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Hope For the Best: Arkansas edition

Despite Arkansas' foibles this year, the Tide must stay Process-oriented against the wounded Razorbacks

Can Bret Bielema and his Razorbacks shock the a good way?
Can Bret Bielema and his Razorbacks shock the a good way?
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

"It's not the end result. Don't think about winning the SEC Championship. Don't think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That's the process: Let's think about what we can do today, the task at hand." Nick Saban

"Results-oriented." It doesn't sound like a curse word or swear, does it? While certainly not among George Carlin's infamous "Seven Words," to the ears of Our Dark Lord, the phrase "results-oriented" is pure anathema, a hex of the highest order. Most of us mortals perceive the phrase as a positive rather than a negative, but not Nick Saban. For him, the results of an endeavor amount to minutia, the mere natural after-effects of doing things "the right way," like ripples ebbing away from the splash of a rock tossed into a still pond.

Given the timbre of ODL's "Hey Coach" radio show closing remarks this week, the results-oriented mindset must be taking over the collective psyche of the Tide Nation like a malignant tumor ravishing tender tissue. Strong words were uttered towards those who think that this week's game against an Arkansas Razorback team that lost to Rutgers will be a cake walk.

Yes, Arkansas is an SEC opponent. And yes, due to the constant, pounding diatribe of Saban, we respect every opponent as the potential David to Bama's Goliath. But come the Tide Nation really afraid of playing THIS incarnation of the Hogs at Bryant Denny Stadium?

While fans entertain the notion of being "process-oriented" and give it lip-service, for Saban, and by proxy the Crimson Tide, it is THE guiding mantra. Saban refuses to recognize or strive for the goal...unless of course one wants to frame the goal as playing to the best of one's ability as an individual and as part of the collective team, of executing to a standard regardless of what other 11 players take the field in opposition. You see, in Saban's game, the other team is immaterial. For all he cares, the Crimson Tide could line up against tackling dummies this Saturday and still lose...not on the scoreboard, but on his ever-present effort and standard tote board. It's not about who his team plays, but rather, who his team is, and whether or not they prepare and execute at 100%. It's simple, really. Saban made it clear last night: those who see a win Saturday as a foregone conclusion are not appreciated, as there is no room for a "results-oriented" mindset within the crushing catacombs of Saban's Process ©.

Part of the Process © this year has been developing an identity and team character. For whatever reason, maybe due to youth, arrogance, mental clutter or some combination of the three, it's taken longer than usual for the team to define itself. Through most of the first half of the season, the Alabama Crimson Tide endured a bit of an identity crisis. Despite the double-digit margins of victory in all but the Texas A&M game, the team appeared disjointed at times, unable to wield the personnel weapons that when assembled, form Nick Saban's Voltron, an unstoppable tool of domination and discipline.

Despite their early meanderings in the wilderness, the Tide seemed to strike its path in the victory over Kentucky. Yes, the opposition was inferior, but Bama dominated every sector of that game save for the turnover battle. As previously mentioned, it didn't matter that it was Kentucky on the other side of the line of scrimmage. ODL was pleased with the effort his men gave, and the win on the scoreboard was simply a byproduct of their execution. Last week's Alabama was the type of team fans of the program have come to expect over the last five years: a lubricated, precision instrument of Our Dark Lord's bidding that can only be stopped by one team: the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Much to the chagrin of the remainder of the college football world, Bama is hitting its stride. Nothing could be more fierce and awe-inspiring than Saban's Tide when firing on all cylinders. This team has the talent to be the oppressor of all comers who have the misfortune of meeting them, and with the season-defining showdown against LSU looming in the coming weeks, the Tide couldn't have found its stride at a better time.

Enter the Arkansas Razorbacks, that perennial band of Ozarkans who, under the reign of former evil genius and motorcycle aficionado Bobby Petrino, could at least present the appearance of rivaling the perennial West powerhouses in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. But a meeting with destiny (and the Arkansas State Patrol) ended that era of Razorhog football all too soon for the likes of their fans, and they too must now spend some time wandering the Sinai before getting a chance to once again enter the Promised Land of SEC West title contention.

Everyone knew that the John L. Smith Era of Razorback football would be but a mere grain amongst the sands of time, a stop-gap. Under his leadership, they blundered to one of the worst records in recent memory. With the perspective of time following Petrino's departure, Arkansas looked for their messiah, that mythical coach who could not only match wits with the greatest minds in defensive college football, but who could also recruit top five classes year in and year out. They left no stone unturned, as the names of potential candidates for the job swirled, caught in a twister of possibility. When the dust cleared and the rubble was pulled back, the Hogs settled in with one Bret Bielema, a man known as much for his trophy wife and Twitter platitudes as his on-field prowess. Bielema immediately called out ODL, as follows:

"The reason the SEC is talked about all the time is one team, because of their dominance. But I didn't come here to play Alabama. I came here to beat Alabama. You can take [Nick} Saban's record when he was at Michigan State and when he was a coach in the Big 10 and put it against mine, and he can't compare."

With this nugget of bulletin board gold, Bielema's set the stage for his team's trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend, where his hapless Hogs will face off against the men in crimson. Many wouldn't give the Hogs a chance, and I probably realistically count myself amongst that group. I know this space is usually dedicated to pessimism, and there will be a few inklings of that emotion demonstrated shortly. But let's be frank: barring a catastrophic injury, eleventy-billion turnovers, or the ever-present possibility of catastrophic meteor impact, the Tide will roll Saturday night. I can't make much of an argument that includes Arkansas emerging from Saturday's contest in victorious fashion. Hell, it's hard to make an argument that the Hogs will want to play another game after enduring the fate that surely awaits them at the hands of Saban's legion. It will be brutal, it will be nasty, and unfortunately for the pig-nosed Hog faithful, they will be on the wrong end of both of those dynamics.

After all, Kentucky was a team we all thought the Tide would roll, and they did. But Kentucky was likely a better team than the one the Tide faces this weekend, as not only is Arkansas lacking in terms of depth and experience, team morale is probably quickly approaching the football equivalent of an event horizon: that point at which the magnetism of apathy and the pain of defeat condense into a hyper-charged, super-dense unwieldy lump of unmotivated suck.

Though optimism abounds this week, let us take a closer look at a few match-ups, if not for their level of scariness, then maybe for the opportunity for the Tide to further demonstrate its dominance...

  • I've dedicated a lot of space to the Tide's struggles at the offensive point of attack this year, and the inability of the offensive line to assert itself. Whether through some work of wizardry on the part of OL coach Mario Cristobal, ODL's injection of young talent into the starting five, or the development of the familiarity exhibited by all cohesive offensive lines, the Tide blockers were dominant against Kentucky in a way they've not been dominant this year to date. They absolutely manhandled the Wildcats, pancaking, plowing, and just plain ole chopping down defenders like so many unstuffed rag dolls.Oft criticized this year, future NFL'er Cyrus Kouandjio played like a Rancor on bath salts, drilling and driving anything that came within arms' reach. Chad Lindsay may stick at center, as he has shown himself adept and in command, pulling with ease and managing his responsibilities like a veteran starter. Anthony Steen is the unquestioned leader of the unit, and he has been a steady force on the right side of the line. Grant Hill spelled Austin Shepherd at times against Kentucky, and alongside Steen, both played extremely well. Not that Kentucky's front seven is loaded with NFL talent, but the Tide's offensive line stymied them at every turn, reminding fans of the days of old, when a team of Clydesdales lashed to road graders cleared a way for the Bama backs. If those days are back, if the line has worked through its stuttering start, woe be it to the foes that remain on Alabama's schedule, as they will most definitely feel not just the pain of disappointment, but every other kind of physical pain as well. Add into the equation that Arkansas will be without one of its major defensive assets in DL Robert Thomas, and it looks like Bama should manhandle the Hogs defense and clear the path for T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake to pile up yardage. Arkansas has a strong first-team defensive line even with Thomas sidelined, but behind the starters, there are serious depth shortcomings. Expect to see resistance early from a physical Razorback front seven, and expect that resistance to whither as the game goes on. We may once again see Alabama sport two 100 yard rushers this week. What the Arkansas defense will face Saturday evening is a fully functioning Death Star, and Arkansas may as well change the state name to Alderaan. Prepare for a mauling.
  • Conversely, Alabama will match up well with the Arkansas offense, once again winning the battle at the point of attack. In past years, an abundance of positive things could be said about Bama's defense, but a great, consistent pass rush was usually not the first line to slip from between pursed lips. The linebackers and secondary usually get the press, but this year's edition of the Tide defense features a line that could be among the best fielded during the Saban era. Though Bama's defense hinges on the strong play of the defensive backs and rangy linebackers, a powerful defensive line can be the medicine for a number of different issues related to the roster and its supposed shortcomings. We are seeing the effects of that this year, as despite the much-discussed drop-off in experienced DB talent at the Capstone, the Tide's pass defense has been strong (barring the Johnny Football Rock and Roll Explosion of September 14). Freshman A'Shawn Robinson has given the Tide something they've not had since the departure of Marcel Dareus: a huge, fast, flexible power rusher with a fast-twitch and nose for the QB. The pass rush has been tremendous on many occasions this year, and they've accomplished that without much, if any, drop-off in run defense. However, Alabama's best pass defense in this game may be Hog QB Brandon Allen. He has limitations as a passer, and is not a mobile quarterback. One need only watch a little game film of the Hogs this year before realizing that Allen is the weak link in the Arky offense. With a stout running game, a physical offensive line and good talent at the WR position, it has been his inaccuracy and inability to leverage play-action opportunities to stretch the field that has been somewhat to blame for the stymied Hog offense. Arkansas comes into the game with a good offensive line and a couple of startlingly good youngsters at tailback in freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams. There is talent on the offensive line to be sure, and Bielema has relied on the mastodons up front at all his stops as a head coach. Center Travis Swanson is as good as they come at the position, and though there is some youth along the line, that youth is big and physical, i.e. 6'10" freshman guard behemoth Dan Skipper. Arky runs a lot of I-formation and employs the services of talented old-school FB Kiero Small to do so. Small has been a bright spot in the Hogs' offense this year, lead blocking and playing the traditional fullback role to the fullest extent. It is Arkansas' running game that is its only source of offensive prowess, and that plays right into the teeth of Saban's run-stopping defense.
  • Because of Arkansas' offensive scheme, fans of the Tide will likely see the team in its base 3-4 defense more than in any other game thus far in 2013. Saban referred to the Arky offense as "one of the more traditional" offenses the team will play this year, and he indicated that playing against Arky's pro-style offense will be a good test for his team. With the explosion in popularity of spread HUNH offenses, the Tide has spent a great deal of time in the nickel and dime this year. A little experience defending against an old-school, hard-nosed, run-first SEC offense can do Bama nothing but good from the standpoint of diversity of experience.
  • I've spent a great deal of time thinking of a way that the Arky offense can exploit Bama's D, and it's just not there, if we're being honest with ourselves. Sure, one of the freshmen RB's could get a hot hand. But there would have to be some other superhuman performances offensively, specifically at QB, to give the Hogs even a modest chance of keeping it close at the half. Arkansas runs a very similar offensive package to the one employed at Alabama: pro-style, run-heavy, play-action friendly, zone-blocking out of I-formation and double tight-end sets. But Bama's offense has better talent by magnitudes, and the Tide defense practices against that superior offense each day. Florida struggled offensively against the Razorbacks, but the Florida defense, built in the same mold as Alabama's, locked down on the Hogs and would not relent despite struggling with the running game early. If the Arky offense is a gnarly old swamp hog, then the Tide's C.J. Mosely is the Catahoula catch cur, pursuing and snarling his quarry while the long knife of the Bama defensive line is driven true into the heart of the Hawgs' running game. QB Brandon Allen has little chance of success barring a channeling of 2010 Steven Garcia, as after early-season adversity in the defensive backfield, Bama now has a stable of game-proven DB's upon whom to call (Belue, Collins, Williams, Sunseri, Smith, Jackson and Sylve). What was considered a weakness is quickly becoming a strength, and that is a sign that Bama's constrictor-like grip on college football may not relent anytime soon.
  • The Tide special teams have been, in a word...special. Whether Christion Jones' return game, Cody Mandell's punting excellence or Cade Foster's long-legged kicking confidence, there have been few, if any, barbs that can realistically be thrown the way of the Tide's special teamers. An old football adage states that every 100 yards of field position established by special teams can gain you, or cost you, at least one touchdown per game. Thus far, the former is true, with Jones' return ability keeping the Tide in fantastic starting field position, and Mandell's punts and Foster's kickoffs keeping opponents on the long field more times than not. That doesn't even take into account the downright brutality of gunners and coverage men on the ST unit, as players like Dillon Lee, Dee Hart and Cyrus Jones have found a niche in the Tide game plan, and that niche involves blowing up anyone unfortunate enough to be tapped for a return. There's no reason to believe the starter-studded special teams fielded by Bama will not continue on the same trajectory this week, as regardless of their opponent, the Tide has had the special teams game plan to impact the outcome.
  • Fumbles. Hate them. I mentioned the developing propensity of Yeldon to fumble the ball in this space last week, and what happened? Not one, but two, running back fumbles against Kentucky. Red-zone fumbles, to boot. In post-game remarks, ODL indicated that the fumble problem was not systemic in his running backs, but was fixable and a symptom of poor technique by the ball carriers. Against Kentucky, a few fumbles were easily absorbed. But against a better team, or even in the midst of a back-alley brawl with an underdog, over-achieving opponent, those turnovers could be the dagger that pierces the breast of the Tide's title hopes. Let's devote a little extra HooDoo to ball-security this week, folks, as the turnover issue is one that must be resolved now.

While I know I risk the wrath of ODL by saying this, fans of the Crimson Tide get a bit of a pass this week in the anxiety department. As Saban implored, the team will need a live crowd Saturday night to impact the game. But this is a contest in which fans can rightfully have some confidence in the team's ability to execute at a high level. No need to channel inner Sith pessimism against the likes of Arkansas, at least not this year. Respect your opponent, but ultimately, know oneself. And in this case, we've finally learned what Alabama's true self is this season. Unfortunately for the remaining teams on Bama's schedule, they too will come to know this identity...and the Tide's identity is pain.

Prepare for the worst if you want to, I don't guess it'll hurt. But against this year's Arky team, it will be quite easy to...hope for the best.