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Outback Bowl Preview: Penn State vs. No. 21 Arkansas

The Nittany Lions and Razorbacks prepare to face off for the first time on the gridiron.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Auburn at Penn State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State (7-5) vs. Arkansas (8-4)

Kickoff: Noon, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL

The Betting Line: Penn State +2 (Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.)

TV: ESPN2 - Dave Flemming (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst), Stormy Buonantony (sideline)

Weather: A warm day, with highs right about 80 and little chance of rain.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 67-33, 8th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 90-48, 11th Year

VS. ARKANSAS: 0-1

Sam Pittman:

ARKANSAS RECORD: 11-11, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 11-11, 2nd Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-0

FUN FACTS

This will be Penn State’s 51st bowl game in program history, winning 30 of them...The Nittany Lions have faced off against SEC foes in 21 of those contests...this will be the first-ever meeting between Penn State and Arkansas on the gridiron...Penn State owns a 24-23 all-time record against SEC opponents.

WHAT’S MISSING?

We’re going to do things a little differently for this game. The increasing amount of opt-outs has altered how each team will look on both sides of the ball. This game will resemble a precursor for how things could look in September, rather than a reflection of the 2021 regular season.

Let’s start with the Nittany Lions, who will be impacted with six total opt-outs.

Penn State Opt-Outs:

  • Jahan Dotson, wide receiver
  • Jaquan Brisker, safety
  • Brandon Smith, linebacker
  • Ellis Brooks, linebacker
  • Arnold Ebiketie, defensive end
  • Derrick Tangelo, defensive tackle

Dotson and Brisker are both among the best at their positions in the nation, and obviously big losses in playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Dotson was one of the most electrifying receivers in program history, but his absence is lessened with Parker Washington ready to carry the torch, and proven targets KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Theo Johnson prepared for larger roles in 2022.

Starting tackle Rasheed Walker will also be out with an injury, and will likely be replaced by freshman Olumuyiwa Fashanu.

Brisker’s absence will be much more noticeable, made worse by the fact he is on of five starters on the Penn State defense who will not be participating on Saturday. The absence of Tangelo and Ebiketie especially sting as well. Ebiketie was a standout all season, creating game-changing plays and consistent pressure whenever he was on the field. Tangelo also proved immensely valuable in the trenches, especialy following the season-ending injury of PJ Mustipher.

Brooks has been one of the most productive members of the defense. With little current depth at linebacker, losing him and Smith will force some inexperienced players into action. Keep an eye out for freshmen Kobe King and Jamari Budden, who could be auditioning for starting roles in the fall.

Arkansas Opt-Outs:

  • Treylon Burks, wide receiver
  • Tre Williams, defensive end

The Razorbacks will only be missing one player - albeit their most irreplaceable - on each side of the ball. Williams is the team’s most dangerous pass rusher, leading the team with six sacks.

Burks will be especially missed, as he made up nearly the entirety of the Arkansas passing attack. He contributed 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air. After him, is Tyson Morris, who managed 21 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

Arkansas will look to move the ball on the ground with its committee approach, with three running backs with at least 498 yards rushing this season. Quarterback KJ Jefferson will also be heavily involved in the rushing attack after contributing 554 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

Jefferson, who can be a load to bring down at 6-3, 245 lbs., was one of the more underappreciated quarterbacks of the season, with a 67% completion rate and a 21:3 touchdown-interception ratio. Jefferson was picked off just once in the last 10 games of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Arkansas kicker Cam Little is having an outstanding year, connecting on 19 of 23 attempts with a season-long of 51 yards. This includes going six-of-seven in the 40-49 yard range. He’s also converted on all 43 point after attempts. Senior Reid Bauer is averaging 43.2 yards per punt this season.

Penn State’s Jordan Stout is one of the top punters and kickoff specialists in the nation. He finished 16 of 23 on field goal attempts, which had some consequential misses during the late season skid.

PREDICTION

Arkansas-34, Penn State-24

Let’s get real - the make-up of this game sets up more as an exhibition with opportunities to tinker ahead of 2022 than a reflection of the current season. There will be new starters, new coordinators, and new schemes. Looking back at the 2021 season probably won’t do to much to help predict the outcome.

The one thing that will remain relevant is momentum. Penn State finished the season with a thud at 2-5 in the final seven games. The Razorbacks were 5-2 in the same span. Arkansas will also come in with more motivation, as an Outback Bowl victory and top 25 finish is a major step forward after several years of sitting at the bottom of the SEC.

Penn State’s defense will be replacing too much to regularly stop Arkansas throughout the afternoon. The offense should fare much better in terms of personnel, especially with a rested Sean Clifford. However, the offense has proven to be too unreliable to find the balance and consistency to outpace the Razorbacks.