West Never Rests: Divisional battle awaits Hogs, Aggies

ARLINGTON, Texas — Almost every coach will repeat the age-old mantra that the next game is always the most important game on the schedule.

That’s not always true, but look at today’s Southwest Classic.

The adage never seemed more real than for tonight’s 6 p.m. game between the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M.

The No. 10 Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0 SEC) actually come into play as 2 1/2 point underdogs against the No. 23 Aggies (2-1, 0-0) after recovering from a 17 -points deficit to defeat FCS Missouri State in a game against former coach Bobby Petrino last week.

The Aggies had such a scare too, but things didn’t go as well as Appalachian State shocked them 17-14 two weeks ago in College Station, Texas.

Arkansas will contest its second top-25 match of the season while also seeking its fifth straight trophy game win under third-year coach Sam Pittman.

Based on the future prospects of both programs, today’s game is crucial.

“This is basically the start of the really tough games,” said Arkansas senior defensive end Zach Williams. “So I feel like if we start really well it gives us enough momentum and energy to go to the next game, to the next game, to the next game.

“So I think this game is very important because the SEC West starts with it. Not only because they are our true rivals. It’s going to be a big, important game.”

Pittman has been playing the trophy games, going so far as to snap a photo with the four the Razorback won last year, plus Larry the bowling ball, while seated on a throne. The image is on the inside back cover of the Arkansas Media Guide.

“I think it’s a great rivalry for us,” Pittman said. “I think every time you’ve lost nine of your last ten games, it means a lot to Arkansas because we weren’t on the winning side.

“It’s a big thing for us to win one of those trophy games. It’s a huge thing. We released the trophy this week and stuff like that. Obviously we need to get it down there. We definitely want to bring it back. It means something to us.”

Arkansas second linebacker Chris Paul Jr. is aware of the upcoming schedule.

“This game right here is gonna start SEC games out west, man,” Paul said. “This is one of our top opponents other than Alabama. But we don’t worry about which teams we play next. We just take it week after week.

“So with Texas A&M, such a powerhouse team that did a great job, all we have to do is keep our minds on track, stay on our scripts and study the film even more than what we’ve been doing for the last three weeks. ”

The Razorbacks have an advantage over the Aggies as they already opened the SEC game with a 44-30 win over South Carolina in Week 2 while A&M will play its league opener.

“It’s your first conference game and you want to get off to a good start in your own conference,” said Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher. “It’s a tough road for everyone. This is the SEC West. It’s tough every week.

“It’s another important game. But it’s a game. It is, but it’s a very important game because it’s next and you’d rather be up than down, I promise you, with what’s to come.

What awaits both teams is an absolute grind. None of the teams left their own campus for more than three weeks.

Arkansas follows the Southwest Classic with a home game of preseason no. 1 Alabama to beat the Hogs 15 straight years. This is followed by road trips to Mississippi and BYU, then another open date road game in Auburn.

Texas A&M will hardly be home in October. The Aggies travel sequentially to face Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina before their next home game on October 29 against Ole Miss.

“It’s definitely different,” said Texas A&M receiver Ainias Smith. “At the beginning of the SEC game there is nothing to play around with. The competition will take place every week. Training gets tough every week. So we just have to tune in and live our hearts out.”

Arkansas made a big break in the series last year with a 20-10 win and went on a nine-game losing streak in the series that included several heartbreaking losses, three of them in overtime over the past decade.

The excitement of the No. 6 Aggies paid off for the Razorbacks, sending them into the top 10 at No. 8 for the first time in almost a decade and opening up better recruiting opportunities in Texas.

“I think recruiting is a lot about trust,” Pittman said. “Last year we got lucky and we beat Texas and then we beat Texas A&M.

“I think our confidence to go to the state of Texas and be like, ‘OK, we did that.’ I think it helped us recruit in that way.”

Pittman summarized the recruiting pitch her coaches might use: “We say, ‘We’ve had a few wins in the state,’ and you feel confident going in there and saying, ‘Why not us? Give us a chance. You’ll like it when you come to campus.” So I think it definitely helped us as employees with recruitment, and I hope it helped the kids see us in a different light.”

The teams have opposing tendencies on both sides of the ball.

Arkansas rushed for 597 total yards last week and ranks third in the SEC and 18th in the country with an average 500.3 yards. The Hogs are 39th in scoring with 37.7 points per game.

Behind a veteran offensive line, Arkansas ranks 10th in FBS rushing with 243.7 yards per game, and sophomore Raheim Sanders is third with 146.7 rushing yards.

Texas A&M has struggled offensively and has already switched quarterbacks, from Haynes King to LSU transfer Max Johnson, the left-hander who guided the Aggies to a 17-9 win over No. 13 Miami last week.

Texas A&M ranks 110th in total offense at 315.7 yards per game and 108th in scoring (20.7).

On the other side of the ball, the Aggies rank 31st in total defense by conceding 301.7 yards per game, which is nearly 50 yards less per game than the Razorbacks allow through the air. Arkansas is 105th in total defense (421.0) and last in passing yards (352.7), though the Razorbacks lead the country with 5.67 sacks per game.

About Veronica Richards

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