By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
LAKE MARY, Fla. – Time to crack open the history books, ladies and gentlemen.
This weekend in College Station, Arkansas and Texas A&M will go toe-to-toe and the “Southwest Classic” rivalry will be renewed for the 69th time. Dating back to 1903, the Razorbacks own a 41-24-3 all-time advantage in the series over the Aggies.
The showdown was deemed the Southwest Classic because Arkansas and TAMU were two of the charter members of the old Southwest Conference, which was established in 1914 and also included Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State (Oklahoma A&M in those days), Rice, Southwestern University, and Texas.
Arkansas and A&M met annually in the Classic from 1934 until 1991, but the rivalry was put on hiatus in 1992 when the Razorbacks joined the Southeastern Conference. The SWC did not last much longer from that point and the conference was ultimately dissolved in 1996, the same year that Texas A&M became a member of the Big 12.
The series did not resume until 2009, when the Hogs and Aggies agreed to restore the rivalry inside Cowboys Stadium, and the Hogs have won all three meetings since the revival.
Even though these schools have met 68 times previously, this season’s edition takes on a new significance. With Texas A&M joining Arkansas in the SEC this year, the 2012 match-up marks the first time that the two schools will collide as members of the SEC Western Division. Not only is this game a battle between historic rivals, but from now on it will carry with it implications for each team’s conference title hopes.
Although his Aggies (2-1, 0-1 SEC) have lost three straight to Arkansas, first-year Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is taking a new approach to Saturday’s contest, and he doesn’t want to hear about the Aggies’ recent troubles with the Razorbacks.
“We’re not talking about that,” Sumlin said on Wednesday’s coaches’ teleconference. “I think we’re talking about it being a conference football game, from the standpoint that it’s an SEC game and an SEC division match-up. Because of that, a win becomes extremely important.”
Arkansas’ John L. Smith is also in his first year as a head coach in this series, and his first order of business will be slowing down Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who has come out of the gates blazing in his freshman season. Smith is very aware of the kind of player his team will be facing.
“The one thing that kind of jumps out at you as I was watching the film is the kid pulling the trigger for them,” Smith said.
Manziel is getting the job done for the Aggies as a passer and a runner. He’s scored 12 total touchdowns (seven passing, five rushing) through three games, and he’s yet to throw an interception. Manziel has led the Ags in passing and rushing in two out of three games, and he’s averaging just over 300 yards of total offense per game.
How important has Manziel been to the A&M offense in the early season? The freshman has been responsible for more points per game this season (24) than any other player in college football, save for West Virginia’s Geno Smith (26). A scary notion for the Aggies’ opponents is that, according to Sumlin, Manziel hasn’t even been unleashed yet.
“I think we’re nowhere near where we need to be offensively,” Sumlin said. “I think what we’ve done so far with Johnny has been fairly guarded in terms of the amount of the offense that he’s been provided and the amount that’s on his plate. We’ll expand as he becomes more comfortable and as he’s able to operate in the offense, but I think we’re capable of more.”
Stopping Manziel won’t be an easy task for Arkansas (1-3, 0-1), which has struggled mightily on the defensive side of the football. The Razorbacks enter this weekend ranked 101st in the nation in total defense, and No. 114 in pass D. Opponents have taken advantage of the Hogs for 1, 249 yards through the air in four games, which is 405 more yards than the SEC’s second-worst pass defense (Auburn) has allowed.
Offensively, Arkansas has had success throwing the ball with quarterback Tyler Wilson, but the star signal-caller was unable to play in the second half of a loss to UL-Monroe and the entirety of a 52-0 drubbing from Alabama.
Wilson responded well last week against Rutgers when he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns, but Arkansas fell short once again and suffered a third straight defeat. Wilson will look to continue his chemistry with receiver Cobi Hamilton, who set an SEC record against the Scarlet Knights with 301 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 catches.
The A&M defense comes into this one sitting at No. 12 in the NCAA in total defense, and trailing only Alabama and LSU in the SEC. The key to the Aggies’ defensive success comes in their ability to bring pressure from all angles.
TAMU led the nation in sacks last season using former defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s 3-4 defense, and the Aggies have continued to terrorize offenses out of a 4-3 alignment under new coordinator Mark Snyder. The Aggies have already gotten to opposing quarterbacks 16 times in 2012, and they’ve done it largely by committee, with 11 different defenders notching at least a half-sack so far.
The biggest point of concern for Arkansas will be junior defensive end Damontre Moore. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has six sacks this year and eight tackles for loss. Moore will be going up against an Arkansas offensive line that has allowed seven sacks so far this season.
Despite Arkansas’ recent struggles, Sumlin said that he is expecting the Razorbacks to play well at Kyle Field this Saturday. When a reporter referred to Arkansas’ three-game losing skid Wednesday, Sumlin noted that a wounded animal is the most dangerous kind of animal.
“There’s no reason for them to be intimidated since the guys on their team have won the last three games [against TAMU],” Sumlin added. “By the same token, we have something to prove to, so I think it will be a heck of a football game.”
Kickoff from College Station is set for 12:21 p.m. Eastern, 11:21 Central