The 49-14 thumping that Alabama put on Arkansas last year in Fayetteville was easily the most lopsided game this series has seen in a decade. Last year's game, however, was also an anomaly as this series generally sees close, hard-fought contests, and none should expect another crimson landslide for a second year in a row.
There are two majors reasons for that: One, Arkansas looks to be a much better team this year than they were a year ago, and two, last year's game was much closer than the scoreboard indicated. Lopsided score notwithstanding, last year's game was actually played pretty evenly by the two teams, and the massive disparity on the scoreboard resulted from four major players all going Alabama's way. Those four plays were Glen Coffee's long touchdown run, Casey Dick's two interceptions (while driving) that were returned for touchdowns, and Terrence Cody's goal line stand to end the first half, and all of them directly resulted in Alabama touchdowns. Don't expect all of the big plays to go the Tide's way this year, and thus a much closer game this time around.
Let's take a closer look at the match-ups.
Alabama Offense v. Arkansas Defense
On the surface, this seems like a lopsided match-up in the Tide's favor. The Alabama offense has been surprisingly effective to date -- 500+ yards of total offense in each of the first three games, and 127 total points -- and Greg McElroy has exceeded all reasonable expectations. The offensive line was a major question mark coming into the season, and while penalties have hurt them somewhat, they've still generally gotten the job done. Even with Julio Jones not even playing in more than half of the offensive snaps to date, nothing has really been able to slow down the Tide's offense. On the other hand, Arkansas' defense has been nothing short of abysmal to date. It was a very bad unit a year ago, and unfortunately for the Hog faithful it's one that has shown little or no improvement since.
So is it just a given that the Alabama offense is going to rack up points left and right against Arkansas? Perhaps, but let's not be so fast.
An objective look at Arkansas' defense yields a group that is very light on elite top-end talent and quality depth throughout the roster, but even so this unit may not be as hapless as many would make it seem. Clearly the Hogs had a disastrous performance last week against Georgia, but it is worth noting that performance came almost entirely without the presence of two of Arkansas' best defenders: middle linebacker Jerry Franklin and cornerback Rudell Crim. Franklin is the leader of the linebacker corps and he was ejected in the second quarter, and Crim is the team's best cornerback, but he went out with leg cramps early. And as if missing two of their best players wasn't a big enough issue in its own right, their replacements -- Terrell Williams and Greg Gatson -- were effectively outright disasters. Franklin will be back this week, however, and you can rest assured that the Arkansas medical staff will have Crim properly hydrated this time around, so their returns alone will go a long way towards improving this Arkansas defense.
The big concern for Alabama, most likely, comes in the running game. The offensive line is still a bit of an unknown commodity, and for all of the criticisms of the Arkansas defense, we really haven't been challenged in the way that this Hog front seven will challenge us. Given our proclivity towards using two-tight end sets, we practically lost five starters at the point of attack from a year ago (Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell, Marlon Davis, Travis McCall, and Nick Walker), and the replacements for those five starters simply don't have the size that their predecessors did. Combined we are about 100 pounds lighter at the point of attack than we were last year -- which is to say nothing of the fact that the combination of Preston Dial and Brad Smelley isn't near the blocker that Travis McCall was, size differential notwithstanding -- and that alone probably means that we cannot dominate teams in the trenches like we did a year ago.
And that is where Arkansas really challenges us. For all of the criticisms of their defense, this is a big, strong unit in the front seven, and that is something we really haven't seen this year. Virginia Tech openly traded size for speed, and both Florida International and North Texas were clearly outmatched physically. Arkansas, however, is a very different animal altogether. They average nearly 280 pounds in the front four, the linebacker corps averages around 235 pounds, and with Malcom Sheppard manning the defensive tackle position, they will be able to match our physical style of play. In all likelihood, if the Arkansas defense is to slow down the Alabama offense, this is likely how they will have to do it.
Unfortunately, however, the rest of the match-ups for the Hogs simply do not look good.
Looking at the rest of the defensive backfield, even with a healthy Rudell Crim, the secondary is still one of the worst in the conference. Starting opposite Crim is Ramon Broadway, but Broadway has made news for three things this year, none of which are good for the Hogs: Getting arrested for not showing up to traffic court, running his mouth before the Georgia game, and ultimately getting lit up by A.J. Green. He's a below average corner in coverage, and the same thing goes for the rest of the rotation at cornerback. Highly-touted true freshman Darius Winston -- a consensus five-star prospect -- has not been able to make any impact whatsoever. Likewise, the safety play from Tramain Thomas and Matt Harris has impressed no one to date.
Largely the same thing goes for the linebacker corps as well. Jerry Franklin is a fine player at middle linebacker, but while the starters surrounding him, Wendel Davis and Freddy Burton, have a good bit of size, neither of the two look to be particularly good players right now. The aforementioned Terrell Williams struggled greatly last weekend trying to fill in for Franklin, and while Jerico Nelson is a good player against the pass, at barely 200 pounds he struggles to get on the field on running downs, thus limiting his effectiveness.
The best match-up of all may very well come against the Arkansas defensive line in the passing game, which has struggled to rush the passer. Jake Bequette and Adrian Davis start at defensive end, but neither are particularly adept pass rushers, and while Sheppard is more active than your typical interior player, there's only so much you can legitimately expect when you need your interior defensive linemen to generate the bulk of your pass rush. Despite Georgia being without its starting left tackle last week, Arkansas still couldn't muster any pressure whatsoever on Joe Cox, ultimately racking up only one sack and one hurry on approximately 30 passing attempts. Alabama may still have some issues protecting off the edge, but Greg McElroy ought to find himself with plenty of time to throw the football.
All in all, the Arkansas defense may be a bit better than it has been given credit for, and at any rate Alabama is still going to have to come out and execute successfully over the course of 60-70 plays to get the job done. Nevertheless, you still have to think that the Tide will put up more than their fair share of points this weekend. Arkansas may make running the football tough, but Arkansas' porous defensive backfield mixed with a lack of a consistent pass rush is likely a lethal combination in and of itself if Greg McElroy continues to play like he has so far this year.
Alabama Defense v. Arkansas Offense
While most expect the Alabama offense to have a big day against the struggling Arkansas defense, it's clear to everyone that it will be strength on strength when the Arkansas offense comes on the field. Both the Alabama defense and the Arkansas offense have the ability to be among the nationally elite with regard to their respective units, and making matters even more intriguing both units are led by two of the most advanced football minds in all of college football.
The Arkansas offense is a scary group, no two ways about it. Ryan Mallett has the arm strength of JaMarcus Russell, and he is easily the best pure pocket passer that Alabama has faced in years. The backfield is loaded with talented tailbacks that bring experience along with their unique mixes and matches of different physical builds. Tight end D.J. Williams is clearly the best in the conference, and back-up Ben Cleveland is a very valuable threat as a possession receiver. The wide receiver corps, too, is a good one from top to bottom. They don't have a true superstar ala Julio Jones, but they do have five or six high quality wide receivers who have good athleticism and who run good routes -- Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams are good enough to begin with, and Lucas Miller is returning this week from injury. That alone makes the Hogs very difficult to defend on the perimeter, even without saying anything with regard to Mallett. Bottom line, at the very least, this is the third-best offense in the conference, and it could easily be the best.
The only real weakness of the Arkansas offense comes up front at the point of attack, where the Hogs offensive line is seemingly still a relic of the Houston Nutt era. All five starters committed to Nutt, and not surprisingly they are generally the big, physical mashers that Nutt loved so much in his run-heavy offense. The "smallest" player on the line comes in at around 6'5 and 305 pounds, and truthfully that fact is probably doing the Hogs few favors. This line is, on the whole, a fish out of water. They are more physically built to pave the way for a run-heavy offense, but with the coaching turnover they are now being asked to pass protect against highly athletic pass rushers in a pass-happy offense. On a fundamental level it's effectively a recipe for disaster, and not surprisingly it's a team that has struggled to a degree to protect the passer. Starting right tackle DeMarcus Love probably needs to be playing inside at guard, and starting left tackle Ray Dominguez was absolutely atrocious against Georgia with four penalties and one sack allowed. The left tackle of the future is Anthony Oden, the younger brother of basketball star Greg Oden. He'll be a star one day, and the Arkansas coaches have indicated he may play some this week against Alabama, but he's a true freshman and given Nick Saban's love for giving multiple fronts that confuse offensive linemen, I'm not sure exactly how eager the Arkansas coaching staff is to put him in front of 93,000 fans. Nevertheless, if Dominguez' struggles continue, the Hogs' hand may be forced.
And this is the weakness that the Alabama defense must successfully attack to limit the Arkansas offense. The performance of our defensive backfield has been solid but not spectacular to date -- the overall statistics look good, but safety play has been shaky and highly inconsistent, Kareem Jackson has been hit or miss, and Marquis Johnson had a key penalty against Virginia Tech -- but the simple truth of the matter is that if Ryan Mallett consistently has the time to throw, it's going to be a very long day for the Tide. The Arkansas wide receiver corps is too good and Ryan Mallett has too much arm strength and accuracy to expect to be able to consistently stop the Arkanas offense if we cannot get pressure on Mallett.
Fortunately for the Tide, however, you have to like how we match against the Arkansas offensive line. Marcel Dareus is having a breakout year, Lorenzo Washington is playing better than ever, and we've gotten great pressure from the linebacker corps with Rolando McClain, Dont'a Hightower, and Eryk Anders. Moreover, on obvious passing downs, we have been moving the defensive ends inside in a four man front, and then putting Hightower and Anders at end. The results have been very good, to put it mildly, and we have consistently harassed passers all year long. Given the struggles Arkansas has had at the tackle positions, all signs point towards the Tide having some success getting to Mallett.
Even with that said, though, expect the Arkansas offense to have a reasonable amount of success against the Tide regardless. The running game has the potential to be a very good one -- you mix a bunch of big, strong offensive linemen with a group of highly talented tailbacks, and that is usually what you get -- and unless the Arkansas coaching staff is blowing smoke, they plan to use the rushing attack more prominently this weekend. It could have some success, and realistically no matter how well you can pressure Mallett, all of the outstanding components of the Arkansas passing game will guarantee that the Hogs hit more than a few plays in the passing game. These guys are going to score points, period.
Putting It All Together
All in all, I don't think there is much questioning the notion that Alabama is the better team here. We have more top-end talent, more quality depth, and probably a tad bit more experience as well. As long as Greg McElroy continues to play like he has to date, you have to imagine that Alabama will score more than their fair share of points tomorrow, and we should come away with the victory. Nevertheless, this game is far from a given, and it is likely to be a closely fought contest that goes into the fourth quarter. Arkansas is at worst a solid SEC team, and the difference between the two teams is far from gaping.
While it seems like we should be able to take full advantage of the Arkansas defense, truth be told we are probably going to have to do just that in order to win this game. Bamagrad has talked about these spread passing teams before, and I think he makes a good point: You can have a good defense and play well, but at the end of the day they are still good enough offensively to put up 24-28 points on the board. That could very well happen to us on Saturday, and if our special teams breakdowns continue, we could very easily be needing to score 31-35+ points in order to be able to get the victory. Arkansas is an improved team over last year, and they pulled off some pretty big upsets even then -- another victory over LSU, and came within a hair of knocking off Ole Miss as well. Rest assured, the Hogs will collect some more scalps this year, and it won't be a shock if they head back to Fayetteville with a crimson scalp in their possession.
Hope for the best.