FAYETTEVILLE — Saturday night — for the first time since former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s seventh-ranked 2011 Razorbacks defeated 11th-ranked Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl — a ranked Razorbacks team battles nationally ranked opposition.
In Arkansas’ 8 p.m. ESPN-televised SEC opener at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the 17-ranked Razorbacks arrive ranked 17th and 18th in the AP and Coaches polls while Coach Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M Aggies rank 10th and 13th by the AP and Coaches.
Since 2012, Arkansas has played 16 games against Top 25 teams.
Arkansas’ own brief national rankings under John L. Smith in 2012 and Bret Bielema in 2015 were squandered in September upset losses before the Razorbacks ever played ranked opposition.
In fact Arkansas, 3-0 including a road victory at then No. 15 TCU, has never met Texas A&M in their since 2012 annual SEC West September game without a preceding loss or losses.
Sumlin’s Aggies also come 3-0 to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ stadium. They opened the season defeating then nationally No. 16 UCLA and last week won their SEC West opener at Auburn.
So with a game of two teams of this high caliber, the games within a game abound.
For Arkansas senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle of White Hall has matchups guaranteed for pro attention. As a blocker Sprinkle, 6-6, 256, is beset by 2015 Aggies’ All-American Myles Garrett at one defensive end. At the other end Sprinkle will find Daeshon Hall, the Aggie many deem close to and maybe even better than Garrett. And as a receiver Sprinkle will attempt to catch quarterback Austin Allen’s passes against an A&M secondary likely to send its starting safeties to the NFL.
Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith knows his wideouts are too essential blocking in the running game and running routes to attract defensive attention enabling fellow receivers and Sprinkle to get open for him get too caught up in receiving stats. Nevertheless Smith sees senior Keon Hatcher leading the Razorbacks receivers with 11 catches for 204 yards and starts illustrating Hatcher’s game by the numbers against A&M.
Whether it’s Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith and the defensive assistants projecting the plays that senior defensive linemen Deatrich Wise and Jeremiah Ledbetter make, or Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos counting on the line opening holes for running back Rawleigh Williams to establish the ground game opening Allen for eventual play-action passes to Sprinkle, Hatcher and wideouts Drew Morgan and Dominique Reed, the Hogs’ brass will have some numbers in mind.
Ditto A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis projecting plays made by Garrett and Hall and the defensive tackles between them and the linebackers and secondary behind them.
Meanwhile new A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has the Aggies off and running. Running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford, averaging 8.4 and 4.8 per carry and graduate Oklahoma transfer quarterback Trevor Knight averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
And though Knight is known more as a running than passing quarterback, he’s got targets ripe for the catching.