COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Arkansas will come to Kyle Field on Saturday bruised and battered, a shell of what it was expected to be heading into the 2012 season.
Long gone is the top-10 national ranking and the talk of possible BCS title contention. That has been replaced by speculation about who the next coach might be and whether the Razorbacks (1-3) will even make a bowl game after dropping three consecutive games to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama and Rutgers.
Which is all the more reason this game is a must-win for Texas A&M.
It's still early in the season and the Aggies (2-1) are preparing for just their second Southeastern Conference game. In their first SEC tilt, they put up a respectable showing against then-No. 24 Florida, a team that is now 4-0 and 11th in the rankings.
The Aggies didn't win that game -- falling 20-17 -- but showed that they could compete with a quality SEC team. When they meet the Razorbacks on Saturday, it will be A&M's first SEC West Division game. In reality, it might be too early to call anything a "must-win" but if the Aggies are to earn the respect they seek from those in SEC country, let alone nationally, that means winning games in situations like these: a home game versus a struggling ballclub against whom they're favored.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin warns that because the Razorbacks are struggling, it could make them tough to deal with.
"They're coming in here, they've got a lot to prove," Sumlin said. "The old deal, 'A wounded animal may be the most dangerous one,' I think it applies in this case. But we've got a lot to play for too."
The Aggies do have plenty at stake. For starters, they'd like to notch that first SEC win, something they expected to do against Florida. If they have their sights set on a bowl game -- or beyond -- a win Saturday would help immensely, because the schedule doesn't get any easier.
Next weekend when they visit Oxford, Miss., to take on Mississippi, they'll begin a challenging six-game stretch that includes five road games. In that stretch, the Aggies will play five SEC opponents, four of them in their home venues. Dates against SEC perennial powers Alabama and LSU are included in that stretch and there's no off week in sight (the Aggies' previous open date, Oct. 13, is now occupied by the postponed Louisiana Tech season opener because of Hurricane Isaac).
And while Arkansas is struggling, the Aggies aren't in a position to take the Razorbacks lightly. Considering the fact that the Razorbacks have defeated the Aggies when the teams met in each of the past three seasons, it's unlikely they'll overlook Arkansas.
"I think it's one of those games that is real personal since we haven't beat them in three years," senior receiver Ryan Swope said. "It's a big game for us. It's something that we take seriously and that we can take pride in. I can tell you that the seniors, talking to them and the rest of the team, are hungry to win."
When they turn on the video, the Aggies say they don't see a 1-3 ballclub on the other side. There's still plenty of talent on the Razorbacks' roster, led by quarterback Tyler Wilson and receiver Cobi Hamilton, who set an SEC record with 303 receiving yards in their loss to Rutgers.
"We have to make sure we prepare as if they are an undefeated team," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said. "Just because they have lost three games in a row, we can't look at them as if they aren't a traditional Arkansas team. We have to prepare as if they are a very good team, which they are. If you watch them on film and the score is not there, you might think they would win every game."
Stewart said the Aggies aren't thinking about their reputation or respect right now, just the Razorbacks.
"We just want to win one game," Stewart said. "We're not concerned with what the rest of the conference thinks about us, because ultimately we can show everybody what to think of us when we play them. So we're just concerned about this one game, not about showing everybody else what we can do."