Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) passes against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

OUTBACK BOWL PREVIEW

Mike Shara

Outback Bowl
Saturday, January 1 at 12pm on ESPN
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa FL
Penn State Nittany Lions vs. (21) Arkansas Razorbacks

SPREAD: Arkansas -2 (DraftKings)
OVER/UNDER: 48.5 (PointsBet)
MONEYLINE: PSU +115 (BetMGM)
PENN STATE (7-5, 4-5 in the Big Ten)

It is almost shocking to recall that the Nittany Lions were the #4 team in the country for a few weeks in October, beginning the 2021 season with five straight victories, including nice wins over Auburn and Wisconsin. At that point they had set themselves up nicely for what could have been a triumphant, if daunting, series of conference games. The Big Ten schedule quickly proved a gauntlet they could not survive. Their Squid Game-like collapse began with a close loss to Iowa, but the real killer was a shameful home loss against a bad Illinois team the next week, followed by defeats by the Big Ten’s power three (Michigan, OSU and Michigan State). Their schedule was fifth toughest in the country, which makes their 7-5 record somewhat deceptive, and their defense was among the Top Ten in points allowed, but five defensive starters have opted out of this game, making it more of a preview of PSU’s 2022 defensive lineup than a last hurrah for this year. It will also be the first game for new Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz, who was fired as Miami’s Head Coach in December. He replaces former DC Brent Pry, who left to become Head Coach at Virginia Tech around the same time.  The offense, led by senior quarterback Sean Clifford (20 TDs, 2912 pass yards) has struggled to put consistent points on the board in big games, scoring over 30 points in a Big Ten matchup just once – a 31 point ‘outburst’ vs. Maryland on November 6. It will likely struggle even more on Saturday without top receiving threat Jahan Dotson (1100+ receiving yards, 13 TDs), who is also opting out. Some NFL draft experts see him as being a potential late first round pick in 2022.

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ARKANSAS (8-4, 4-4 in the SEC)
This is another example of a very good team playing in an impossibly tough conference. Ranked as high as #8 nationally in late September, the Hogs simply can’t match up with the superpowers in their home conference (not yet anyway). Not only does their SEC West schedule dictate games vs. Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M every year, but they also had to face Georgia in Athens and had an early non-conference game vs. Texas. In spite of this Murderers’ Row of opponents, they’ve still managed to hover near the Top 40 in the country in both Points Scored and Points Allowed. After last year’s 3-7 season, second year Head Coach Sam Pittman and his staff are to be commended for bludgeoning their way to a .500 record in conference games (although I’m sure the one-point loss to Ole Miss still burns) to earn their first bowl game appearance in five years. There is a lot of justified optimism about versatile, mobile sophomore QB K.J. Jefferson, who completed ⅔ of his passes this season for 21 TDs and just 3 interceptions while adding 554 yards and 5 TDs to the running game. He will miss his top target Treylon Burks, who has opted out of the game as well. The Razorbacks’ offensive line has struggled to control the pass rush at times this year, so he may be scrambling more than the coaching staff would like without his best downfield target available.

THE MATCHUP
If both teams were fielding their full lineups, Penn State’s best chance to win the game would have been to have their defensive stars disrupt the line of scrimmage and Jefferson’s timing to force Arkansas into third-and-long situations, hoping to force turnovers. With so many key defensive studs missing (and their co-cordinator gone), it’s hard to envision PSU being able to get the turnovers they’ll need to give their middling offense a shorter field. The Nittany Lions simply don’t have the personnel on offense for long, sustained drives and Arkansas has been stingy with turnovers all season long. It’s difficult to see how a thinner Penn State defensive squad can create enough opportunities for their offense to stay with the Hogs, who have a notable advantage at the quarterback position.  Both teams are battle tested, but Arkansas has less questions and has played better in big games. Take Arkansas minus the points and the under.

PREDICTION: Arkansas 24  Penn State 13

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