouri State last week, going into the fourth quarter trailing by seven before winning 38-27. Arkansas is also last in the SEC for most pass plays allowed over 20 yards and over 40 yards.
The question will be whether the Aggies can overcome their struggles passing the ball to take advantage of the Razorbacks’ porous pass defense.
While it will be weakness vs. weakness when A&M has the ball, it will be strength vs. strength when Arkansas is in possession.
Texas A&M has allowed only 8.7 points per game this season, while Arkansas scores 37.7 points per game.
The Razorbacks’ strength on offense is their veteran offensive line, with all five starters having at least four years of college football experience. As a result, Arkansas is second in the SEC in rushing offense.
Sophomore running back Raheim Sanders has excelled behind the stud lineman, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Redshirt junior quarterback KJ Jefferson is also a threat in the run game but has improved this season at distributing the ball to different offensive players.
The run game and a punishing offensive line were instrumental in the Razorbacks’ 20-10 win over the Aggies last season, which snapped a streak of nine straight wins for A&M in the rivalry between the schools known as the Southwest Classic.
Arkansas’ head coach is also considered among the best in the nation. Sam Pittman was hired as the head coach for the Razorbacks after a 2-10 season in 2019.
In his third season in charge, Pittman has revived the Arkansas football program as they sit at 3-0 with the No.10 ranking in the AP Top 25.
“They’re sound in all three phases,” said Fisher. “They’re well-coached and they’ve got a veteran team. Those guys have been around a long time, and I say that makes a difference, man. They’re talented, they’re schooled, and they’re well coached.”
The betting lines have the Aggies as two-point favorites. Historically, Arkansas holds a 42-32 advantage all-time in the rivalry, but the series has been tied since 1967.
This Saturday’s matchup will be only the fourth time both teams have entered this game ranked since the series resumed annually in 2009. The game will kick off at 6 p.m. CT Saturday and be broadcast on ESPN.