Real life has rudely intruded at every turn this week, but thankfully things have cleared up enough to put the electronic pen to paper for the Arkansas preview. With the football team now headed to Fayetteville to take on the Razorbacks, here goes:
Alabama heads west to the Natural State with a 3-0 record, and still in a bit of disbelief of how well the season has gone to date. The dominating win over Clemson shocked everyone, and now after three non-conference victories to open the season, Alabama turns to conference play as we all eye a potential run at Atlanta. Even better for the Tide, the struggles against Tulane were vindicated to a large degree last week -- when Alabama dominated Western Kentucky and Tulane should have beaten East Carolina -- and surprisingly enough the Tide also travels to Fayetteville as a healthy football team.
Arkansas also comes into this contest undefeated, but that fact alone gives credence to the importance of understanding the context associated with win-loss records in college football. Yes the Hogs are 2-0, but they are so only after narrowly squeaking by Western Illinois and Louisana-Monroe with last-minute comebacks, and moreover they needed a category three hurricane to temporarily spare themselves an inevitable beating at the hands of arch rival Texas.
The harsh reality for the Razorbacks is that they are clearly in rebuilding mode, and unfortunately for them the worst is yet to come. A year ago the defense collapsed, but the team was kept afloat by a great run blocking offensive line and a dynamic duo in the backfield that was of legendary proportions. The Hogs will have no such luxury this year. The defense is still bad, the dynamic duo now plays on Sunday, and the offensive line is now being asked to pass block. Again, though the Hogs are currently 2-0 and coming off of two successful seasons, it is clear that things will get much worse before they get better. I think we all -- even some Arkansas fans -- had some understanding of the tough year that was waiting for the Hogs in 2008, but early returns indicate a year filled with far more struggles than most of us, myself included, ever imagined.
Nevertheless, the struggles of Arkansas notwithstanding, this is still a conference game on the road, and for teams relying heavily on youth and inexperience, those wins rarely come easy. Regardless of how poorly Arkansas has looked to date, we will need to show up and play very well in order to secure the victory. Again, conference games rarely come easy.
Alabama Offense v. Arkansas Defense
After coming off of a dismal performance against Tulane, fortunately the Alabama offense rebounded in almost the strongest way possible against Western Kentucky. Points went up in bunches, and we effectively moved the football all night with a balanced offensive attack. In simple terms, it was exactly the type of performance wanted after such a poor showing the week before.
More importantly, moving forward, the offensive line has overcome the injuries that limited us a couple of weeks ago. Andre Smith is back at 100%, and all of the reports coming in on Marlon Davis now indicate that he has returned to health from his hamstring injury. Nevertheless, depth still remains an issue, and right tackle is a bit unsettled. It should be noted that in the Western Kentucky game that Tyler Love, Barrett Jones, and John Michael Boswell all played, and Boswell in fact came in during the second quarter as the starting right tackle. The biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball is clearly the quality of depth along the offensive line, and though it is great to see us return to health with the starting five, we are still a bit unsettled in terms of what would happen if one of those guys went out, and quite frankly we apparently have a very close position battle now at right tackle.
Nevertheless, offensive line issues aside, the Crimson Tide is a relatively well known quantity now as an offense, and by that I mean it is relatively clear the things we can do well and the things we cannot do well. When the starters on the offensive line are healthy, we can effectively run the football with several different tailbacks, and we have been able to generate success both running outside and in between the tackles. Moreover, the passing game can be relatively efficient, and we can heavily utilize the backs and the tight ends. On the other hand, the wide receiver corps -- though supremely talented -- is inexperienced and inconsistent, and we do struggle to stretch the field vertically. Moreover, we also have clear concerns regarding offensive line depth, and there will always be concerns about the decision-making of John Parker Wilson. Either way, this is who we are as an offense, and though it is an imperfect one, it is clearly one good enough to get the job done provided proper execution. The question, at this point, is simply whether or not we execute.
For the Hogs' defense, on the other hand, things have been pretty ugly early on. Petrino and company wanted to install a 4-3 scheme, but that has morphed into a 4-2-5 scheme because of youth and inexperience at linebacker, so now the Hogs are trying to get by with adding a third safety into the game. And even so, it's still an extremely young unit in the defensive back seven, featuring only two upperclassmen and three true freshmen. The only legitimate returning starter is cornerback Jerell Norton -- the cornerback who D.J. Hall mercilessly terrorized in the first half of last year's Alabama v. Arkansas game -- and even he has been slowed by injuries. Now, it should be mentioned that the struggles in the defensive back seven were expected. Coming into the year, however, the defensive line was expected to be very stout and the clear strength of the defense. Unfortunately, through two games, the defensive line has severely underformed, generating almost no pass rush while being mediocre against the run. Given all of the foregoing, it should come as no surprise that the unit has struggled early on in the season.
Going forward to this Saturday, it is clear that the Alabama offense should have a good degree of success against the Hogs. I do expect that Arkansas will dramatically change the philosophy the old coaching regime used early last year -- blitz Wilson and play predictable man coverages on the outside, with no safety help; something they only changed until after Hall had lit up Norton to the tune of 21-0 -- and incorporate more zone blitzes this season, but even so, it's clear that we should have success against the Hogs. With the struggles they have had in the defensive front seven, we should be able to run the football effectively on them with our offensive line healthy again, and we should be able to throw the football well given their lack of pass rush to date and inexperience in the defensive back seven.
The bottom line is that Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe put up 24 and 27 points, respectively, against this defense, so we should at least be able to have production to that level, and frankly we should be able to produce beyond that level. The truth of the matter is that the Arkansas defense, by all objective measures, is not very good, and we should have a good deal of success against it. A failure to do so should rightly be considered an indictment of our own offense's shortcoming more so than anything else.
Alabama Defense v. Arkansas Offense
In a few months, Arkansas has gone from an offense based largely upon principles of the old single wing to a modern day spread offense. Sufficed to say, there was expected to be a period of transition in which there would likely be a lot of offensive struggles.
However, it should be pointed out that the change in offensive philosophy probably only plays a major negative impact on the offensive line, who now suddenly have more to worry about than just run blocking, as they must now specialize in the finer techniques of pass blocking. Clearly this is a major issue because the current group of offensive linemen were recruited for a smash-mouth style of football, and frankly this group probably does not have the athleticism to be particularly good pass blockers, nor does it help that they are highly inexperienced in the finer technical points of pass protection.
Aside from the offensive line, though, the bigger problem the Hogs have is not necessarily transition with the new offensive scheme. The bigger problem is that they simply do not have very much talent on the offensive side of the ball. Casey Dick, even on his best day, is a mediocre quarterback with limited physical abilities; a quarterback who probably fits more into the concept of a "game manager" than anything else. At tailback, with McFadden and Jones gone, all that is left is the diminutive 5'7 and 170 pound Michael Smith, who is backed up by a true freshmen. With the wide receiver corps, it's all young and inexperienced guys, and frankly there is not a single player in their rotation that could start for any of the teams in the top half of the league. Of the six non-offensive line positions on the offensive side of the ball, the Hogs have only one player -- H-back / tight end D.J. Williams, who in all fairness is a fine football player who looks to have a very bright future -- who could legitimately start for one of the teams in the top half of the conference. The rest of the skill position players would be mere depth chart fodder.
Nor surprisingly given all of the foregoing, the Arkansas offense looks to have plenty of struggles this year once it faces legitimate competition. Even against Western Illinois and ULM, the offense hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and they have been completely unable to protect the quarterback. Moreover, they have struggled to establish an interior running game. There is really no reason to expect that anything will be different against stiffer competition.
Defensively, we should be able to match up very well against the Hogs. Terrence Cody and our stout defensive line should be able to completely shut down the interior Arkansas running game, and frankly even an Arkansas fan would have to concede that having Casey Dick throw to a bunch of young and inexperienced freshmen and sophomores is clearly something that plays to our advantage. While Arkansas may find a degree of success running the football on the edge, and attacking the middle of the field with D.J. Williams, it seems clear that, given the performance of our defense to date, we should be able to control the Hogs with no major problems.
Putting It All Together
With all due respect to the Hogs, and at the risk of coming off as an Alabama homer, this is clearly a match-up that favors the Crimson Tide in almost every single aspect. There are no two ways about it, we should win this game. We look to be, without attempting to overstate the case, at least a pretty good team, and frankly Arkansas, judging by their performance in the first two games, may very well end up fielding the worst team they've had since their first year in the conference in 1992.
As I mentioned earlier, though, no one should be overly arrogant about this game, regardless of how favorable the match-up may seem. The harsh truth of the matter is that, almost regardless of the disparities between two teams, conference games rarely come easy, and young and inexperienced teams often do have legitimate problems playing on the road. Moreover, thanks to Hurricane Ike, Arkansas did have a couple of extra days to prepare for us, and frankly it would be absurd to think that the Hogs will attack us with the same intensity level that they displayed against Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. Whatever it may entail, we will get the Razorbacks' best effort.
The standard of success in this game, as is the case in just about every conference game you will play, will be victory. The style and manner in which we win is not of any real importance; the only thing that is ultimately important is whether or not we win. This is most certainly not, like last week, where we need not only to win but to win convincingly; here any manner in which we can get the victory will be satisfactory. We should not kid ourselves, Arkansas will give us their very best, and we will have to fight hard to emerge victorious. Regardless of how it happens, a victory should make everyone very happy.
Hope for the best.