The beating was thorough. So complete was Alabama's demolition of the previously 8th ranked Georgia Bulldogs that all three of Alabama's units scored, with a scoop-and-score blocked punt marking the highlight of Tide special teams playto date.
Yes, the Tide rose last Saturday against a Georgia team that many proposed could win it all in 2015...or at least represent the SEC East in the title game. Though that may still be in the cards for the Bulldogs, their devastating loss at the hands of Alabama marked not only the likely demise of their title hopes, but the rekindling of Alabama's championship hopes for 2015.
After an Ole Miss loss to Florida last week, Alabama's aspirations of returning to the College Football Playoffs are nearly back within the team's control. Another Ole Miss loss, and Alabama must only win out to claim yet another SEC West title. Sure, that path is speckled with treachery in College Station, and at home against the likes of LSU, but the rain that fell in buckets on Sanford Stadium last week irrigated the new growth in confidence in the Tide's offense and special teams, something that will be necessary if Alabama is the run the remainder of the table.
The quest begins anew this week, as Alabama will host the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that, despite its embarrassing loss to Toledo and struggles with the Texas A&M passing game, is a tough out for any contender. The Hogs play old-man football, electing to run behind a massive offensive line while brutalizing offenses with a thudding defense. As previously stated, the formula that worked so well for head coach Bret Bielema at Wisconsin has sputtered against SEC competition at times, and a string of beatings at the hands of the Tide have done nothing but fan the Razorbacks' desire for revenge.
With a veteran offensive line, an explosive tailback in Alex Collins and fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Allen under center, many forecast the Razorbacks as the team to beat in the SEC West this summer. That, obviously, will not come to fruition. While wounded by early losses and a drop-off in the level of defensive play after losing two linemen to the NFL Draft, Arkansas is still a very dangerous team.
Coach Nick Saban knows well the team dynamic that creates a let-down following a huge win over a ranked opponent. Last week was an emotional victory, as for most of the week leading up to the game, Alabama was an underdog for the first time since 2009. The team responded with its best performance to date, and Georgia felt their collective pain. Will Alabama maintain that intensity this week against an unranked, wounded Arky team? Time will tell. Let's look at the match-ups...
The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas defense
While the Arkansas defense is not a unit full of scrubs and also-rans by any stretch of the imagination, neither is this Razorback defense the equal of its 2014 predecessor. It is difficult, after all, to replace the kind of defensive line talent that Arkansas lost to the draft last year in defensive end Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon. With his athleticism and wingspan, Flowers was a run-stopping force who rushed the passer well, forcing offenses to avoid him in their own best interest. Philon was solid and aggressive and fit well into Arkansas' overall defensive philosophy, with intensity and strength the Hogs have found hard to muster thus far in 2015.
This year's unit doesn't feature many, if any, sure-fire draft picks outside of middle linebacker Brooks Ellis (6-2, 242 pounds). Sure, some of the current Razorbacks may prove themselves worthy of acclaim by season's end (the most likely of whom is juco transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter, who has recorded 27 tackles and four tackles for loss to date). But the pure overall talent of the unit is not on par with that of defensive powerhouses like Alabama or LSU.
That said, the Razorbacks do a fairly good job of executing the game plan, and they are particularly effective against Bama's weapon of choice: namely, the running game. Working out of a 4-3 base, the Razorback defense is built to stop the run first. Arkansas' modus operandi against the run is to use athletic defensive ends to force the run inside, where the strong tackles cam snarl blocking schemes and interior linebackers can attack the running lanes. The entire front seven excels against the run, with the ability to take away space and nullify zone blocking schemes through sheer bulk in the center. Tackle DeMarcus Hodge is a traditional run-plugger at 6-1, 340 pounds, and the senior has good athleticism for a man his size, whether stopping the run or working in the pass rush. Fellow junior tackle Taiwan Johnson is probably the more athletic of the two, and his agility and speed provide a good complement for Hodge's bulk and strength.
After asserting itself at the line of scrimmage last week against Georgia's superb front seven, it is clear that this Alabama team can run the ball at will when all cylinders are firing. However, with such bulk in the middle of the Arky defense, Alabama may have some trouble attacking the likes of Hodge and Johnson with its typical zone blocking techniques, at least early on. Zone blocking relies on double-teams and execution to move defenders off the line, thus creating the seams through which running blacks explode. If Hodge proves immovable, Alabama may have to deviate from its preferred tactic between the tackles. Kenyan Drake could be an important piece of the Tide game plan this week if the line has trouble shoving the Hog defenders off the ball, as his speed and elusiveness will find pockets of space outside that he can exploit with his skill set.
However, Arkansas has the defenders to counter that type of strategy as well, with Ellis and nickel defender Henre' Toliver roaming the field. Ellis has incredible range and sideline-to-sideline speed, like a slightly larger framed C.J. Mosley. He is adept at coverage, and the Razorbacks trust him to lock down the short routes underneath. However, in run support, he flies to the ball, providing a "spy" aspect for an opposing offense's most lethal player on the field at any given time. Similarly, Toliver is used all over the field, from pass coverage to the blitz. Though not huge, his instincts and speed allow him to be a play-maker when teams attempt to stretch the defense to the boundary.
The Arkansas defensive line is similar to the one Georgia fielded last week. The first string is solid enough, and there is talented depth behind them. But it's not the kind of defensive line depth one sees in Tuscaloosa, and against Alabama's offensive line, one can expect that the Tide will wear the front seven down as the game goes on. Early difficulty in the running game could easily give way to dominance in the second half, as Alabama has the ability to hammer away at the Razorback front relentlessly.
That said, if Alabama comes out missing the inspired play of the previous week, the running game could also sputter against the Arky front. When Alabama is in obvious run situations, the Razorbacks are prone to loading the box with a safety while trusting the defensive backs with cover-3 schemes. If the blocking scheme execution is off, the Tide offense may become frustrated, which could lead to a low-scoring grindhouse of a game which can keep the Razorbacks alive late.
One question mark for Alabama will be the play of quarterback Jake Coker. Coker was extremely efficient against Georgia, and finally looked settled in his role as the Tide's starter. His timing with receivers, despite the downpour, was dramatically improved, and he consistently put nice touch on the ball on his short and intermediate length throws. Coker commanded the offense and didn't make many mistakes, which is marked progress from his early performances of this season.
If Coker can continue to develop chemistry with his receivers and execute the offensive game plan, Alabama's fortune will most definitely rise (in this game, and beyond). However, if Coker reverts to his sloppy ways from previous games, Alabama's championship hopes will take an enormous step back. The Razorback secondary is not stellar, and there should be opportunities for exploitation against the unit. Texas A&M used its high-powered passing game to shell the Arky defense for 386 yards two weeks ago, and Power 5 teams have routinely posted 250+ yards of passing offense against this secondary. Coker can use this game as a confidence builder, or it could run his train off of the tracks. A solid game plan that plays to his strengths is a must, but ultimately, it will be up to Coker to once again play within his skill set and use the weapons at his disposal.
One emerging weapon, Calvin Ridley, could have yet another huge day against the Arkansas secondary. There isn't a Arky player on the field defensively who can contain Ridley in regard to his speed. This quickness, combined with his route running, will be difficult for Arkansas to keep in check. Ridley has emerged as the Tide's most explosive receiver, and Lane Kiffin will continue to get the ball in the play-maker's hands (as he did with Marquis Lee at USC and Amari Cooper last year at Alabama). The Arkansas defense is known for playing off of receivers (such as, for example, playing a soft zone 10 yards deep) while struggling with press coverage. This is the recipe for another breakout performance for Ridley, who should be able to exploit the space inherent in such an approach. If Coker can continue to develop timing with Ridley, the duo could be the Tide's most potent offensive combination moving forward.
The Alabama defense versus the Arkansas offense
Alabama's defense, in a word, has been incredible to date. Against Georgia last week, the Tide D was impenetrable for the most part, holding Nick Chubb under 100 yards rushing until he broke an 80+ yard touchdown run late in the game on a missed assignment. Outside of that broken play, the Tide was nearly flawless, with the talent-laden front seven stoning an excellent, veteran Bulldog offensive line.
That much was to be expected from a defensive line that ranks in the top 10 nationally versus the run. What was possibly more impressive was the Tide's secondary. With a young group that, outside of senior Cyrus Jones, has little real experience against top-flight opponents, the Tide secondary showed signs of struggle early on in 2015. However, the defensive backs played exceptionally well last week, and along with a pass rush that harassed Greyson Lambert from start to finish, the pass defense was quite encouraging.
Arkansas's offense, like the Georgia attack, is built upon the run, plain and simple. If Bielema could succeed without throwing a pass, he'd likely line up three tailbacks in the backfield. After a year of the oil-and-vinegar pairing of Bielema and former OC Jim Chaney, the Razorbacks hired former Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos as offensive coordinator to help Bielema get things back on track. Enos is a solid coach who, despite a lack of experience against SEC level competition, has a solid philosophy that melds well with Bielema's own tendencies.
When a defense lines up against Arkansas, it has to expect, first and foremost, a heavy dose of the running game. This was a scary prospect with Collins and fellow tailback Jonathan Williams in the backfield, but an injury to Williams has effectively cut the potency of the Hawgs' running game in half. That said, Collins and a massive offensive line can still pound away at defensive fronts, using zone blocking techniques and dual tight end sets to make life miserable for opponents.
With a talent like Collins in the back field, and an offensive line that averages 6-5 and 328 pounds, who wouldn't run the ball? Not only are the big men up front gigantic, but they are athletic. Take for example left guard Sebastian Tretola, a 6-5, 334 pound monster who routinely pulls effectively, smashing unfortunate defenders who have no hope of recovering in time to rejoin the play.
The running game is ferocious in part because of the zone blocking scheme utilized by the Razorbacks. The schemes rely on the big bodies up front to use their size, and a healthy dose of double-teams to move defenders off the line of scrimmage, thus creating creases to be exploited by the elite tailbacks. While many teams would struggle with the sheer size of the Razorback front line, Alabama is one of the few teams that can control the point of attack with its defensive big men, as Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Darren Lake can match the Arky O line in size and strength. If the Arkansas offensive line can't move Bama's defensive front, then daylight will be sparse for the Arky tailbacks.
The Razorbacks use a lot of 12 (2 TE, 2WR, 1RB) and 22 (2 TE, 2 RB, 1WR) personnel sets, giving them a tremendous amount of blocking beef up front. Arkansas can use the two tight end sets a lot, partially because their two tight ends (6-5, 253 pound junior Hunter Henry and 6-6, 255 Jeremy Sprinkle) are equally adept at blocking and serving as receivers in the Hawg passing attack. A two tight end set, in light of established tendencies, can't be used as an infallible indicator that tips the Hogs' offensive hand.
The tight ends are athletic enough that Enos can use them, in conjunction with the wide receivers, to apply all kinds of high-low stress to defenses, not just in theory, but in practice. This will provide match-up problems for Alabama, as the typical defenders who cover the tight ends are linebackers. And unfortunately, Alabama's linebackers have proven, overall, to be a liability in coverage on short and intermediate routes. Expect the Tide to continue to struggle in this regard, as Henry and Sprinkle are athletic enough to make Alabama pay on loose coverages and mental breakdowns. On third downs, the Razorbacks almost exclusively seek out the tight ends for conversions in the 3rd-and-intermediate range, and if paired against Alabama's linebackers in these critical situations, Arkansas will win their fair share of battles.
Alabama's secondary may struggle if quarterback Brandon Allen is accurate with his short and intermediate passes, as the tight ends and wide receivers pose physical mismatches almost to the man. Sophomore Kendrick Edwards (6-5, 212 pounds) joins the tight ends in providing Allen with large targets. If Bama's defensive backs let off the throttle at all, these tall receivers will be able to make hay against the secondary. Keeping them in check will require disciplined, heady play by young defensive backs like Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the Tide's safeties (in particular, Eddie Jackson) will have to play a physical ball game to limit damage done through the air.
Because of the usual effectiveness of the run game, Enos and the Razorbacks are fond of play-action and use it in a variety of ways to fuel the passing game. For example, the offense will set up a run to the right with a fake handoff, blocking the play as if it was a run by pulling the guard and leading with the fullback. In the meantime, the receiving targets (tight ends and receivers) will flood left as Allen rolls out on the boot, at which time he can find one of three open targets for a nice gain. Against an aggressive, attacking defense like Bama's, this kind of misdirection and against-the-grain flow can lead to big plays caused by overpursuit, effectively using a defense's strength against itself.
Another way Enos and the offense handles aggressive defensive lines is through a deep handoff, such as on a lead draw play. The tackles will actually drop step to allow the ends to penetrate upfield past the play, and after a slight delay, Allen hands the ball off to a tailback, who darts through the lateral creases created by the rushing ends and snared tackles. Alabama's ends and jack linebackers will definitely see this tactic used this Saturday, and it the best way to defend it is for linebackers to be gap sound and mind their assignments. With Alabama's linebackers staying at home in the middle and filling the seams, they can limit gains to short ones.
Just because the Arkansas offense is power-run doesn't mean it is monotonous and plodding. While Arky is happy to run 12- and 13-play drives to consume clock and control field position, Enos is also an unpredictable play-caller who likes to keep opponents off balance by doing the unexpected. For example, on first and 10, the expected play for a run heavy defense is...wait for it...a running play. However, on many occasions, Enos breaks tendency by doing the opposite, electing for a play-action pass down field in hopes of catching the defense asleep. Arkansas has the ability to execute such plays out of personnel packages and formations that look for all the world like vanilla running plays, only to keep defenders close to the box while receivers and tight ends run freely behind the pinched-up secondary. The Razorbacks will go so far as to pull a guard on play-action so that the secondary freezes and linebackers are unable to read run or pass until the last minute, at which point attempting to close on the free running receiving targets is pointless.
Honestly, this may or may not give Bama trouble this weekend. If Alabama is on top of its game, as it was in the previous week, such tactics may result in an explosive play here or there, but will not contribute to sustained success. Arkansas' best chance of success against the Alabama defense will involve staying ahead of the pitch count, so to speak. In other words, the Arkansas offense functions much better on second-and-four or third-and-two than in third-and-long scenarios. Where Alabama kept Georgia in third-and-long situations throughout last Saturday afternoon, it will be equally as important to keep the Arkansas play-calling predictable by limiting gains on first down, particularly by snuffing out the play-action passing game.
Alabama's special teams played easily their best game of the year in the slop last weekend at Athens. Of course, the highlight was the play of Fitzpatrick, who after blocking a punt, scooped the ball up for the score. For the first time this season, Alabama's special teams looked like a weapon rather than a liability, at least in regard to the return and coverage teams. Alabama's punt coverage team held dangerous returner Isaiah McKenzie to a mere three yards of return yardage, which was a highlight as well.
Against Arkansas, punt coverage teams will have to deal with the shifty Jared Cornelius, who has returned three punts for 55 yards (with a long of 43 yards). Returning kicks for the Razorbacks is the dangerous tandem of Erik Hawkins (seven returns for 159 yards) and Jojo Robinson (six returns for 123 yards).
The return game is improving as Saban continues to tinker with personnel. Damien Harris was a bright spot in kick returns (three returns for 61 yards) against Georgia, and he could be a weapon if his growth continues. Against a struggling Razorback coverage unit that has given up 466 yards and a touchdown on 20 returns, Harris could make definite headway.
Punting still continues to be hit or miss. Every time it appears J.K. Scott has turned the corner, he shanks an ugly 36-yarder. Blame some of it on the weather last week, but all in all, Scott still isn't where he was in his freshman season, and that is detrimental to the Tide's chances of running the gamut. That said, Scott did average 41 yards per punt with a long of 54 last week, so keep hope alive.
If the Alabama team that throttled the Bulldogs on the road last week takes the field at Bryant Denny this weekend, the Razorbacks will have little chance of avenging a string of losses that dates back to the last time Arkansas beat Alabama in 2006. Alabama's has the talent advantage across the board, and with offensive chemistry developing between Coker and his targets, Alabama's running game will be even more potent. The Tide's defense doesn't show any signs of wilting very soon, especially if the previous weaknesses in the secondary are rounding into shape as the younger defensive backs gain experience.
However, if the Crimson Tide experiences the traditional lull following a big game that some thought (or hoped) the Tide could lose, then this Arkansas team has the weapons to give Alabama fits. An ugly win against Arkansas will still be a win, but heading into a huge showdown with Texas A&M the following week, a dominant victory would build confidence in this Crimson Tide team's chance of turning the season around.
Will Alabama continue its domination of opposing running attacks by stoning Arkansas' behemoth line and shifty backs? Will Brandon Allen have a Steven Garcia moment and victimize a still-developing Tide secondary? Or will Bama's defense close the vice on the Razorback offense from the get-go while the Tide offense spreads its wings?
Time will tell...hope for the best.