One year ago in Fayetteville, after outplaying Alabama nearly all afternoon, Arkansas had the Crimson Tide on the ropes in the fourth quarter only to implode in the closing minutes and allow an otherwise beaten 'Bama team to somehow escape with victory. While Arkansas would still reach new heights under Bobby Petrino last season with a berth in the Sugar Bowl, that late implosion against Alabama has since served as a dark reminder of the divide between Arkansas and the powerhouse programs legitimately in contention for a national championship.
Coming to Tuscaloosa this fall, revenge and redemption are on Arkansas' mind as they hope to make amends for the nightmare meltdown and to emerge as a serious contender for conference and national championships this season. Discuss the viability of their potential as you will, but this is a team that feels it is ready to take the jump to the next level, and in fairness it's not hard to envision them besting Alabama and LSU, which would clearly put them in the mix nationally for another trip to New Orleans. Admittedly, though, Arkansas is largely an unknown at this point. In essence, they have been preparing for this game since the latter stages of fall camp and their three opening games were little more than obligatory scrimmages that revealed very little of value.
As will probably always be the case with Bobby Petrino Arkansas, the spread passing attack once again leads this team. The loss of Ryan Mallett has largely been an afterthought, and if Tyler Wilson can protect the football better in critical situations he'll constitute a significant upgrade over the mistake-prone Mallett. In any event, Petrino has always put productive passers on the field, and the trio of Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs perhaps forms the most effective wide receiver corps in the conference (of which there is plenty of depth to boot behind those three). Given the talent involved and the quality of the scheme it will clearly be the most dangerous passing attack Alabama will face in the regular season.
The running game, of course, is somewhat murkier given the loss of Knile Davis. 'Bama actually largely avoided Davis a year ago because Petrino was wasting carries on Broderick Green, but both players will miss this game with season-ending injuries, and as a result the load will fall to Ronnie Wingo. Knile Davis he is not, but even so Wingo is an impressive athlete in his own right and was in fact recruited heavily by Alabama out of Missouri. Dennis Johnson should provide quality depth as he returns from a hamstring issue. On the whole, it's not quite what Alabama puts on the field with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, but the running game is secondary under Petrino and to that end Wingo and Johnson are probably more than capable of getting the job done.
Accordingly, this Arkansas offense will easily test the Crimson Tide defense in ways that 'Bama hasn't been challenged thus far. While the Alabama defense has been nothing short of smothering to date, the truth remains that three teams they have faced this season are currently ranked 119th, 103rd, and 113th, respectively, nationally in total offense. 'Bama really hasn't even faced an offense yet good enough to be labeled merely as "bad," and the Arkansas offense will simply be on another level than anything seen so far. Hopefully the stifling play will continue, but only time can tell.
Somewhat surprisingly, Alabama has not been able to generate any consistent pass rush to date, though in some contexts such a shortcoming is not fatal. Given the relative dearth of high-end quarterbacks and effective passing games in the SEC this season, a lack of a consistent pass rush won't be a major problem against most opponents, but Arkansas is one of the exceptions that proves the general rule. Given sufficient time, Petrino and his offense will pick apart an opposing defense with its seemingly endless crossing routes and zone clearing route combos. If there is any one team on the entire schedule that it is absolutely necessary to rush the passer effectively on a consistent basis that team is undoubtedly Arkansas.
Furthermore, and fortunately for the Tide, the weakness of this Arkansas offense is clearly at the tackle position. The skill positions are strong and the play from the interior line is more than adequate, but they have a true freshman (Mitch Smothers) playing left tackle and another true freshman (Brey Cook) seeing time at right tackle, with both players making their first road trip. Not surprisingly, pass protection has been a major issue for the Hogs even against the cupcake competition, and Wilson actually suffered a mild concussion after taking a rough shot against New Mexico. Moving forward, beyond the importance of harassing Wilson tomorrow afternoon, if 'Bama struggles to rush the passer against the Hogs that likely portends bad things for the pass rush in the final two months of the season.
On the other side of the ball, Arkansas has been largely mediocre-at-best under Petrino, but with several experienced players returning in 2011 many felt that this would be the season they would make the jump defensively to the next level. Then again, one can always question the value of bad experiences, and theoretical discussions aside this was a defense that again looked troublesome last weekend against lowly Troy, which racked up 28 points, 22 first downs, and 457 yards of total offense in a surprisingly close game.
With those troubles in mind, though, Alabama has been far from an offensive juggernaut in its own right. A.J. McCarron has been solid and effective through three games, but he has generally been a game-manager to date, and for all of the talent of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy the running game has been inconsistent and ineffective at times, particularly early in games, as the offensive line has still not returned to 2009 levels. Arkansas figures to be stout against the interior run with strong play from the tackles and a solid middle linebacker (Jerry Franklin) behind them, and after loading the box and forcing a young and inexperienced Greg McElroy to beat them two years ago, it should come as no surprise if tomorrow the Arkansas defense forces A.J. McCarron to do far more through the air than he has done so far in his Alabama career, a strategy that will probably be even more tempting than normal given the lack of size in the wide receiver corps for Alabama.
Whatever Arkansas brings to the table, though, Alabama has no other choice but to rise to the occasion if this team legitimately expects a championship. Even a single loss, regardless of the quality of the opponent, may eliminate the Tide from national championship contention, given the strong early showings of Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Boise, and the divisional tiebreaker implications could easily be the difference between who goes to Atlanta in early December and who stays at home watching Gary and Verne with the rest of the country. A
rkansas figures to be no worse than the second toughest game on the entire schedule, and for all of the attention that the Alabama v. LSU game in early November has generated, 'Bama fans ought to remember well the hard lesson learned from last year that games such as those largely lose their luster if you don't have the level of success beforehand such that those games can become springboards to greater national prominence (think the Iron Bowl a year ago). 'Bama has to successfully fight its way through Arkansas and Florida in the next two weeks for those later contests to mean what many think they will, and neither win looks to come easy.
Hope for the best.