At the risk of this piece turning into a bit of hyperbole in the opening sentence, it's relatively hard to imagine a regular season conference game between non-traditional rivals with more on the line than this one. With little doubt this looks to be the most consequential Alabama v. Arkansas game since the Hogs joined the conference almost twenty years ago. Moreover, it's also clear that Arkansas fancies this as the game in which they announce their arrival on the national stage, something we saw coming on RBR moths ago. As I wrote back in June:
That will be the general mindset of Arkansas when we make the trek to Fayetteville in the final weekend of September. That team will be thinking, "Beat Alabama... win the SEC West, then what? BCS game? SEC Championship? National championship contention?" Bank on it. Perhaps that is all wishful thinking on their part, and perhaps Arkansas is not ready for the limelight. Admittedly that may be the case, but nevertheless that will be the mindset that the Hogs will have on that day, and you can bet the proverbial farm that they will play with the appropriate level of energy and intensity given that mindset. We'll have to match that accordingly if we want to survive in the Ozarks. Be prepared for a slobberknocker.
Furthermore, the implications in the SEC West are obvious. With a road win over Georgia in the bag, Arkansas becomes the odds-on favorite to win the SEC West if they can knock off Alabama. As I wrote last week, if there is one game on the entire regular season schedule that we can absolutely not afford to lose, clearly it is this one. You cannot win a championship unless you make it to Atlanta, and if the Hogs upset us tomorrow afternoon, we're likely not making it to Atlanta. Again, it's hard to imagine a regular season conference game between non-traditional rivals with more on the line than this on
The major concerns for Alabama are defensive in nature. We dominated the vaunted Arkansas offense a year ago -- holding them to seven points, Mallett to under five yards per passing attempt, and collectively to under 260 yards of total offense -- but clearly our defense is not quite what it once was. The defensive performance to date hasn't been terrible, of course, but having said that it hasn't been particularly impressive either, especially given the quality of opponents we have faced.
The coaching staff has been critical of its performance, and up through this week they have been shuffling personnel in an attempt to field a more productive unit. In the defensive front seven, there will be many new faces in new places tomorrow afternoon. Luther Davis seems unlikely to get the start at the combo end-tackle position, with that nod likely going to Damion Square. Kerry Murphy, by all accounts, will see more time at defensive end. Jerrell Harris has been moved back to outside linebacker, and Nico Johnson will step in and play the Will linebacker position. Finally, at Jack linebacker, Courtney Upshaw looks healthy once again and took reps with the first team this week. Combine all of that with Marcell Dareus' still relatively nascent return and it's a revamped unit, but how it will perform is still a mystery.
The ideal scenario for Alabama is to stop the running game and pressure Mallett in order to help reduce the burden on the defensive backfield. Of course, that is much easier said than done. Arkansas has struggled to run the football, yes, but so have both Penn State and Duke and we didn't exactly shut them down. Likewise, we're near the bottom of the country in both sacks and tackles for loss, so making plays in the opponent's backfield hasn't been our forte to date either. That harsh reality notwithstanding, it's something Alabama is going to have to do tomorrow, otherwise pay the price. Arkansas has the best receiver corps and quarterback we've faced to date, by a rather large margin at that, and the odds of the Alabama defense keeping points off the board are low if Arkansas has some success on the ground and gives Mallett time to throw the football. Say what you will about the Hogs, but if we have some legitimate issues on the defensive side of the ball, we'll find out quickly tomorrow afternoon.
On the other side of the ball, a year ago in this game Arkansas loaded the box to stop the run and dared Greg McElroy to beat them in the air. Fortunately for us, McElroy did just that, throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns on only 24 passing attempts. That same strategy will likely be employed again this weekend. That's fine, of course, if McElroy repeats his performance of a year ago, but keep in mind that if he struggles then you likely have the same basic outcome as the 2009 Iron Bowl.
Regardless, we have sung the praises of the Alabama offense for the past three weeks, and collectively as a unit they will have to justify those praises tomorrow afternoon if the Tide is to remain on top. Given the defensive issues we've had to date, matched with the potency of the Arkansas offense, it's hard to see Alabama emerging from this one victorious without a stellar offensive performance.
All in all, it goes without saying that the next three weekends will be very difficult. Arkansas is likely the worst match-up we face all year, Florida will be the most talented team we see all season, and after those two games are finished we'll have to make the trek to Columbia to take on a well-rested South Carolina team that may be undefeated coming into the game. Having established that, it obviously won't get any easier after we leave Fayetteville, but we have to win there to get to where we want to go. If we have to win in a shoot out, so be it. It's less important how you win, so long as you win.
Hope for the best.