Coming out of the college football offseason, coaching hires at Mississippi State and Ole Miss generated the most buzz. What’s not to love about the air raid offense of Mike Leach and the antics of Lane Kiffin?
While both coaches have shown signs of improvement, two under-the-radar hires in Arkansas’ (3-5) Sam Pittman and Missouri’s (4-3) Eli Drinkwitz have transformed two programs that many picked to finish last in the SEC. Those two teams will meet for the Battle Line Rivalry on Saturday at 12 p.m. E.T. in Missouri.
Both coaches have immense respect for the other, especially with Pittman being a former offensive line coach at Missouri. So, which one will get the edge in Saturday’s matchup? A variety of factors will affect the outcome, but these are the more significant ones.
The Razorbacks‘ second-leading rusher, Rakeem Boyd, announced Tuesday that he’s opting out and declaring for the NFL Draft. Arkansas still has Trelon Smith, who leads the team with 469 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. But, outside of that, quarterback Feleipe Franks might have to be more mobile and use his feet in the absence of Boyd.
True freshman Dominique Johnson could also stand to get some opportunities. In the weekly SEC coaches teleconference, Pittman said it’s business as usual without Boyd.
Pittman returning to Columbia isn’t the only coaching reunion fans will see on Saturday. Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom led the Tigers as head coach up until his termination last season. The question is: will he be able to contain a Tigers offense that just blew the doors off of Vanderbilt in a 41-0 victory?
Coach Pittman said he anticipates having a nearly full and healthy roster, after past COVID-19 issues plagued the team. But with Mizzou rattling off three straight wins, the Razorbacks defensive unit might have their hands full.
Freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak is coming off arguably his best performance of the season against the Commodores. He completed 30 of 37 passes for 318 yards and running back Larry Rountree III ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns.
Granted, all of this came against a winless Vanderbilt team that fired its head coach soon after the game. But, the fact remains that the Tigers are on a roll coming into this rivalry game.
The Turnover Battle
It’s no secret that Pittman’s defense has forced a lot of chaos in the form of turnovers this season. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in turnover margin (+8), interceptions (13) and total takeaways (17). And all of this comes while Franks is showing the most poise he ever has at the quarterback position, throwing only four interceptions to 17 touchdowns.
It’s been a different story for the Tigers. Mizzou finds themselves at 11th in the SEC in turnover margin (-3). They’ve fumbled the ball seven times, which ranks first in the SEC.
If this ends up being a close game, look for the turnover margin to be the deciding factor, and in that case, the Razorbacks have a decisive advantage.
Value of This Game
At this point in the season, both teams are thinking about bowl games. A win for the Tigers would put them at 5-3 on the season and give them their sixth win out of seven in this matchup. Meanwhile, coach Pittman has already led his team to more wins than they’ve had in either of the past two seasons. But another win would knock off a rival that they’ve struggled against and give him another signature program win.
Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. E.T. on SEC Network.