Trent Richardson and No. 2 Alabama have convinced Nick Saban that they’re worthy of competing for college football’s top prize. They’ll have to wait a while before for the final decision is rendered.
By the time Arkansas and Texas A&M met on Saturday, both programs had squandered most, if not all of, the preseason optimism about their on-field prospects. The Aggies had coughed up a 34-point lead to fall to UCLA in Week 1, while the Razorbacks were hammered at home by TCU in Week 2. Neither team seemed likely to rebound to mount a challenge to Alabama in the SEC West or factor into the College Football Playoff race, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot riding on the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium.
Progress was demanded of both head coaches this season, and both had failed in that regard so far. Kevin Sumlin will leave North Texas with his seat cooled, at least temporarily, after the Aggies fought back from a 14-point first-half deficit and overcame an egregious referee error to edge the Razorbacks, 50–43, in overtime, improving to 3–1 as they prepare to enter the meat of their SEC slate.
Whether because of flagrantly poor defense, brilliant offense or a combination of the two, this game evolved from a taut, two-way battle between evenly matched foes into a fast-paced shootout where only one side of the ball seemed to matter. Between the 11:40 and 3:39 marks of the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks and Aggies combined for four touchdowns on consecutive drives. Texas A&M failed to keep the streak alive on its last series of regulation, as a 27-yard field goal from junior Daniel LaCamera sent the game to overtime.
That’s when Christian Kirk, in what must have felt like a recurring nightmare for Arkansas, ended the drama. The scintillating junior, who had scored on an 81-yard touchdown catch and a 100-yard kick return in regulation, sprinted to the goal line, shedded his defender with a sharp left turn and brought in a strike from freshman quarterback Kellen Mond at the left edge of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. Arkansas’s attempt to send the game to a second extra session ended when Aggies senior defensive back Armani Watts snatched an errant Austin Allen pass in the end zone for a game-ending interception.
It was a brutal finish for the Razorbacks, who seemed firmly in control early in the second quarter when a six-yard touchdown run from Arkansas freshman Chase Hayden increased their lead to 21–7. The Aggies responded quickly: On the first play of the next series, Mond faked a handoff, dashed around the left side of the line, turned upfield and zoomed 89 yards into the end zone—only to have an official incorrectly rule he had stepped out of bounds at the 10-yard-line. Texas A&M had to settle for a 27-yard field goal.
The SEC later acknowledged the blown call in a statement, and the Aggies would have been rightfully incensed had they lost. Alas, a potential major controversy was averted, and Texas A&M can move forward having pushed the UCLA debacle that put Sumlin in the crosshairs further into the rearview. The Aggies still face a high burden of proof: They’ve collapsed to eight-win totals after starting 5–0 the last three seasons. If Texas A&M stumbles down the stretch again, Sumlin will feel even more heat than he did in the wake of that crushing loss to the Bruins.
Like Texas A&M, Arkansas faces a difficult path from here. The Razorbacks get a reprieve with New Mexico State next week, then face three challenging road games over a four-week stretch: South Carolina (Oct. 7), Alabama (Oct. 14) and Ole Miss (Oct. 28). The one home contest during that stretch comes against Auburn, the team picked to finish second in the West behind Alabama. The division pecking order is murky beneath the Crimson Tide, but the Razorbacks will be hard-pressed to break through the seven-to-eight-win ceiling they’ve set under Bielema.
Saturday’s meeting between two squads fighting to make up for ground lost in the non-conference portion of their schedules could set the tone for how they perform the rest of the year. Arkansas is reeling from a 1–2 start, with a season-defining stretch just around the corner. Texas A&M is riding the good vibes of a three-game winning streak and hoping that, unlike recent years, they don’t evaporate by the end of conference play.