State of the Hogs: Top 10 List (A&M)

Training your eyes before the game is a good practice. Here's a few things to look for ... our weekly pre-game Top 10 List ... as the Hogs head to Cowboys Stadium to play the Aggies.

It's time to go through the key elements for this week's Arkansas football game, the what to watch list that we have so much fun preparing each Friday. What should you train your eyes to watch when the Hogs face Texas A&M at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

We could send this to all of the Aggies in Texas, but they wouldn't pay any attention. They plan to watch the Jumbo Tron, not the game. Well, that's as good as I can do for an Aggie joke. Plus, I was guilty of not turning my eyes to the field all the time last year when the Hogs and Aggies played there. The big screen is truly worth watching.

There is plenty to see for this game even when they aren't playing football. Some watch the big screen just to see if they can catch a glimpse of themselves.

What you don't want to miss during the halftime is the Texas A&M band. The Aggies have a wonderful band. That's no joke. The marching is as good as the instrumentals.

Do not watch for Aggie cheerleaders. They have none. What they do have is Yell Leaders, students dressed up in white outfits. They give hand signals to their crowd. They are really for Aggies only. Skip that, even if they show them on the big screen.

OK, enough of the weak humor. Here's this week's Top 10 List:

1) Ryan Mallett. We've been doing this for a few weeks and put Mallett at the top every week. No use in changing horses in midstream. He's the No. 1 thing to watch for a reason. It all starts with the Arkansas quarterback, even if it's the running game. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said as much Thursday when he addressed the media for the last time before the game. He said Mallett has to do a better job on run checks, audibles and knowing where the defense is lined up to keep the Hogs out of bad plays. Most just assume Petrino calls a play and the Hogs run it. Actually, it's a complicated set of checks. Mallett has to be 100 percent in his checks this week. Petrino said that's doable and required of the UA quarterback. Of course, Mallett has to avoid interceptions and run a clean operation.

2) Jerrod Johnson. If Mallett is the No. 1 thing to watch, then Texas A&M signal caller is No. 2. There is so much in his hands in the A&M system. It's similar to the Arkansas scheme. It starts with the QB in coach Mike Sherman's pro passing scheme. The Aggies are going to give Johnson a lot to do as far as checks and reads. So far it's been too much for Johnson. He's been a turnover looking for a spot to happen. If he doesn't improve, the Hogs might score more than last year when they almost got to 50.

3) Pass protection. It's always a key when these two teams play. Both are going to throw plenty. There's been a lot of talk about improving the Arkansas running game, but how the Hogs protect against the A&M zone blitz is as big a key as you'll see during this game. The Aggies come off the edge with safeties and cornerbacks and cover the middle with the linebackers. They will try to force Mallett into difficult throws to the outside, although that might turn out to be right up his alley. He can make all the throws. The Arkansas running backs will have a big job in protection. They must pick up the outside blitzes. There were some big plays last year when Mallett burned some Aggie outside rushes. This is a different scheme with some of the same players in different positions. Von Miller is worth watching in this situation. He plays outside linebacker for the Aggies. He was a defensive end last year when he led the nation in sacks with 17. The Hogs had a tough time finding him early in the game, but kept in their tight end in the last three quarters, neutralizing Miller. The Aggie linebacker has been hobbled a bit this year with an ankle injury. Word out of the A&M camp is that he's getting healthy Watch him early and judge for yourself.

4) Safety first. Both teams are going to attack the safeties. Can they play sound and tackle for four quarters? Tramain Thomas and Rudell Crim will have to make plays in space and also cover the slot receivers. You can add Jerico Nelson and Ross Rasner to that list. They'll probably play a lot in nickel and dime packages and be paired with A&M slot receiver Ryan Swope. The Aggies like to dump it over the middle to Swope, a standout running back in high school. He's been tough in the fourth quarter. The Arkansas safeties will have to make plays on Swope.

5) Turnovers. Yeah, maybe I took too long to get to this one with the way these two teams have played this year. We are not talking about apple, peach or cherry. Interceptions have been a problem, both ways. It's always something to watch in football. Turnovers change field position. Both teams are at the bottom end in NCAA stats as far as turnover ratio, but the Aggies have been really bad of late. It's a little scary to think what the Aggie offense will be like if it doesn't turn it over, but perhaps it's just the nature of the beast. The A&M offensive line hasn't protected well and that has put Johnson in a vulnerable spot, perhaps the reason for all of the turnovers. There is only one returning starter in the A&M front. The Hogs hope to finally get over the hump in the turnover ratio game this week, but that's the same goal for A&M. The team that does limit turnovers while forcing some on the other side probably wins the game. Turnovers were the difference last year. A&M was poised for a touchdown that would make it a dogfight when Jerry Franklin's scoop of a ball Tenarius Wright knocked loose keyed the rout for the Hogs.

6) Wide receivers vs. cornerbacks. A&M has been a little banged up at cornerback. Arkansas could exploit that with its nice arsenal at wide receiver. What can the UA corners do against a talented bunch of Aggie receivers, led by Uzoma Nwachukwu. Darius Winston has gotten some first team work at field corner for the Hogs this week. He will probably be needed if the Aggies top the 100-play mark on offense, as they did last week against Oklahoma State. The Hogs may need all of their cornerbacks if it turns out to be a shootout.

7) The Arkansas pass rush. This probably goes back to the pass protection item. But it's big enough to get a little closer as far as this pre-game inspection. Jake Bequette, Tenarius Wright, Damario Ambrose, Colton Miles-Nash and maybe even Chris Smith all will be needed. The Hogs toyed with the A&M tackles last year. It was the matchup the Hogs dominated to get an edge in the last three quarters. Smith hasn't played much of late, but he might be needed this week if the UA defense can't get some stops on third down and get off the field. There is the suspicion that this is a place where the Hogs have an edge, on the edge. A&M is better, but so are the Hogs. Watch this area closely to see if the Hogs can keep fresh ends in the game.

8) The Arkansas running backs. Can the Hogs make the right cuts? Ronnie Wingo had a big run in last year's A&M game, but he's not been effective in the run game so far this year. He's gotten some scrutiny on his footwork from the coaches over the last two weeks. Has he gotten the message? Or is it going to be more Knile Davis in the run game? He's been the most dynamic runner since Dennis Johnson went down to injury. Wingo has made plays in the passing game. But maybe this is the week he gets it going in the run game. He's an explosion waiting to happen, but he needs to cut out the hesitation and get in and out of the hole, or hit it to the sideline with his great speed.

9) Emotion. Both teams are coming off defeats. Both probably think they should have won. Do they have that out of their system? Are they mad? Are they sharp and carry their emotion through? There's been some time to get over it. Arkansas has a full bye week. A&M played its last game on a Thursday in the previous week, so had some healing time, too. Both teams were in see-saw battles in their last game. They used up a lot of emotion. Which team will show the ability to bounce back? I give a slight edge here to the Hogs since they had more time and more rest.

10) The fourth quarter. That's where Arkansas lacked last week against Alabama. The Hogs suffered a bit in the fourth quarter against Georgia, too, but came up with the winning drive in the final minute. They must play better in the fourth quarter. They must be mentally tough. Can the Arkansas offense make plays in the fourth quarter? Can they avoid mental mistakes that perhaps cost it the game against Alabama? It would be nice to have it under control by then. There might be some mental questions if it's tight heading into the fourth quarter. Surely, the Arkansas coaches will remind of the need for a great fourth quarter when they meet on Friday night and again before the game.

There's more to watch. It was such a neat atmosphere last year in the huge and beautiful new stadium. Just watching the two crowds will be fun. Who has more? Who is louder? There are other things that I'm going to watch. The game officials are from the SEC. Last year, the Big 12 refs seemed to have a good game. They got several video reviews right. Hopefully, watching SEC refs in Texas is just as good.

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