FAYETTEVILLE – Only two among the Division 1 college football games this weekend match nationally ranked teams.
The Arkansas Razorbacks play in one of them.
No. 16 Arkansas vs. the No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. CBS televised SEC opener for both SEC West teams at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas marks Saturday’s lone Top 25 matchup other than No. 12 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Wisconsin.
Only Arkansas vs. A&M, both 3-0, Top 25 match up undefeated.
It’s a huge step for second-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman. Inheriting in 2020 Hogs consecutively wallowed, 4-8, 2-10, 2-10 overall and 1-7, 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC, Pittman progressed Arkansas to 3-7 in last year’s all-SEC schedule. His Hogs two games trounced then No. 15 Texas, 40-21.
Pittman has ample cause to dwell upon it all if he had opportunity to dwell.
“There’s not a lot of time to really think about it because we still have (nationally ranked) 1, 2, 6, 13 and 22 on the schedule,” Pittman said referring to SEC games with Alabama, Georgia, A&M (kind of a No. 6 compromise ranked fifth in the Coaches poll and seventh by AP) Ole Miss and Auburn). “The other thing is I think it’d be wasted time if I did. We’ve got a really good A&M team to play.”
Really, really good. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies, 9-1 last year beaten only by national champion Alabama, were undeservedly omitted from the four teams selected to play for the 2020 national championship.
At least that’s how AP voters saw it. They ranked A&M fourth, ahead of playoff selected Notre Dame, in AP’s final poll after all games were played.
A&M’s defense might even be better than last year’s. The Aggies have yielded but 17 points for three games and none for the last seven quarters. They blanked New Mexico, 34-0 last week after yielding only a first-quarter touchdown in the previous week’s 10-7 victory at Colorado.
Offensively the Aggies have had to break in their backup quarterback, Zach Calzada. Starter Haynes King broke his leg during the first quarter at Colorado.
Calzada struggled early off the bench but eventually threw the game-winning touchdown pass. He blossomed against New Mexico, 275 yards passing and three touchdowns.
“He’s playing with more confidence,” Pittman said. “He’s more accurate with the ball. They’re protecting him better. Seems like the routes are crisper. I think he’s got belief. The wide receivers and tight end have belief in him.”
Calzada sure has cause to believe in his tight end.
Preseason All-SEC tight end Jalen Wydermyer returns after vexing Arkansas last year, 6 catches for 92 yards and 2 touchdowns in A&M’s 42-31 victory, the Aggies’ ninth consecutive over Arkansas.
He’s got one of the nation’s premier running backs, Isaiah Spiller, a powerful 6-1, 215 with track speed off a 117-yards rushing game against New Mexico and with a touchdown against Arkansas last year.
Also the Aggies sport the dangerously versatile Ainias Smith, 98 yards rushing and receiving against Arkansas last year running for one TD and and catching another.
However Smith and 6-4, 320 offensive guard Layden Robinson are both questionable for Saturday’s game recovering from injuries, Fisher said.
Arkansas has two question marks of its own. Center Ricky Stromberg, named SEC Co-offensive Lineman of the Week playing so well in last Saturday’s 45-10 victory over Georgia Southern, and right tackle Dalton Wagner both exited the game injured.
Arkansas finished fine without them. But starting without them against A&M is a far different obstacle than finishing off Georgia Southern.
While Pittman understandably lauds A&M, Fisher also has no credibility problems lauding Arkansas.
“Arkansas is playing as good as anybody,” Fisher said. “They’ve been dominant. They are extremely physical on both lines of scrimmage.”
Arkansas so defensively dominated Texas that Razorbacks linebackers Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan were honored nationally.
Offensively, 245-pound quarterback KJ Jefferson and running backs Trelon Smith, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, Dominique Johnson and AJ Green respectively average 7.5, 5.1, 5.5, 8.8 and 7.4 yards per carry and combined for 10 rushing touchdowns.
Jefferson passed for 366 yards against Georgia Southern.
Treylon Burks of Warren caught 3 for 127 yards, one a 91-yard touchdown.
Helena native Tyson Morris has had at least one early igniting big-play catch every game among his 6 catches for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“I think they are playing great,” Fisher said. “So we have to play great.”