I have to admit, I was skeptical that Arkansas would ever embrace Missouri as a true rival. Arkansas, after all, has never really had a true rival: Texas always hated Texas A&M and, especially later on, Oklahoma even more. LSU hates Ole Miss and Alabama more than the Hogs. Missouri hates Kansas, but let's be honest, over the majority of the last 25 years it's been easier to feel bad for Kansas than hate them.
But now Missouri (9-2, 6-1 SEC) is playing for the SEC East title, its second straight. Arkansas (6-5, 2-5 SEC) has locked up a bowl and is playing with house money on the road in Columbia. You couldn't script a better start to this new Battle Line Rivalry (although the name is still lame).
Mizzou is the Perennial Trendy Upset Pick. They always look bad, even in victory, leading teams (or, more likely, fans) to assume they're overrated and easily beatable. One would think that an SEC East title last year would change that, but nope, once again the Tigers were underdogs in the Swamp and on Rocky Top and yet won both. They've won 10 straight road games and were underdogs in five. That's ridiculously impressive. But for some reason, "CoMo" (as they call Columbia, Mo.) continues to provide one of the weakest home-field advantages in the SEC. Perhaps it's the residual result of the 2012 Georgia game, Mizzou's first as an SEC member and a much-ballyhooed showdown, when the Tigers were thumped 41-20 by Mark "Old Man Football" Richt and company.
Speaking of Georgia, the Dawgs pasted Mizzou 34-0 in Columbia a couple of weeks after Indiana (3-8, 0-7 Big Ten) upset Mizzou 31-27. But thanks to Georgia's annual no-show game - this time against Florida - the Dawgs are calling the Hogs for a shot at Atlanta.
Arkansas' offense vs. Mizzou's defense
|Arkansas offense||Missouri defense|
|Pass Downs S&P+||11th||8th|
Defense has kept Missouri in it this year. The offense goes through long stretches of ineptitude thanks to a variety of issues, but the defense almost always has it together. Missouri's rushing defense numbers look good, and they've shut down their share of weak-to-average attacks, but the two best rushing teams on their schedule (Indiana and Georgia) beat them.
As a guest on Sports Talk with Bo on Monday, Tim Brando said he worried that Mizzou was a bad matchup for the Hogs. Plenty of Hog fans jumped on him as a Hog-hater (a ridiculous assertion), but Brando was correct if he was referring to what I think he was referring to: the matchup of Mizzou's defensive ends and Arkansas' offensive line. Mizzou's defense is driven by the play of two excellent defensive ends, Markus Golden and Shane Ray. Ray is slightly undersized, but both are very quick and excellent pass-rushers. DE play been the M.O. of Mizzou's defense since joining the SEC, with Michael Sam winning SEC Defensive POY honors last year.
The good news for Arkansas is that the last two opponents, LSU and Ole Miss, also have very athletic defensive ends. Arkansas very clearly used the bye week to devise a number of play-actions and bootlegs to get Brandon Allen into a comfortable place to throw against all three opponents. Even if Austin Allen has to start, both quarterbacks are more than mobile enough run the play-action game and the Hogs are well-versed in how to operate against a good edge pass-rush. Expect to see a lot of tight end delays, which provide a safety net for the quarterback if the pass-rush does get there. Arkansas gashed LSU (and Ole Miss, to a lesser degree) with A.J. Derby on the delay and Hunter Henry on the crossing routes.
A prevalent belief is that Missouri is soft straight up the middle and the Hogs should be able to run straight over them. There is some merit to this, as since joining the SEC Mizzou is a dismal 2-7 against SEC foes ranked in the top five of the league in rushing yards per game, and that's not counting the Indiana loss. However, the numbers only partially back this up. As I noted in my Georgia preview, the Bulldogs only had a success rate of 26.1 percent rushing in the first half of that 34-0 win over Mizzou. Nick Chubb got lots of yards, but he did it on pure volume of carries (38). The real reason Mizzou lost is five turnovers by the Tiger offense and the unflashy-but-effective short passing game of Hutson Mason. If Arkansas can jump to an early lead with the way the Hog defense is playing, then we may see another 45 or 50 attempt game from the rushing attack, but otherwise whichever Allen plays quarterback needs to do so effectively.
Here's what Mizzou has done against Power 5 rushing attacks this year:
|Opponent||Rush Off S&P+||Season||vs. Mizzou||Margin||Game Result|
As you can see, the Tigers are 6-0 when holding an opponent to 135 yards or fewer, and 0-2 when failing to. They're also 0-2 against top 20 rushing attacks.
Mizzou's offense vs. Arkansas' defense
|Arkansas defense||Missouri offense|
|Pass Downs S&P+||13th||73rd|
It's FEAST TIME for the Hog defense. Once again, the defense needs a big game for Arkansas to win, considering that the Hog offense is facing yet another quality defense. Mizzou has been plagued by long periods of total offensive ineptitude, from turnovers galore (Georgia) to bad passing (South Carolina, Vanderbilt) to bad rushing (Kentucky). To their credit, they frequently have just enough in the tank to push through for a victory, namely in the last two games against Texas A&M and Tennessee.
As far as personnel goes, Mizzou is very similar to Ole Miss, but with a little lower ceiling. Quarterback Maty Mauk is a poor man's Bo Wallace, whose highs are a little lower and whose lows are really low. Mauk is mobile, averaging six scramble runs per game in addition to a handful of called runs and read runs. At his best, he has a good arm and can lead a capable passing attack that complements an average rushing attack. At his worst, he's inaccurate and turnover-prone. The running backs are similar to Ole Miss' as well, with two backs - Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough - running the show. Hansbrough (858 yards, 9 TD) is the better of the two. Missouri's spread offense scheme means that Mizzou's backs will be running behind five to six (if there's a tight end) blockers. Arkansas will likely play nickel, putting four elite linemen and two linebackers - Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight - who are excellent at stopping the run in the box. Arkansas' ability to fight off blocks means that Mizzou is going to have to break some tackles against tacklers that haven't missed over the last few weeks.
Here's Arkansas' run defense:
|Opponent||Rush Off S&P+||Season||vs. Arkansas||Margin||Game Result|
The Hogs have faced some good rushing attacks. In fact, Mizzou has, by far, the weakest rushing attack in terms of S&P+. The Hogs drilled both foes not ranked in the top 21 in Rushing S&P+ (Texas Tech and Ole Miss). Arkansas is 3-1 when holding its opponent to 101 yards or fewer, losing only to Alabama in a game that should not have been lost. The Hogs have also been merciless against the run since the Georgia game, holding opponents to well under half their season averages.
Mizzou's receivers are our final concern. The Tigers were already hit hard by graduation when Dorial Green-Beckham was booted from the squad in the spring, leaving almost no experience. Finding targets took some time, but Bud Sasser is now the top guy, with Jimmie Hunt playing the occasional deep threat role. As I point out ever week, Arkansas is really, really good at taking away a quarterback's top target. Here's how the Hogs have performed against foes' top receivers:
|Team||Name||Receptions/Game||Yards/Game||Receptions vs ARK||Yards vs ARK||Yards Margin|
|Texas Tech||Bradley Marquez||5.8||72.7||4||34||-53.23%|
|Texas A&M||Malcome Kennedy||4.6||47.7||3||44||-7.76%|
|Mississippi State||D'Runnya Wilson||2.4||40.8||2||18||-55.86%|
|Ole Miss||Vince Sanders||3.7||64.7||0||0||-100.00%|
Vince Sanders was the latest to run into the Hogs' pass defense gauntlet, failing to record a catch. Arkansas' pass defense is at its best against opponents who struggle to find other targets if the leading guy is covered (Alabama stands out). Here's Mizzou's season figures:
|Marcus Murphy, RB||20||143||1|
It's Sasser's show in Columbia, so expect to see the high safety in the Hogs' quarters-quarters-half defense slanted to Sasser's side on most plays. There's also a name notably absent from this list: tight end Sean Culkin. Opponents have had some success hitting tight ends in the seams against Arkansas: Alabama's O.J. Howard and Ole Miss' Evan Engram led their respective teams in receiving yards, while Texas A&M's Cameron Clear had a good game. Culkin has just 15 catches for 143 yards, and has recorded fewer than 30 receiving yards in every SEC game (with zero catches in three).
Mizzou runs a more classic spread, with one back in shotgun. They mix a 4WR package with 3WR/TE package in which the tight end is frequently flexed (not on the line) and often motioned across the formation to manipulate the defense. They'll do things that spread teams do, so expect to see bubble screens and running back screens, along with some option work. The Tigers ran a speed option on 3rd-and-6 and converted against Tennessee. Their passing routes include a lot of two-man routes, like the classic smash route or the curl-flat route. When pressured, Mauk can scramble or dump it off to a back, so the Hog pursuit must be relentless but not reckless. It's a system that can be beaten with patience and good, fundamental football. If the Hogs stop the run and don't give up any deep passes, Missouri's offense will likely bog down or self-implode.
|20th (4.7)||Penalties per Game||118th (8.2)|
|22nd (40.4)||Penalty Yards per Game||105th (63.8)|
|105th (4.4%)||Sack Rate||8th (9.5%)|
|26th (4.3%)||Sack Rate Against||57th (5.7%)|
|13th (47.3%)||Thrid Down Offense||25th (44.9%)|
|84th (42.2%)||Third Down Defense||19th (34.7%)|
|85th (79.5%)||Red Zone Offense||2nd (95.7%)|
|6th (70.4%)||Red Zone Defense||95th (86.4%)|
|29th (+0.6)||Turnover Margin||28th (+0.6)|
Missouri is a heavily-penalized team. A key matchup to watch is Mizzou's redzone offense (2nd NCAA) against Arkansas' redzone defense (6th). Mizzou holds an advantage on third downs, but much of that is due to the fact that the Tigers avoided such SEC West third down juggernauts as Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss, all of which are top 25 in third down offense. The best third down team Mizzou has faced has been Georgia, and the Dawgs were 12 of 21 on third downs.
Keys to the game
1. Hold Maty Mauk to under 6.0 yards per attempt. He's at 6.3 on the season, so this isn't unreasonable. Both Ole Miss and LSU failed to reach 6.0, with LSU not even coming close (4.0 even if sacks aren't factored in). Yards per attempt mixes both completion percentage AND yards per completion, so to do this the Hogs must not give up any long bombs and do decently in forcing incomplete passes on the shorter stuff.
2. Hold Mizzou to under 125 rushing yards, not counting sacks. The Tigers are at 177.6 total rushing yards per game for the year, about where Ole Miss was. Arkansas' defense held LSU to 94 non-sack yards and Ole Miss to 80 non-sack yards.
3. Go at least +7 in points off turnovers. I'd put Arkansas' chances of winning this game over 80 percent if all I knew about it was that Arkansas didn't turn the ball over. If the Hogs can cash in a Mizzou mishap for points then that would be fantastic.
4. Rush for at least 175 non-sack yards. The Hogs don't need a ton of yards to win this game. A few efficient plays through the air should be enough with the way the defense is playing. Arkansas needs to allow itself a good situation to run the ball, and this means...
5. Convert at least 7 third downs. This is an "if-needed" key. If the Hogs hit a lot of big plays or force a lot of Mizzou turnovers, as happened against Ole Miss, then third down efficiency won't be a big deal. But if this is a back-and-forth game, I don't forsee Arkansas finding big holes to run the ball, so the offense will face lots of third downs. Against LSU, Brandon Allen was 6 of 11 for 79 yards and six conversions, all in 3rd-and-5 or longer. If Austin has to play, can he be that clutch?