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September 27, 2013

Tarp's pregame thoughts

My last thoughts on this game as usual circle back around to what each team needs to do to win. Since Arkansas is a pronounced underdog in that regard, it's easier to focus on their requirements, especially with starting quarterback Brandon Allen being slowed with a separated shoulder. The conditions for an upset usually focus on a few key items which an underdog can use to offset a better team's physical superiority.

First off, most upsets come about because of turnovers. Arkansas is plus three in that category so far this season (tied for third in the SEC), mostly because they limit their risk on offense by handing the ball off and throwing it off of play action. In addition, their front four is quite capable of playing in your backfield and stressing your skill people into turning the ball over (which is actually how most turnovers occur).

However, A&M is also plus three in turnovers this season as well. Even through the Aggies run more of a high risk offense with the spread, they've only turned it over five times in four games this season. Since the LSU game last season, the Aggies have just 12 turnovers in 10 contests. For all of the talk about what a playmaker Johnny Manziel is, he doesn't make bad decisions in the passing game and isn't careless with the ball when he's running with it. Last weekend, SMU played two high safeties the entire to stop big plays and Manziel still put five touchdowns up in a little over a half of football by being patient and taking what SMU gave him. In addition, A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin emphasizes ball security and Aggie backs and receivers do the little things well like carry it in the outside arm away from the inside defensive traffic.

In addition, despite having well publicized defensive woes, the Aggies are actually at forcing them now than they were a year ago. In particular, defensive back DeShazor Everett has both an interception and a fumble recovery for a touchdown and despite sitting nearly two and a half quarters due to suspensions, A&M has forced all eight turnovers when he's on the field. He's just very aware of everything that goes on around him and he is physical and a great tackler.

The weather is supposed to be rainy and windy tomorrow night in Fayetteville, conditions which are ripe for turnovers. Arkansas has practiced with wet balls in anticipation of those conditions and you can bet that A&M has too. Thus, Arkansas probably won't be able to count on turnover margin to win unless something really goes awry on A&M's end.

Second, Arkansas isn't a high scoring team…a season high of just 34 points against Louisiana-Lafayette which isn't a defensive powerhouse. That's because they're a run the ball/play action pass team and don't take many chances or create space favorable for one on one matchups down the field. They'll also be somewhat limited offensively with backup A.J. Derby making just his second start in place of Allen. Thus, they'll need to generate points off special teams like they did last week with a blocked field goal and fake punt. However, they also gave up two long punt returns (one for a touchdown) which basically offset those gains and they can't have that happen again this weekend.

Arkansas freshman Dan Skipper is 6 foot 10 and blocked a field goal last week. However, outside of him and kicker Zach Hocker (five for five on field goals and 65 yards per kickoff with a 71% touchback ratio), Arkansas is pretty average and must depend on trick plays in order to get things done. The Aggies rebounded from allowing San Houston to run a successful fake punt by stopping one last week and even pulling off an onside kick themselves. Punter Drew Kaser would lead the SEC in punting if he had enough attempts. A&M does need to get its situation regarding extra points and field goals straightened out but Arkansas doesn't have a real advantage on special teams that they can turn to and help them out without trick plays. If A&M is alert for those and stops them, the Arkansas' chances of winning diminish dramatically.

Third, getting an early lead and the home crowd into the game always helps a home team, especially in sustaining the energy levels necessary to hold up against a superior opponent. This will be the Aggies' first road trip of the season and the Aggies did not play well in their SEC opener away from Kyle Field versus Ole Miss last year.

Even so, if there was one thing Kevin Sumlin learned from Oklahoma's Bob Stoops during Sumlin's time in Norman was getting off to a great start because it had such a demoralizing impact on an opponent and their fans. The A&M staff does a great job of scripting plays to start the game and Johnny Manziel plays every game like it was his last regardless of the opponent both in terms of his actual play as well as his preparation. Thus, it's no surprise that A&M has lead by double digits in the first half of every game in Sumlin's tenure except the Ole Miss and Oklahoma games last season and they have scored on their first possession in every game but the Rice game this season and the SMU game last year. Thus, it's almost a given that no matter what Arkansas does, they are going to be matching A&M score for score early on to keep up and keep the crowd in the game.

Fourth…more team specific here…Arkansas' power rushing attack has carried their team offensively this season. In contrast, A&M has not been very good against the run this season at all and things probably won't get much better Saturday night when they face a big offensive line and probably the best duo of backs they have seen yet. The Aggies have to hold up in short yardage and red zone situations because it's one thing to give up yardage between the 20's; it's another to get pushed back on third and two from the two yard line. The Aggies probably won't win as many of those situations as they need and that may keep Arkansas in the game.

Even so, the flip side of this is that Arkansas will want to use three man fronts, various alignments offering more speed, and containment from their pass rushers to corral Manziel. To counter these items, A&M will need to run the ball effectively and they have both the offensive line and backs to do it. That's because the use of different fronts, etc. leaves defenders vulnerable to being outnumbered or outsized by blockers and without help from the safeties who are aligned too far down the field to come up to the line of scrimmage. Last year, A&M got into trouble when they didn't utilize the running game enough against LSU to take advantage of such tactics.

The Aggies have avoided this issue since then.

Finally, Arkansas faces the Mike Leach Conundrum which I'm renaming the Mike Leach/Johnny Manziel Conundrum…how do you outscore a team when you're not equipped via personnel or philosophy to do so? Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema wants to beat people up in the running game, stop the run, and win turnovers. By himself, Manziel invalidates that philosophy because there are simply no ways to stop him and few to even slow him down. Throw in a NFL caliber offensive line, a stable of diverse/productive backs, and wideout Mike Evans (perhaps the country's best) and the Aggies probably have the nation's best offensive attack. Allen can probably produce some yardage throwing to Arkansas' outside receivers versus A&M three deep coverage with the corners playing off but he can only keep the Razorbacks in the game and has to count on a lot of help elsewhere to actually win it.

Overall, Arkansas doesn't have an advantage regarding the items that usually produce upsets…turnovers and special teams play. They may be able to match A&M score for score for a while depending on how well A&M's defense plays and that may keep the home crowd going as well. Without some unforeseen breaks, the Hogs will eventually be submerged in the flood that is Johnny Manziel and how well A&M plays defense will determine whether it is a slowly rising tide or a tsunami that wipes out everything in its path.

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