Following a close loss in Oxford to what appears to be the best Ole Miss team in decades, the Tide rolled into Fayetteville on a mission to destroy an improving Arkansas team and reassert its standing as a legitimate playoff contender. Unfortunately the game played out in such a way that it's tough not to question where this team is, what they are truly capable of, and how the collection of talent that's assembled on this roster can manage to underperform in almost every facet of the game.
In the interest of fairness, let's start with the positives. I can think of exactly three. First off, JK Scott may be the most skilled punter in America as a true freshman. Kid is versatile- booms them when he wants to, gets air when he wants it, turns it over on command. In terms of executing his job he is probably the best player on the team right now. Secondly, the defense came up big in big moments time after time, forcing three key turnovers including one fumble as the Arkansas receiver was going into the end zone that ended up being the difference in the game. Third, they got an SEC road win on a night when they didn't play well and did make some key plays in order to make that happen including Landon Collins's athletic interception on what could have been a huge play with two minutes left. Saban praised his players after the game for playing hard throughout and showing character through adversity, a sentiment which I can agree with.
For me, that's about it. If it seems like a short list, well, that's because it is. From where I sat the Tide did very little well in this game. Last weekend, one could make at least a semi-respectable argument that Alabama might still be a bit better overall and that Ole Miss pulled off a mild upset by making a couple more plays and fewer mistakes. No such delusions of grandeur will be discussed this week, however, as the Tide was thoroughly manhandled by an Arkansas squad that quite frankly looked about two TDs better than Alabama. The Tide was outgained, performed horribly on third down from an offensive and defensive standpoint, got absolutely nothing going on offense, still can't seem to cover anyone, turned the ball over twice on special teams, and missed a chip-shot field goal. So, where did it all go wrong?
In the offseason I made the comment that Alabama fans were hoping Jake Coker would come into camp, be all we were hoping he would be, and win the starting quarterback job because Sims was unlikely to successfully navigate the SEC schedule given his limitations. Obviously that didn't happen, and here we are offensively. Now, please understand: this is not an effort to ignite another QB debate. To the contrary, this game solidified that any competition between Coker and Sims must not be close. Otherwise, Coker certainly would have gotten a series or two in this one as Blake struggled mightily, if only to let Blake step away and see what the Arkansas defense was doing from the sideline. In any event, there is no way to sugarcoat Blake's performance- it was utterly putrid. He managed to complete barely half of his 21 throws and on three occasions threw the ball directly to Arkansas defenders who each charitably dropped it. Fact is that Arkansas probably wins the game if they catch only one of those. At this point, the blueprint to shut down the Alabama offense has been drawn. Defensive coaches for the rest of the year will stack the box, play tight man under coverage, and employ the infamous mush-rush technique, instructing defensive linemen to stay in their lines effectively trapping Sims in the pocket. Ample evidence suggests that Blake is incapable of beating a decent defense if forced to stand in the pocket and throw the ball against reasonable man coverage. Sobering reality is that the passing game we saw in Fayetteville will not be enough to beat any of the SEC teams left on the schedule save for possibly Tennessee.
Well, as always, at least the Tide can lean on a dominant ground attack, right? Oops. What else can be said about the interior of the offensive line? From guard to guard this has to be the most glaring weakness on the team and must be one of the worst in the conference. We couldn't run the ball all night, but the lack of push notably reared its head on the failed QB sneak late in the game. As Sims ran off the field Saban was giving him grief for not getting low and finding a crease, but I believe that he will realize in film study that there were no creases to find. Time and time again Yeldon and Henry were forced to bounce runs outside with little success. This group also got a couple of dumb penalties again, but at least they were reduced somewhat. Still hard to fathom that these guards are the best we have. Bradley Bozeman had some struggles with the shotgun snap as well. Ryan Kelly, get well soon.
Defensively the Tide did a good job stopping the run save for a couple of explosive plays. The pass rush was pretty good I thought, but I also found Hogs QB Brandon Allen to be quite athletic in escaping several times. The secondary continues to have gaps in communication as there were wide open recievers running free on several occasions. Fortunately, Allen only managed to connect on a few of them. Pass coverage still isn't Landon Collins's strength, but he made a couple of extremely athletic plays in this one, getting up high to knock a third down pass away from the tight end and making a beautiful, athletic interception on a throwback play to seal the deal. There were certainly some points of concern, but any time you hold a team to 13 points it's reasonable to say that the defense did its job.
The special teams gaffes have been and will rightfully continue to be discussed ad nauseum as the Tide handed the football back to Arkansas twice on short punts and made every effort to cough it up a third time. Not sure what's so difficult about getting away from the football, but apparently this is a skill our young men have failed to master. Adam Griffith also missed the aforementioned field goal from point blank range, calling his psyche into question. We did have some good news on the kickoff coverage front as this unit was stellar in an admittedly minscule sample, and a blocked extra point by Jonathan Allen proved to be the difference in the game.
If I were asked to describe this team in one word right now, "enigma" would be the first word to come to mind. Watching Ole Miss annihilate the Aggies last night in Kyle Field makes the effort in that game look much better in hindsight, but Arkansas was quite clearly the superior team on the field in Fayetteville. At this point there is still hope that the team simply laid an egg against the Razorbacks and will bounce back in a big way at home. Indeed, all we can cling to is the hope that they can and will do better than this. No such thing as a bad conference road win, but if the performance last night is what we have to look forward to for the rest of the season then the ceiling is probably eight wins for this group. I for one will be very interested to see what types of changes are made before the Aggies roll into town next Saturday. Roll Tide.