Plenty of similarities between Arkansas and Texas A&M
Saturday’s game between Arkansas and Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium will be one of the best SEC matchups of Week 4.
Aside from being crucial to the SEC West standings, the contest features two teams that have looked very similar through their first three games.
The Razorbacks and Aggies, both undefeated, have displayed balance on offense and improvement on defense through their first three games. Texas A&M ranks first among SEC teams in total offense while Arkansas ranks third in total defense.
They each have overtime wins against ranked non-conference opponents. The Aggies defeated then-No. 16 UCLA, 31-24, in Week 1 while the Hogs upset then-No. 15 TCU, 41-38, in Week 2.
But perhaps most importantly, the two teams face similar outlooks in how they’re perceived among SEC teams. Both A&M and Arkansas are still looked at as “middle of the conference” programs.
Neither team has the recent championship success of Alabama, Auburn and LSU or the historical prestige of Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. A&M’s best season as an SEC program came during its first year in the conference.
The Aggies finished 11-2 (6-2 SEC) and handed eventual national champion Alabama its only loss. But Kevin Sumlin’s teams have failed to improve their record from the previous season in each year since, including back-to-back 8-5 finishes in 2014-15.
Sumlin was not only on the hot seat entering the 2016 season but arguably had his throne’s temperature higher than any other returning coach. After losing two five-star quarterbacks in a span of a week as well as several major decommitments, many felt that the former SEC Coach of the Year’s tenure was coming to an abrupt end.
But Sumlin has reminded fans and media members why he was once heralded as the conference’s best young coach with a strong start from this improved Aggies team.
Arkansas has faced a different transition under Bret Bielema. Like his offensive scheme, the Razorbacks’ rebuilding project was gritty and methodical.
The Hogs went winless in SEC games during Bielema’s debut season but have improved their win total in each following year. Arkansas finished with an 8-5 (5-3) record in 2015, which led to a third-place finish in the SEC West.
While the Razorbacks haven’t yet experienced a season as great as A&M’s in 2012, there’s plenty of optimism surrounding the program. But as of now, the team’s ceiling has been somewhere in the center of the conference.
Naturally, both programs were overlooked in the preseason. Sure, A&M got some buzz for having arguably the best wide receiving group and defensive end in the SEC, but most picked the Aggies to finish behind Alabama and LSU. Arkansas was also picked to finish near the middle of the SEC West, perhaps because experts were cautious after overhyping the Hogs to a top 20 preseason ranking in 2015.
But Saturday’s game could be the one to propel the winner into contention for an SEC championship. Granted, both teams will still need to defeat Alabama and LSU to win the division, but that’s more of a down-the-line scenario.
Both A&M and Arkansas have the opportunity to start 4-0, which would be a huge momentum boost while changing the national perception of either program.
The winner of Saturday’s game will have beaten an undefeated and ranked opponent in a tough conference game. That should be enough to take them out of the middle of the division and be viewed as the second-best team in the West.