Penn State battles No. 21 Arkansas in the Outback Bowl on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa as college football fans kick the new year off with a bang. There is no better day on the calendar and no better way than to start it with a classic Big Ten-SEC matchup.
The Nittany Lions have played what’s felt like two different seasons in 2021. They began the year with five straight wins, including victories over Wisconsin and Auburn that helped propel the Lions to No. 4 in the AP Top 25. That’s as high as they’d climb, though, as a loss to Iowa began a three-game skid that included losses to Ohio State and — most surprisingly of all — Illinois at home in nine overtimes. The Lions lost five of their last seven games to finish the regular season at 7-5 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten.
Arkansas has been a streaky team itself. The Razorbacks started 4-0 with upset victories over Texas and Texas A&M before dropping their next three games to get to 4-3. The Hogs would recover by winning four of their last five, with the lone loss being a 42-35 defeat on the road against Alabama. Their 8-4 mark overall and 4-4 record in conference were good enough for a third-place finish in the SEC West.
This Outback Bowl meeting will be the first between the schools. That might be a surprise considering how many times the Big Ten and SEC run into one another during bowl season, but don’t forget that Penn State didn’t join the Big Ten until 1993 and Arkansas wasn’t a member of the SEC until 1991.
Penn State vs. Arkansas: Need to know
Both teams will be without key players: It’s a reality of bowl season now. Non-playoff games often see key players sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft while other players hit the transfer portal and are no longer on the roster. The Outback Bowl will be no different. While James Franklin won’t confirm anything, plenty of Penn State stars like WR Jahan Dotson, edge rusher Arnold Ebekitie, safety Jaquan Brisker and linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith have announced they’re out of the game. On the other sideline, Arkansas will be without stud receiver Treylon Burks. That means we won’t get the chance to see either team at full strength, but the silver lining for fans is they’ll get a better idea of what the future holds, particularly on the Penn State side.
Penn State struggles to run the ball: It feels like a problem as old as time by now, but Penn State again struggled to move the ball on the ground this season. It’s one of the reasons the Nittany Lions weren’t able to maintain their hot start. The Nittany Lions finished 13th in the Big Ten in yards per carry (3.1), rushing touchdowns (11) and yards post-contact per rush (2.2). Now, somebody needs to finish at the bottom of the conference, but it is a surprise for it to be one of the most talented teams in the league. If there’s any good news for Penn State, it’s that Arkansas was pretty average against the run defensively (62nd nationally in yards per carry and 70th in yards per game).
Arkansas’ first bowl appearance since 2016: No matter the game’s result, it’s hard to consider the 2021 season as anything but a success for the Razorbacks. They reached as high as No. 8 in the AP Top 25 earlier this season, and now they’ll be playing in their first bowl game since the 2016 Belk Bowl. However, the Razorbacks are hoping for a better result this time around, as they lost that game to Virginia Tech 35-24.
How to watch Outback Bowl live
Game: Outback Bowl
Date: Saturday, Jan. 1 | Time: 12 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium — Tampa
TV: ESPN2 | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Outback Bowl prediction, picks
Featured Game | Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
When you consider the sheer number of bodies Penn State is missing for this game and the roles they play, it’s hard to go any direction other than Arkansas. Offensively, Dotson was the release valve for a team that couldn’t run the ball. Defensively, they’ll be without the heart of the unit. While Burks is a terrific player and a massive loss for the Razorbacks, he’s a lot easier to replace than all the players the Nittany Lions won’t have, so let’s not overthink this one. Prediction: Arkansas (+1)
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