Arkansas football: Battle Line Rivalry a showdown of SEC's 2 most surprising teams
No one can argue that Arkansas has been the SEC’s biggest surprise this season.
Picked to finish last at the beginning of the year, the Razorbacks (3-5) sit ahead of 4 other teams in the conference. They snapped the worst league losing streak in school history and Sam Pittman is a favorite for SEC Coach of the Year in his inaugural season.
But the Hogs aren’t the conference’s only overachieving team.
Arkansas will face Missouri (4-3) at noon ET on Saturday in the Battle Line Rivalry. The Tigers, who also have a first-year coach in Eliah Drinkwitz, have also taken the conference by storm of late.
Missouri has won 4 of its past 5 games, though admittedly against subpar competition. Lost in Sarah Fuller’s historic performance Saturday was that the Tigers destroyed Vanderbilt 41-0. They are a 3-point favorite over the Hogs at home.
The schools have played 6 times since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, with the Tigers winners of 5 of those contests. Arkansas’ only win in that span was 2015. This year is as good a chance as they’ll get to snap that 4-game losing streak.
Oddly enough, Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom helped Mizzou build that winning streak. He went 4-0 against the Hogs.
Odom, however, was fired as the Tigers’ coach this past offseason — a day after his final win over Arkansas. He seems to have found a perfect next step in joining Pittman’s staff.
Arkansas leads the SEC in turnovers forced per game with 2.1. The Hogs are also up to the 83rd overall defense from 110th last season. That said, they haven’t looked quite as sharp in recent weeks as they did to start the year.
That could open things up for the offense and freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak.
Bazelak has had a season that is typical for a freshman thus far, with both good and bad outings. He didn’t throw his first touchdown until his 3rd game of the year, when he went for 406 yards and 4 scores against LSU. Since then he has thrown just 1 touchdown, but hasn’t had a game of less than 200 yards.
Larry Rountree III leads the Tigers’ ground game with 650 yards and 8 touchdowns.
This looks like a good spot for the Razorbacks to get back on track defensively. They will be without safety Jalen Catalon for the first half only after he was ejected for targeting late in the Hogs’ most recent game against LSU. Even without Catalon they still boast 2 of the SEC’s top 5 tacklers in Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool.
The key will be whether the Razorbacks can put up points.
The Tigers actually have the better defensive numbers of the teams. They are allowing just 350 yards per game (3rd in the SEC) and 25 points per game (5th). Strength of schedule may have skewed those numbers, however.
Arkansas will also be without starting running back Rakeem Boyd, who left the program Tuesday.
Trelon Smith has served nicely when Boyd has been out so far this season. He will again fill the starting role Saturday. Despite new coordinator Kendal Briles, the Hogs haven’t exactly been explosive on offense.
Their best bet to score will be the passing attack, where Treylon Burks has emerged as a top SEC receiver. He has at least 90 yards in every full game he has played this season and ranks fourth in the conference in receiving yards. Feleipe Franks is 4th in the SEC with 17 TD passes.
Even without Boyd, I like the Razorbacks to win.
Arkansas has been competitive in most games it has played this season, with a couple of its losses coming in the final minutes of the game. Although Missouri has been surging recently, it is against poor competition. Count on Arkansas to snap its losing streak against the Tigers on Saturday.