The Penn State Nittany Lions and Arkansas Razorbacks will match up in this year’s Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year’s Day with both teams looking to finish up rather different 2021 campaigns.
The Nittany Lions enter Saturday’s game having lost five of their last seven games while the Razorbacks, in their second season led by the colorful Sam Pittman, have won four of their last five. But, in bowl season, almost none of that matters.
The college football odds have the Razorbacks as very slight favorites.
Game: Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (8-4)
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla
Day/Time: Saturday, Noon ET
|Penn State||+1½ (-110)||Ev||u47 (-110)|
|Arkansas||-1½ (-110)||-120||o47 (-110)|
Penn State Needs Big Game From Clifford
Penn State finished out its regular season with a close 30-27 loss to Michigan State in a game that the Nittany Lions were actually leading in the third quarter. It was a fitting way to cap off a pretty disappointing season in which Penn State started 5-0 but really struggled once conference play kicked into full drive, especially on offense.
The Nittany Lions’ record probably undersells how well they played in 2021. Penn State went 1-4 in one-score games, with a few close losses — the nine-overtime heartbreaker against Illinois stands out — really derailing a once-promising season. They did go 7-5 in covering the spread but, in a sign of how hard it was for the Nittany Lions to score at times, the over went 3-9 in their games.
So, overall, an Outback Bowl appearance is probably a bit disappointing for the Nittany Lions. They had high hopes for quarterback Sean Clifford and a really good supporting cast, but it just never clicked in terms of winning Big Ten games (a 4-5 conference record won’t cut it).
Three Players to Watch
Clifford is obviously the most important player for Penn State, as the Nittany Lions usually follow his lead in terms of how well (or how poorly) they fare offensively. His statistics look good — 2,912 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions — but he often played poorly in big games against better competition, making it tough for Penn State to compete with the top teams in the conference.
Now that leading wide receiver Jahan Dotson is out, Clifford’s top remaining target is wide receiver Parker Washington (57 catches, 722 yards, four touchdowns). It’s not going to be easy for Washington to assume the lead role, but the Nittany Lions don’t have a ton of other high-level options available.
With star safety Jaquan Brisker and linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith not playing, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie needs to be disruptive. He led Penn State with 9.5 sacks — no other Nittany Lion had more than two — and he must get to K.J. Jefferson early and often if James Franklin’s team is going to slow down the Razorbacks.
Penn State doesn’t have a ton of injuries but the Nittany Lions will be without a few key players who decided to forgo the Outback Bowl in preparation for the 2022 NFL Draft. The absences of Dotson, Brisker, Brooks and Smith will leave Penn State without some of its best players.
Razorbacks Sharp Down Stretch
Not much was expected of Arkansas in Pittman’s second year at the helm of one of the SEC’s more consistently underperforming teams. Well, it’s fair to say that going 8-4 with wins over Texas, Texas A&M and LSU along with one-possession losses to Ole Miss and Alabama counts as exceeding those expectations.
The Razorbacks closed their regular season out with a 34-17 win over Missouri, ensuring them a spot in a pretty good bowl. Now, they’re favored over Penn State on the college football spreads and have a good shot at getting their first bowl win since the 2016 Liberty Bowl.
Arkansas went 2-2 in one-score games, beating Mississippi State and LSU and losing to Ole Miss and Alabama in games the Razorbacks easily could have won. They went 7-4-1 against the spread and the over hit in seven of their 12 games.
Three Players to Watch
K.J. Jefferson had a big year in his first season as Arkansas’ starting quarterback, throwing for nearly 2,600 yards and 21 touchdowns against just three picks. He was the Razorbacks’ second-leading rusher with 554 yards. The entire offense flows through him and the combination of his arm and mobility makes him really difficult to defend.
With No. 1 wide receiver Treylon Burks opting out of the Outback Bowl, the Razorbacks don’t have any top-tier pass-catchers left so they might feature running back Trelon Smith heavily. He ran for a team-high 592 yards on five yards per carry and combined with Jefferson, Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson to form a balanced rushing group.
In addition to having a great name, Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool had 120 total tackles and anchored a solid if unspectacular Razorbacks’ defense. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss and is one of those linebackers that always finds a way to be involved in any play.
The Razorbacks are pretty healthy but will be without edge rusher Tre’ Williams and Burks, both of whom declared for the NFL Draft. Williams had a team-high six sacks while Burks amassed 1,123 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
Betting on the Game
While Arkansas is slightly favored on the BetUS sportsbook right now, there has been a ton of line movement on this game in the greater betting market. That’s likely due to all the news about star players opting out for the draft, but the line should stabilize on Arkansas’ behalf simply because of how much talent Penn State will be missing.
The Nittany Lions’ strength is their defense, which will be without its three best players. Plus, Penn State’s offensive issues will only be made worse by not having Dotson on the field. Arkansas is without key pieces on both offense or defense, but the Razorbacks are dealing with much less attrition, which often makes the difference in bowl games.
Jefferson’s versatility could be the difference in this game since he can hurt defenses in so many ways. Still, if you’re betting online, Penn State at even on the moneyline is enticing value since these teams are still relatively even overall. Consider taking the over as well since each side is without some of its best defensive playmakers.