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Hope For the Best: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Arkansas Razorbacks

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Was the Tide team we saw last weekend in Oxford the same team that will take the field against the Hogs? Let's hope not...

Jonathan Williams is one half of the scariest rushing attack Bama will face this season.
Jonathan Williams is one half of the scariest rushing attack Bama will face this season.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

"Every goal that we have as a team is still in front of us. We must improve and respond the right way to losing." - Coach Nick Saban

The ghosts of weekends past came to haunt the Crimson Tide in last Saturday's loss to Ole Miss. And it isn't even Halloween yet.

Watching the Tide through the early portion of the season, even the most ardent Bama devotee couldn't argue that there were problems. Sentinel moments in the first four games, signs of things to come, if you will. From the continued struggles of the offensive line in the running game, to the continued struggles of the Alabama secondary, many of the wounds inflicted by the Rebels in their win over the Tide were variations on a familiar theme.

And now, after a rash of injuries that saw Alabama lose the talented and increasingly-used running back Kenyan Drake, as well as starting center Ryan Kelly and pass-rushing linebacker Denzel Devall, the pressure is on the Tide to improve and try to salvage what could remain for the season.

After all, despite the harrowing events of the previous Saturday, Bama is still a viable contender, at least on paper, to win the West and possibly the league. Those odds, however, are quite long. Ole Miss would need to lose twice in the remaining regular season, and Bama would have to defeat both upstart Mississippi State and traditional rival Auburn (both of which are undefeated and have been among the most impressive teams of the early season.)

But in the crimson depths of the Gump heart, ever-lilting hope springs eternal. After all, if recent history has taught us anything, it's that a one-loss Alabama team is still a viable contender for the championship. In both 2011 and 2012m the seemingly impossible happened, and the Tide found themselves champions after emerging from the season's darkest chapter.

Can that kind of magic happen again? Can lightning strike the same spot, not twice...but thrice? That remains to be seen. But first, Alabama has a task at hand, one head coach Nick Saban would chastise the masses for underestimating. For you see, by his own words, Saban has proclaimed Alabama's next opponent Arkansas as not only the most improved team in the conference...but the most improved team in the nation.

High praise from a man who doles out accolades the way Ebenezer Scrooge dishes ha'pennies. Saban seems to have a special fondness, a lingering warm spot in his stone cold heart, for the type of football Bret Bielema has established in Fayetteville.

"This is really old-fashioned, hard-nosed, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes kind of football. That's something that is going to be different for our players and our preparation. In fact it's so different (that) during the bye week we spent a day trying to review regular defense that we don't ever seem to play. But we will play it this week."

It is the football which Saban himself learned on the hard-scrabble slick-slate hillsides of West Virginia as a boy. It's the game he learned from former Kent State head coach Don James during his stint as a player and GA there. It's the style of play he implemented at Michigan State, LSU and to greater success at Alabama.

Quite honestly, this is the kind of football Saban loves to play. But the will of the head coach will not determine the victor of this outcome. Players must play the game. And despite two consecutive losses of 52-0 at the hands of the Crimson Tide, these Arkansas Razorbacks are vastly more equipped to deal with the likes of Alabama than their two previous incarnations. With a rushing game that has consistently been at the top of the national statistics, to a defensive line that has been strong against both the pass and the run, nothing can be taken for granted this week against Arkansas.

Because if last weekend taught us anything, it's that Alabama is not as bullet-proof as in past years, and even the perennial loser can flip the tables on the Tide every now and again.

Will Alabama begin the salvage operation on its title hopes in 2014? That path of a thousand steps begins with one. Alabama must beat Arkansas if there is to be any hope of further glory in 2014. Can the Hogs rise up and avenge their most recent beatings?

Let us take a closer look...

The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas defense

While always important, I don't think this will be the battle upon which the war is won or lost by Alabama. Sure, Arkansas has an improved defense in 2014, but there are holes a plenty to be exploited there.

For example, one must look no further than statistical data to gain a better understanding of what Arkansas does well defensively. Against the run, they are moderately effective, allowing 139 yards per game on the ground. And only five of the touchdowns scored against Arkansas this year have come via the ground game. Against the pass, however, they struggle, giving up an average of 263 yards passing per game. Despite jumping to an early lead against aTm, Kenny Hill and the Ags shredded that secondary in the second half of their eventual win.

The defensive line is young but talented, though senior defensive end Trey Flowers (26 tackles, four tfl's, one sack) is the unquestioned leader of the group. Thus far in 2014, the Arkansas defensive line has proven itself the strongest part of the defensive unit. The starting group is capable, if not NFL-prospect-caliber (outside of Flowers...he received a third round grade in last year's draft but chose to remain with the Hogs.) Alabama fans will remember rising defensive line star Darius Philon, an Alabama recruit who reportedly, on signing day, rejected a grayshirt offer from the Capstone and signed with Arkansas instead. (There is more to that story of course, but we'll leave that to the message boards to hash out.) They play the run well, having allowed only five rushing touchdowns in 2014 despite playing offensive powerhouses like Auburn, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

The linebackers, led by Markell Spaight and Brooks Ellis are also capable enough to help stitch the Arky defense together. They may not have the talent that Alabama brings to the table, but they play within the system and are disruptive in the passing game.

The weakness, however, is the secondary. Because of shallow depth, Bielema and his staff have played freshmen early and often in the defensive backfield, with mixed results. Expect to see some rotation of veteran safeties Alan Turner (24 tackles, one tfl, two passes defended and two passes broken up) and Rohan Gaines (23 tackles, three PBU's and three PD's), as well as freshman Josh Liddell (five tackles, one PBU, one PD). At corner, the Razorbacks have used several players, pairing freshman Henri' Tolliver (10 tackles, one INT) with veterans Carroll Washington (nine tackles, one INT) and Jared Collins (16 tackles) much of the time.

Against this secondary, quarterback Blake Sims and wide receiver Amari Cooper should be able to make hay. Alabama will likely struggle to run the ball against the stingy Arkansas defense, especially in light of the fact that Kelly will not be starting at center. Starting left guard Arie Kouandjio is a possible scratch for Saturday as well. With those losses, Alabama's run game can be expected to suffer even more, as there is a considerable drop-off in experience in those positions.

Given the presumed struggles on the ground, and the strength of the Tide line in pass blocking thus far, expect offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to put the ball in the air. The Hog secondary is a patchwork, and even when fully assembled, they have few players who will be able to contain Bama's skill position assets.

Depth will also be an issue for the Arkansas defense as the game wears on. While the first string is workable by SEC standards, the depth is simply not there for Arkansas to last four quarters against a team like Alabama. Once the Tide begins to wear down the defense in the second half, expect to see the air attack open up and the Tide to seize the lead.

If Alabama struggles in the passing game - particularly in the short passing/ screen game - there could be trouble. Because of the run-blocking woes, Kiffin will likely turn to short gains through the air, something Bama has done time and time again this season to move the sticks and keep drives moving.

If Bama's offense begins to struggle in the game management department, expect the Tide to go to its "fast" offense. Early in the season, when management issues erupted, Saban indicated that going to a no-huddle fast offense helped Sims better compete. That dynamic was puzzlingly absent in Bama's loss to Ole Miss. However, if Sims struggles early against Arky, expect to see the tactic again, especially when Bama crosses midfield.

The Alabama defense versus the Arkansas offense

This trench-battle will be the pivot-point upon which the game will tilt. Let's face it. Arkansas has a really simple offensive philosophy: run the ball at you and over you until you succumb.

They've executed that philosophy to various degrees of success this season. When they've faced elite level teams, that strategy has produced yardage but not a winning score. Against lesser opponents, the Hogs have used their offensive line as a bludgeon, playing old-school smash-mouth power running football. Arkansas has the league's second heaviest line (behind Ole Miss) with an average weight of 325 pounds, with five offensive linemen who tip the scales in excess of 300 pounds. The line has veterans, but the standouts are sophomores Dan Skipper (LT...here is in action...reminiscent of the CyKo Chop) and Denver Kirkland (6'5", 337 pound guard). UNLV transfer Sebastian Tretola (LG) has been a solid addition to a unit that has created plenty of room for lead backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams this year.

Speaking of the backs, they are explosive. Arkansas uses them almost exclusively for running, with only a handful of pass attempts among them this year. Their combined contributions on the ground are great, as Collins has already amassed 621 yards rushing on 86 attempts, including six touchdowns. His stable mate Williams is having a great year in his own right, rushing 66 times for 486 yards and eight touchdowns. (Williams actually has a higher yards-per-carry number with 7.4 ypc to Collins 7.2.)

Make no mistake, the Arky M.O. is obvious. Brandon Allen (58-for-97, 751 yards passing with nine TD's and one interception) isn't going to beat Bama with his arm, and the Arky air attack will likely make the Bama secondary look vastly improved from a week ago. However, they will test Bama's run defense like no other team this season. Can Alabama pivot from its lighter, anti-HUNH unit to its heavy artillery in the span of a week? We will soon find out.

Fortunately for Alabama, run defense is the strength of the Tide's defensive unit. The Tide currently ranks first in the stingy SEC against the run, and third nationally. With the best defensive line of the Saban tenure, and linebackers who are solid against the run (if deficient at times against the pass), Alabama is well-equipped to deal with the weapons the Hogs have selected. That's not to say that Collins and Williams won't gash the defense from time to time. After all, the Bama linebacking corps overall is unseasoned, despite their apparent high talent ceiling. Against an offensive line as surly and large as the one Arkansas will field, a few extra cagey veterans would be nice.

As previously stated, don't expect Allen and his wide receiving corps to dominate Bama's pass defense. There is a caveat to that, however. If the Hogs decide to depart from their recently established tradition and put the ball in the air, they have the kind of targets that have given this Bama secondary trouble in the past. Though Kendrick Edwards (three receptions for 66 yards) isn't Mike Evans, he is 6'6" and 202 pounds of wide receiver. Another of Allen's favorite targets, tight end A.J. Derby (eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns) comes in at 6'5". Tall receivers have continued to do well against Bama's secondary, especially in jump ball situations. Allen may not be the second coming of Dan Marino, but he can huck the ball deep in hopes of his tall receivers high-pointing the ball. To that point, Keon Hatcher (13 receptions for 231 yards, two TD's), Derby and receiver Jared Cornelius (six catches for 88 yards, two TD's) all have touchdown catches of more than 30 yards.

Expect Alabama to load the box and force Arkansas to take its chances with the run. The Hogs like to mix in a little play-action from time to time, but that comes directly from Bama's own playbook. In other words, don't expect Tide defenders to be fooled.

The Intangibles

Two things deserve mention here that changed the countenance of Alabama's loss at Ole Miss. Though Bama at times had their way with the Rebels on both sides of the ball, two flaws were apparent and continue to haunt the Tide: namely, ball security and special teams play.

Alabama's kicking game has regressed after an encouraging start. While J.K. Scott has been nearly unshakable at punter, Alabama's place kicking woes have continued with Adam Griffith. Griffith has the ability to be Bama's best kicker since Leigh Tiffin, but he must grow into that role. Right now, he is struggling with kicks from all over the field, though Saban has in the past commented on his impressive consistency in practice. This screams "confidence issue" to me, as nowhere is confidence more important than at place kicker.

But let's not put all the blame on the kicker. While Cole Mazza has been solid as the long snapper, the close observer would witness the fact that holder Cooper Bateman has at times given Griffith a bad hold. The kicking game is a machine with many moving parts, and when one malfunctions, often times the kicker carries the blame. However, there have been multiple breakdowns in recent weeks, and those happened before Griffith's foot struck the ball.

Let's not forget about the terrible kickoff coverage against Ole Miss. That demon has reared its head several times the season, as on a few occasions, the tackle has been made by the kicker. There are over-pursuit issues, block-shedding troubles...the problems have been myriad.

If these issues continue, they will cost Alabama more games. I say "more games" because had Griffith not missed his kicks, and had the Ole Miss return game been held in check, we probably wouldn't be discussing an Alabama loss today. The same troubles can doom the Tide against Arkansas or any other quality team, and they must be resolved immediately.

Secondly, there's the continuing ball-security problem. Whether it's the running backs or the kick returners, it seems Bama can't hang on to the ball. Defenses have seen this as well, which is why ball-hawking defenders Flowers and Spaight are enough to give one pause. They practice stripping the ball, and are quite adept at it. I don't like that combination, as no matter how much the coaching staff has increased the emphasis on ball security, the tactics have not borne fruit.

Turnovers changed a shot at sure victory to a loss last weekend in Oxford, and in any game, against any opponent, sloppiness with the ball can be the great equalizer. When a talented team gives the ball away to a lesser opponent, that team is destined to fail eventually. The only thing that worries me more about this game than the Arky rushing attack is Bama's fumblitis, as it is simply not characteristic of a championship team on any level.

While Arkansas may offer less of a challenge to this Tide unit than Ole Miss in terms of talent and accomplishment, they are not to be underestimated. They are talented, and even if their offense in one-dimensional, they do what they do extremely well. Can Alabama pick up the pieces and continue the quest for a title? If so, that path will lead through Arkansas.

But if the Tide should once again struggle, we'll all be rethinking our pre-season prognostications. Hope for the best...