Seven months ago, Arkansas was considered by many to be a pre-season top ten team and a potential darkhorse pick to compete for a championship. The Alabama v. Arkansas game in Fayetteville was expected to be a showdown on the national stage and a season-defining game for both teams. Fast forward past the scrap heap of Bobby Petrino's Harley-Davidson, John L. Smith's unwelcome arrival, key injuries and the Meltdown on Markham, and this game has devolved into an afterthought with Alabama coming in as a three touchdown favorite. Sufficed to say, a lot can change in seven months.
The sudden flameout of Bobby Petrino was never going to produce good things for the Hogs, but even so their early season struggles have been near shocking. Despite starting the season with two cupcakes -- their "preseason" opponents, as John L. Smith derisively referred to them as before the Louisiana-Monroe debacle -- nothing outside of the performances of Tyler Wilson, tight end Chris Gragg, and middle linebacker Alonzo Highsmith have gone right for this team.
Knile Davis has returned and seems healthy, but the offensive line has been a mess, bogging down the running game and subjecting their quarterbacks to constant punishment. Tackles Brey Cook and David Hurd have been swinging gates at times, and the interior line has failed to impress either in pass protection or in the running game. The wide receiver corps hasn't adequately replaced Joe Adams and company, all of whom have departed for the NFL.
Defense has been even worse, with performances bad enough to make the Auburn coaching staff look on appalled. The warning signs were readily apparent against FCS Jacksonville State, but the floodgates broke open against Louisiana-Monroe, with the Hogs defense giving up 34 points, 30 first downs, and 550 total yards of offense. Simply put, everything has been broken. The defensive line play has been ineffective, the move of Tenarius Wright to linebacker has yet to bear fruit, and almost no one outside of middle linebacker Alonzo Highsmith has played particularly well in the defensive front seven. The secondary has been horrid and has bordered on outright embarrassment. Arkansas will start a recruiting bust and a Mississippi Valley State transfer at cornerback against Alabama, and safety play has been little better. Making matters worse, new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes has looked lost in his debut campaign.
Putting the early struggles aside for a moment, game week news and rumors have, of course, all focused solely on the health status of Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, who suffered a concussion in the first half last weekend against Louisiana-Monroe and who did not return from the locker room after halftime. Wilson, who has had at least one prior concussion, remained in Little Rock for observation that night, and as of Tuesday was attending practice in street clothes. Smith has been coy about Wilson's availability, stating that "he was busy" after missing practice yesterday, though Wilson did throw some and participate in non-contact work on Wednesday. A decision is apparently expected sometime today, but for now it seems unlikely that he will play, athough given his experience he could certainly pick up the reins with last-minute medical clearance.
Can Arkansas win without Wilson? Obviously the smart money says no, though stranger things have happened, and Alabama's struggles a week ago Western Kentucky's short-to-intermediate crossing routes are a bit troubling given that they are the cornerstone of the Petrino passing game.
If Wilson indeed cannot go, Arkansas will turn to either Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell. Allen is the putative back-up and has a similar physical skill set to Wilson; he played a week ago after Wilson went out, though he struggled mightily, going only 6-20 for 85 yards with one interception and two sacks. The more intriguing option is Mitchell, who was actually the backup to Wilson a year ago before being converted to wide receiver this season. Mitchell was effective last year in limited action, and at 6'4 and 230 pounds with great athleticism, he gives Arkansas a legitimate dual-threat at the quarterback position.
The two have largely split practice snaps equally this week, and exactly what will transpire tomorrow remains to be seen. Most figure that Allen will start, but Mitchell could perhaps be the true threat to the Tide. Alabama has traditionally fared very well under Nick Saban against pocket-passer quarterbacks -- including Wilson -- but have struggled at times against legitimate dual threat quarterbacks, and at least in terms of raw ability Mitchell fits that mold. His athleticism alone will give the Alabama defense plenty to prepare for tomorrow afternoon.
Barring a big performance from under center, however, put it all together and, on the whole, the three-touchdown betting line is largely justified. Stated succinctly, if Arkansas plays anything like it has to date and Alabama plays remotely near its ability, 'Bama will win and will likely do so with ease.
All of that said, however, road wins don't generally come easy in the SEC, and all of their issues notwithstanding, Arkansas has enough talent to put up a real fight. Moreover, Alabama has had some holes of its own in this young season, and didn't play particularly well a week ago against Western Kentucky. The defensive backfield in particular gives pause for concern and could be a legitimate weakness against a team with a viable passing attack -- though whether or not Arkansas fits that bill now is clearly up for debate.
The biggest weakness for Arkansas is on the defensive side of the football, and to that the end the Alabama offense needs to carry the load. Offensive line plays needs to be far better than it was a week ago, the running game must become more established and explosive, and A.J. McCarron and company need to have the downfield success they had a week ago, all the while protecting the football. Defensive issues will be harder to address, particularly if 'Bama struggles to rush the passer, but if the Alabama offense can exploit the Arkansas defense as the pre-game match-ups would indicate, it is hard to chart a course to victory for the Hogs.
In the meantime, though, don't simply expect this Arkansas team to roll over for the Tide. John L. Smith and the remnants of Bobby Petrino's coaching staff will be coaching for their jobs tomorrow afternoon, and the entire roster assuredly knows that the only way to legitimately erase last week's nightmare debacle against Louisiana-Monroe is to go out this week and take out Alabama. Arkansas looks to be overwhelmed, but it is painfully clear that they are a desperate team and desperate teams are inherently dangerous teams. Whatever the Hogs have left in the tank, expect Alabama to get it tomorrow afternoon.
Hope for the best.