The 17th-ranked Missouri Tigers will try to clinch their second straight SEC Eastern Division title at home on Friday afternoon when they take on the red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks at Faurot Field.
Arkansas had one of the nation’s toughest schedules this season and fell victim to hard-fought losses to nationally-ranked teams earlier in the year against Texas A&M (38-35 in OT), Alabama (14-13) and Mississippi State (17-10). The Razorbacks have gotten over the hump in a big way of late by ripping off two straight shutout wins over No. 17 LSU (17-0) and No. 8 Ole Miss (30-0) to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.
“I’ve been through the tough times, and it’s tough not making a bowl game,” said junior safety Rohan Gaines, who returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in the win. “I think the seniors deserve all of this. We have great senior leadership. I feel like they deserve it all. They deserve the world, and we’re trying our best to give it to them.”
“These are good teams we’re beating,” coach Brett Bielema added. “We’re not just beating people.”
After a modest 5-2 start to the season, Missouri has jumped back into the national spotlight with four straight victories, most recently winning back- to-back road games over Texas A&M (34-27) and Tennessee (29-21). The Tigers are 9-2 overall and alone in first place at 6-1 in the SEC East, although if they lose this matchup they will lose the tiebreaker to Georgia (6-2), which they lost to on Oct. 11, 34-0.
“Everything has changed,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said about playing on a short week. “All your preparation has to be consistent as you normally do to play your best. This obviously is a very big game, but it’s still about how we play.”
Missouri has a 3-2 advantage in the all-time series with Arkansas. The Tigers won the most recent meeting in the 2008 Cotton Bowl, 38-7.
Arkansas’ offensive attack (33.6 ppg, 422.1 ypg) has experienced a lot of success thanks mostly to arguably the nation’s most potent running back duo.
Jonathan Williams (175 carries) and Alex Collins (173 carries) have split the workload down the middle to remarkably similar success, with Williams amassing 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns and Collins 965 yards and 12 scores. The pair combined for 160 yards in last week’s crucial win.
Williams and Collins certainly make Brandon Allen’s job under center easier. He’s not asked to much, as he’s completing 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,992 yards, but he still boasts an impressive touchdown (16) to interception (five) ratio. Allen is questionable for this contest with a hip injury, with Austin Allen (8-of-16, 153 yards, INT) next on the depth chart.
A modest receiving corps is led by the efforts of Keon Hatcher (36 receptions, 493 yards, four TDs) and Hunter Henry (32 receptions, 447 yards, two TDs).
The Razorbacks’ defense (20.2 ppg, 338.4 ypg) has been stellar all season long, but the unit has clearly stepped up its play of late with back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2002. The Hogs also became the first unranked team to ever post two straight shutouts over ranked teams.
Martrell Spaight is a tackling machine with 108 stops to go with 8.0 TFL, two forced fumbles and a sack. Trey Flowers (12.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Darius Philon (10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) are both forces on the defensive line.
Missouri has experienced success this season in spite of a modest offense by SEC standards. It racks up only 360.7 ypg but still manages to score a solid 29.3 ppg.
Maty Mauk is erratic under center, as he completes less than 53 percent of his passes for 2,014 yards, but when he does connect good things usually happen. He has tossed 21 touchdowns paired with just 10 interceptions.
Russell Hansbrough (858 yards, nine TDs) and Marcus Murphy (689 yards, three TDs) are the top options in a strong running game. Murphy is a dynamic all- purpose threat capable of doing damage as a receiver (21 receptions, 158 yards, TD), punt returner (277 yards, TD) and kick returner (392 yards, two TDs).
Bud Sasser has emerged as Mauk’s most trusted receiving target this season with 56 receptions, 777 yards and nine touchdowns, all team highs. Jimmie Hunt (29 receptions, 468 yards, six TDs) and Darius White (24 receptions, 303 yards, four TDs) are other talented weapons at Mauk’s disposal.
The Tigers’ defense (20.2 ppg, 335.0 ypg) has been outstanding all season long, as they hold teams to just 35 percent success rate on third down and have forced 20 turnovers.
Markus Golden is the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week after registering six tackles, 2.0 sacks and a fumble recovery against Tennessee, leaving him 59 stops, 14.0 TFL and 8.5 sacks on the season. Shane Ray is also an excellent pass-rusher with 19.5 TFL and 13.5 sacks. Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers are tied for the team lead in tackles with 92 and Braylon Webb has four interceptions.