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Hope for the Best: Arkansas

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It’s been a heavyweight brawl since Bret Bielema took over the reins for the Hogs, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this season

NCAA Football: Alcorn State at Arkansas
Though known as a running offense, the Razorbacks are tossing it around these days.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a heavyweight brawl since Bret Bielema took over the reins for the Hogs, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this season

Old-school football. Man-ball. Pro-style. Throwback. Ground-and-pound. No matter which colorful name strikes your particular fancy, it is a style of football long coveted by those among the Crimson Tide fan base. Far from the hurry-up no-huddle machinations of a new breed of coaches and coordinators, the style of football played by Alabama and Arkansas comes from a more brutal, blood-sweat-and-tears era of the game. It is, to extrapolate from the logic of Nick Saban himself, “what we want football to be…” Though nationwide, this gritty, grinding style of football seems to breathing the final dying dinosaur gasps of a life well-lived, there are a few faithful practitioners who continue to pump on the chest of the fading corpse, attempting to resuscitate it and give it new life.

Two of the pro-style’s most ardent aficionados among the college ranks will meet between the sidelines this Saturday, as Alabama journey’s to Bear country to face the always-tough Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville. Not only will the Tide be battling one of its few remaining pro-style behemoths in the Southeastern Conference, but it will be facing a team that has scrapped like street fighters despite the apparent talent disparity in the last two meetings with Bama.

That said, Alabama is a much different team than it was a mere five years ago. In the early years of the Saban tenure at Alabama, the Tide was simply bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else, a school-yard bully who didn’t need high-flying martial arts or flashy tactics to pound an opponent into submission. They lined up four- and five-star blue chippers, overpowered opposing teams physically, and played with sound fundamentals. Employing that formula, the wins followed. Because of the Nick Saban recruiting machine, that was enough to ensure prolonged dominance.

Now, Alabama (and Saban himself) has been forced to pivot, to adapt, to change. Saban has lightened his defense in favor of speed and athleticism to better combat the hurry-up, no-huddle spread offenses he faces more routinely in the conference these days. Once a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, Alabama has become something wholly different. First, Lane Kiffin, of all people, came aboard, and he brought spread concepts with him. Now, Alabama is even running the zone read with a dual-threat quarterback, something that most fans would have found laughable a half-decade ago.

Alabama and Saban have evolved, which is a testament to the championship opportunities the team has enjoyed, and may enjoy again this season. But, to continue down the road to 17, the Tide must this week fell a lumbering foe from a previous era in Arkansas, as for all the change Alabama has undergone, Arkansas remains much the same.

With a gigantic, lumbering offensive line; a one-two punch of a solid running game and an efficient game-managing quarterback; and a veteran defense that relishes contact, Arkansas will give Alabama a different type of challenge this weekend. Alabama will have to go back to its own physical roots against an Arkansas team that isn’t afraid to roll up the sleeves and engage in fisticuffs.

Will Alabama’s lighter defensive front be up to the challenge of battling the bulk the Hogs bring up front? How will Alabama’s ends account for future NFL Draft pick Dan Skipper, a senior tackle who is a gargantuan 6-10, 319 pounds? Can Alabama take a physical pounding up front while maintaining discipline in pass defense? Should Alabama attack Arkansas on the ground, where the running game appears to be gaining steam? Or rather through the air, with Jalen Hurts continuing to develop his skill set?

These answers to these questions and more await…in the meantime, let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas defense

Arkansas perennially has what could be one of the most underrated defenses in the SEC. Sure, they have down years, but at least during the Robb Smith era in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks have been fundamentally sound for the most part, with a 4-3 scheme that may not be exciting but that is common for the simple reason that it works.

In 2016, Arkansas will enjoy one of the leading factors in defensive success: specifically, the team is loaded with veterans who have substantial playing time throughout the two-deep. In the first string, the Hogs only replace two departing players, namely defensive tackle Demarcus Hodge and safety Rohan Gaines. While those are some pretty big shoes to fill, their replacements (Jeremiah Ledbetter at tackle, Josh Liddell at free safety) have proven to be capable in the early going this year.

Coming into the season, the Razorbacks had few concerns in regard to the defense, but one of them was critical to defensive success. In 2015, the Hogs struggled with the pass rush, which led to struggles with the pass defense as a whole. With undersized corners, offenses took advantage of the extended time the passer could spend in the pocket. The Hogs were so inept in the pass rush, that they ranked 102nd in team sacks last season, and that metric was one tabbed for improvement if Arkansas was going to take advantage of the defensive depth on the roster to make noise in 2016.

With new blood from the 2016 recruiting class (five-star end McTelvin Agim and four-star Austin Capps) joining returning sack-master defensive end Deatrich Wise (6-5, 271 pounds), the Hogs have seen their number of pressures increase, which has in turn yielded benefits in pass defense. The Hogs have breached the top-50 in pass defense, as they are currently allowing 211 yards per game, an average which one would expect to be inflated considering the Hogs have already played Air Raid practitioners Texas A&M.

Alabama has gone through a metamorphosis of its own in 2016, switching from a typical pro-style offense with a heavy run component in 2015 to the current, little-bit-of-everything amalgam offense Kiffin is running with Hurts under center. It’s hard to pigeon-hole Alabama into one offensive style right now, because Kiffin seems to alter his game plan to the opponent, if ever so slightly. And because of the level of talent Alabama has on the roster, he is allowed that luxury.

Early on, the Tide looked like its usual self, mixing the run with explosive passes when opportunities presented themselves in a traditionally-favored balanced attack. Then, Alabama shape-shifted to look surprisingly like a zone option team with Hurts under center. To that effect, Hurts ran for over a 100 yards against Ole Miss, and kept the Rebels guessing with a Cerberus-like three-headed offense that could strike through the air, from the running back position, or upon the quarterback’s legs. Since then, Alabama has toned down the zone read to an extent, using it as part of a grand mirage executed against defenses to diagnose weak spots and attack them with whatever weapon is best suited for the job. The traditional running game has come back into play, as Alabama asserted its will on the ground against Kentucky and freshman tailback Josh Jacobs had a break-out day.

Which Alabama offensive style will work best against the Hogs? The best answer is probably a little bit of everything. The Razorback defense is fairly straight-forward, schematically speaking. They run a standard 4-3, with one-gapping linemen who play fast and active linebackers who are called upon in pass rush, run defense, and coverage. Because the linebackers are seasoned and athletic, they give Smith plenty of flexibility, allowing him to design pressure packages without sacrificing his defensive backs by placing them on islands in man coverage needlessly.

In terms of coverage, the Razorbacks do a little of everything as well. They’ll press, play man, drop into zones, and run Cover-Three on obvious passing downs. They are at home in the nickel or their base 4-3 alignment, and because of the flexible, seasoned talent they enjoy in the heart of the defense, the transitions between the two are seamless.

Alabama can’t afford to just bash the running game between the tackles…at least not at the start of the game. Not that Alabama has done a tremendous amount of power running this season, but if the Kentucky game was any indication, Kiffin has decided that while he waits for Hurts to develop as a passer, there’s no reason not to use the talented stable of Bama backs to get the job done on the ground.

Statistically speaking, that is a good match-up for the Tide. Usually stingy against the run, Arkansas has seen some regression in that metric this season, allowing 163.4 yards per game on the ground and just missing the top half of college football with the 73rd ranked rushing defense in the land. The Hog run defense is not as bad as Kentucky’s unit (which was lashed by Alabama last weekend) to be sure, so the going should be tougher for the Tide this week. But Alabama’s running game is coming into fruition as the offensive line builds cohesiveness, as evidenced by the Tide’s average of 231.6 yards on the ground, good for 25th national in rushing offense.

This rushing success has manifested itself in a much different way this season, with much of that production coming on the legs of Hurts. Also important to note is that Alabama does not have an heir apparent to Derrick Henry yet, as there is no single back who has been asked to carry the load. That is probably a good thing, as evidenced by Harris’ early season injury that allowed Jacobs to develop into a running threat. The Tide’s ground game success has been a running back-by-committee approach, with Hurts, Damien Harris, Jacobs, B.J. Emmons and Bo Scarbrough combining to create the potent attack.

Arkansas has the defensive players in the front seven to confound Alabama’s running game early on, as joining Wise and Ledbetter are junior end Tevin Beanum (6-4, 251 pounds) and senior tackle Taiwan Johnson (6-2, 284 pounds). Backing them at linebacker are senior Josh Williams (6-1, 249 pounds), senior Brooks Ellis (6-2, 245 pounds), and sophomore Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 226 pounds), a diverse and seasoned group that knows how to play the run. Given the simple responsibilities of each player in the front seven, Arkansas will aggressively attempt to stuff Alabama at the point of attack, which will make running the ball tough unless Kiffin does something to mitigate it early.

And one can expect him to do just that, as he has done against better defensive lines in the early going this season. Much negative criticism has been dedicated to Kiffin’s seemingly endless array of bubble screens and jet sweeps, partially because they generally don’t gain much yardage in and of themselves, and are often easily diagnosed by opposing defenses and thus snuffed out. But therein lies the genius in the chess game Kiffin plays with opposing defenses. He wants to telegraph those slow-developing plays. He wants defenses to feel confident in their reads, and to aggressively react to them when they see them developing. Kiffin is willing to trade a few busted no-gainers early on, because he is thinking eight moves ahead of his opponent and setting up future home run successes that are enabled by the mental misdirection.

“Sure, Mr. Linebacker, bite on that jet sweep…cheat to that side of the field when you see the man go in motion. By all means Mr. DB, jump the route and close quickly and recklessly when you see the wide receiver screen setting up on the edge.” You see, that’s what Kiffin wants them to do, because such overreaction takes defenders out of the play. It essentially blocks defenders without the presence of a blocker by moving them away from the intended play action. If a linebacker follows the jet sweep to the opposite side of the formation, then he has taken himself out of action and created a weakness in his defense. Ultimately, he has no choice, he has to play the jet sweep as if it is legitimate, because the Alabama offense has already run the play under live-fire two or three times in the early stanzas of the game.

The wide receiver screens also serve the purpose of loosening the running lanes in the middle for the ball-carrier du jour. Arkansas, for example, loves to stack the box when they read run, bringing at least a safety in to join the linebackers with eight men versus the run. Against a MAC team, one would expect Alabama to have the wherewithal to dominate even a stacked box due to the talent disparity. But against its SEC brethren, continuing to run into a stacked box is the gridiron equivalent of pounding one’s head against a concrete wall.

Enter Kiffin’s spread concepts and edge passing game. When a bulk of plays go to the edge, the safeties can’t commit to the box automatically. If they do, they risk allowing overloads on the edges, where overmatched DBs can easily be burned for big plays in space. Even the linebackers have to begin to cheat outside. Spread formations create space, and with Alabama’s elite wide receiving and running back talent, space can be deadly for a defense. Likewise, a defense that just counts on a corner hemming in the likes of Calvin Ridley on quick-hit lateral passes to the edge (with excellent blocking, mind you) is going to get burned from time to time. That is a heavy price to pay.

Look for Kiffin to continue to use these tactics against an active Arkansas front. The Hog pass defense is decent, and Hurts has not yet developed the touch on the long and intermediate balls to warrant a great threat to the Arkansas pass defense. Smith will undoubtedly want to force Alabama to beat him through the air by loading up the box versus the running game. Therefore, expect Alabama to use the short pass game, stressing the edges and stretching the front, so that the Tide can carve room for Jacobs, Harris, and Hurts to keep the defense honest early on.

When Arkansas feels the pressure to stack the box against the run, Hurts will have opportunities to use Alabama’s RPO-heavy strategy to option into some significant passing opportunities. While Arkansas does have a fantastic corner in Henre’ Tolliver (6-1, 185 pounds), he can’t cover everyone. The Tide has many receiving weapons…too many for which Arkansas can account. Alabama’s big receivers will have an immediate size advantage over senior Jared Collins (5-11, 173 pounds), and if Tolliver is dedicated to Ridley or the (likely returning) ArDarius Stewart, the Alabama’s other receiving threats (particularly 6-5 Cam Sims) can make hay against Collins.

One would assume that in such a circumstance, O.J. Howard would become a prime target. However, because of the excellent coverage skills shared among the Hog linebackers, such opportunities may not materialize. Howard still has an athletic mismatch against anyone who could conceivably be asked to cover him from the Arky roster, but on the rare occasions Howard has had a pass come his way, it’s usually been because he was wide open. Don’t expect that to happen often with Arkansas’ ‘backers, as they are veteran and play with discipline.

One more critical performance indicator that could shed light on how well Arkansas is armored against Alabama’s offensive attack is the Hogs’ relative struggles to get off the field on third-downs. Arkansas is currently ranked 115th nationally in third-down defense, allowing conversions on more than half of attempts against them. This plays right into Alabama’s hands, as the Tide ranks 23rd in third-down offense, converting at a rate of 48.7 percent of the time. How will this manifest itself in this game? Alabama has shown a desire to use its new offensive instruments to play the same old tune. That song is ball control. Regardless of whether they do it through the air or on the ground, Alabama’s MO offensively is to grind opposing defenses to dust with long, physical, exhausting drives in which wave after wave of uber-talented Tide skills position players feature and take advantage of tiring defenses. Most defenses can hold up to a half of that. Few can muster the strength to match Alabama’s strength for four quarters.

If Arkansas struggles to get off the field on third-downs, then their fate will all but be sealed. We’ve all seen the stat: when Alabama rushes for more than 140 yards, victory is almost certain. Alabama meets these criteria when they have long drives with lots of conversions that allow them to hit the perfect run-pass mix. If the Hogs let Alabama put together several of these 10-, 11-, 12-play drives together that eat up clock and result in scores, then the Razorback depth will be sapped by the fourth quarter and Alabama will have their way with the Hogs defense late.

Alabama will benefit from allowing Hurts use his ever-developing RPO skills to diagnose what offenses are giving him. Hurts seems to be a player who prefers to make decisions on the move, as his passing ability from the pocket has not been on display much this season. He never looks overwhelmed, but he simply doesn’t look as comfortable when he’s been asked to stand in the pocket, read progressions, and execute the passing game. He’s missed a lot of reads this season, and while the results have been anything but catastrophic, one just can’t help but feel that when he gets it all figured out, the Alabama offense will be unstoppable.

Moving the pocket may not just be a matter of comfort for Hurts, but it may also have real-world, strategic aftershocks. When Hurts rolls out, he has is a threat to run for big gains. Defenders know that. When he rolls, defenses (in particular, safeties) have to pay attention, and they have to prepare to defend against a Hurts run since he is likely out of reach of defensive linemen and most linebackers, which takes their attention off of receivers trying to work themselves open. Hurts running ability sucks defenders up towards the line, thus leaving few defenders in the secondary to defend passes. Therefore, Hurts running ability (or more accurately, the threat of his running ability) has the effect of loosening coverages, which makes him a more confident and effective passer. Kiffin would be wise to build a few of these opportunities into the game plan to test Arkansas and see how they respond. The result of that knowledge could be a big play, and in a game like this, a big play could be the game-breaker.

Overall, the game plan for Alabama’s offense is simple: be methodical early on, set the hook with screens and motions, work the running game once the front loosens, and wait for big play opportunities in the passing game off of RPOs and roll-outs. If Arkansas is disciplined and uses controlled aggression, they can disrupt any facet of the Tide’s approach. And if one component is knocked off track, the others will struggle to be successful.

Alabama’s defense versus the Arkansas offense

Arkansas has seen a bit of an offensive shift in its own right this season, and it’s one that could play to the Tide’s perceived (relative) weakness defensively. The Hogs, and Bielema’s offenses beyond Arkansas, have always been known for their ability to run the ball behind bulk and sheer force of will. The offensive lines at Arkansas (and Wisconsin) have typically been monstrous, and the running backs have been elite between-the-tackles NFL prospect who read gaps well and use burst to take advantage of them. In those offenses, the quarterbacks have been game managers for the most part, and even those with throwing ability are there in large part to complement the running game.

This season, however, there seems to be more of an emphasis on the passing attack and creating balance. Make no mistake, they still have a huge offensive line that averages 318 pounds that is stocked with potential NFL Draft picks (and at least one Viking in sophomore Hjalte Froholdt). They have a stable of able backs, led by sophomore Rawleigh Williams III (5-10, 223 pounds) and including freshman sensation Devwah Whaley (5-11, 216 pounds). The Hogs will attempt to run the ball early and often, as they have a top-50 rushing attack themselves that averages 197 yards per game.

Williams is explosive, with 559 yards and four touchdowns this far with an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Technically listed as the second-stringer, Kody Walker is a battering ram at 6-2, 240 yards, and though his overall stats don’t show it (95 yards on 27 carries for a 3.5 yards per carry average), he is a physical short-yardage back who can be counted upon to convert third-downs and get the tough yards when needed. Whaley, who is averaging 6.7 yards per carry, has been dynamic in the early going and alongside Williams, provides the Hogs with the next in a long line of electrifying running back duos.

But they also have a passing attack that seems to be building on where former Hog QB Brandon Allen left off. Allen’s younger brother Austin has had a fantastic season to date, and his ability has inspired a little more variety in the Razorback offense this season. Allen currently has a passer rating of 167.69, which is unbelievable for a first-time starter (though Allen is a junior). He’s gone 94-for-139 passing for 1,232 yards, with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12-2. Austin is polished for a player making only his sixth career start, and Alabama hasn’t faced a quarterback as good since Ole Miss week.

Making matters more difficult for Alabama’s pass defense is that Allen spreads the ball around to a host of veteran receivers, including senior Drew Morgan (6-0, 193 pounds), Keon Hatcher (6-2, 207 pounds), junior Jared Cornelius (5-11, 212 pounds), senior Cody Hollister (6-4, 209 pounds), and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (6-6, 256 pounds). There are literally legit targets at every eligible receiving position, and Allen is smart enough to utilize them.

Morgan is Allen’s security blanket and his go-to, first-look guy. Morgan has been targeted with twice as many passes as any other receiver (28), and he averages 10.8 yards per catch and 60 yards per game. Hatcher is the burner, with good size on the edge and big-play swagger. While he’s only caught 14 passes this season, he has almost as many receiving yards as Morgan (Morgan has 301, Hatcher has 281 despite playing one less game). Cornelius leads all receivers with four touchdowns, and is currently averaging 18.7 yards per catch. Hollister presents a size mismatch for every one of Alabama’s defensive backs, as at 6-4, he’ll win his share of jump balls Allen throws up for grabs. Add into the equation Sprinkle, a red zone threat who averages three catches per game and already has three touchdowns to his credit, and one can see that Allen has more than enough tools around him to run an efficient offense.

While Ole Miss had the more dynamic passing offense, Alabama has not yet played a team that can pass and run the ball as well as Arkansas has done so far this season. They are a true pro-style double-threat, and unlike in previous years, they can beat teams with both phases of the offensive game.

Fortunately, Alabama has the kind of defense which can effectively negate one facet of the Razorback attack…specifically, the running game. Alabama’s rushing defense has been beyond good for so many years it’s hard to remember the last time the Tide gave up more than 100 yards to a back in consecutive games. This season, the faces in the front seven may have changed, but the play remains constant, as Alabama has the third-ranked rushing defense, allowing a mere 6.4 yards per game on the ground. That figure is simply astounding, and by season’s end, the Tide’s rushing defense numbers will no doubt rival the best of the Saban era.

What makes Alabama’s run defense so incredible is not just the five-star athletes who dot the front seven like stars in the night sky, but rather their discipline within the Saban defensive system. Alabama linebackers know their roles, and they are rarely out of position. They are well-coached and confident, so they play with speed and aggression that rarely gets them burned by opposing ground games. The defensive linemen are great at playing two-gap responsibilities, as they are smart, physical and task-oriented. There simply isn’t a better run defense in major college football, and Arkansas, like everyone else, will have a hell of a time mounting a meaningful ground assault against the Bama defense.

With Alabama’s ability to neutralize opposing running games, the task at hand becomes that much more difficult for the opposing offenses. Usually diverse offenses become one-dimensional after early attempts at a running game fail. “One-dimensional” is a death sentence against the Tide defense, as the pass rush can attack the pocket and generate unbelievable pressure with a mere four men rushing. This allows linebackers to filter out and contribute in coverage, which is something the new-and-improved Reuben Foster has done to great effect this season.

Alabama’s secondary is good even though it’s thin at the moment, and aside from an absolute bombardment by Chad Kelly in the Ole Miss game, has held up quite well against limited competition. The Tide currently has the 27th best pass defense in the nation in terms of yardage, though the pass efficiency defense is ranked 25th. (Without the Ole Miss game factored in, Alabama likely has a top-10 pass defense, for what it’s worth.) Allen is not quite yet on par with Kelly as a passer, but when teams have success against Alabama, it’s because their quarterbacks have career performances and do things that heretofore were unthinkable. Allen definitely has the ability to have a break out performance against Alabama, but he’ll have to do it without the benefit of a supporting running game, which will likely struggle against the Tide yet again.

The Razorbacks have a size mismatch in Hollister, and Hatcher is a speed mismatch for nearly any of the Tide’s defensive backs. If Arkansas can find a way to confuse coverages and create mismatches with some of the Tide’s younger players drawing coverage against these bigger, faster receivers, they could leverage them for a few big plays against Alabama in front of the home crowd.

Sprinkle could also be critical for the Hogs when it comes to extending drives and maintaining ball control of their own. Like Alabama, Arkansas likes to put together long drives that absorb clock, as they average 34.35 minutes per game in terms of time of possession. With both teams hoping to dominate the clock, Sprinkle will be key on obvious third-down passing situations, as his big body and sure hands will be a possession weapon regardless of who draws coverage.

Alabama’s task defensively will be to stop the run first and foremost, then generate pressure on Allen to prevent him from having a chance to run through his progressions. If Alabama can force Allen out of the pocket while coercing him to making quick decisions, then that will be considered a win. Arkansas, unlike Alabama, isn’t going to methodically pick apart the Alabama defense with short gains, mostly because the Hogs won’t have the running production against Bama to complement that. If Alabama’s pass rush is stalled by the massive Hog line and Allen has time, the Hog wide receivers are good enough to work themselves open and take advantage from a few mismatches. Hatcher and Hollister in particular will be of concern when Bama’s pressure can’t affect the passer, as they are both legitimate big-play threats who can take it to the house on any given play.

For Arkansas, they’ll have to hope they can generate some semblance of a running game against Bama’s ferocious defense, as it’s the only way to stem the tide of the Alabama pass rush and give Allen the time and space he needs to make the passing game work. If the Hogs can’t find a way to gain yards on the ground, possibly by breaking their own mold and pressuring the edges rather than running between the tackles, their forecast is bleak. The Hog offensive line is good…really good. But against the Aggie defense (which most will agree is a step behind the Bama D), the line struggled to keep the Aggies’ elite pass rusher Myles Garrett in check, and they couldn’t punch the ball in on short yardage when they had to. The Razorback running game only recorded 120 yards on 40 carries for a horrendous 3.0 yard per carry average against Texas A&M. Alabama basically has three Garretts in Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, and if the Hogs couldn’t muster a few yards against the Aggie front seven, there’s no reason to believe they’ll have great success doing it against a superior defensive unit in crimson.

Simply put, if the Arkansas offense is going to do anything to dent the Bama armor, they’re likely going to have to do it through the air.

Special Teams

Alabama’s special teams at this point are a known commodity, outside of the return game. J.K. Scott will just keep doing J.K. Scott-type things, and in this game, that could be a critical component of the field position battle the two teams will wage on Saturday. Both teams thrive on controlling field position and time of possession, so something will have to give this weekend. As in the past, Scott can truly be a weapon when it comes to this facet of the game, as he has the skill and leg to keep opposing offenses starting on a long field.

At this point in his career, Adam Griffith is just going to be Adam Griffith. He’s steady enough most of the time, but there’s always the chance for a flyer. His accuracy on field goals still gives pause, but there’s just not a lot that can be done about it at this point. And, teams that routinely count on field goals to win are in trouble anyway. All that really matters is that Griffith is perfect on PAT attempts, right?

Alabama’s return game has been a bit of a magical mystery tour this season, with no less than five different returners covering duties across the spectrum. Xavian Marks appears to be settling into the role, especially given Saban’s recent comments about preferring not to use starters as return men. Marks is lightning fast and shifty enough to shake an octopus in a phone booth, but he is still a work in progress in regard to decision-making, especially when considering when to fair catch and when to let the ball roll. His talent is undeniable, however, and so long as he maintains secure hands, he’s the likely punt returner moving forward.

Arkansas has a good group of special teams personnel as well, with senior Toby Baker leading the pack at punter. Baker is averaging a solid 46.1 yards per punt with a long of 59, so Saturday’s game will feature an unusual punters’ duel which will figure heavily into the all-important field position game.

At place kicker, sophomore Cole Hedlund gets the nod, though he’s only hitting about 66 percent of field goal attempts (he is four-of-six). He is perfect on PATs though, hitting 22-of-22. Hedlund doesn’t handle kickoffs, as that role falls to freshman Connor Limpert, who has done well enough this season to force his way onto the field.

Returning punts is the speedy Jared Cornelius, and on kickoff returns, he is joined by senior Dominique Reed.

All in all, Arkansas represents one of the toughest foes the Tide has faced to date outside of Ole Miss. They have size, talent, a gritty defense, and an offense that is only now developing into what it could eventually be. Likewise, a defense studded with veterans the likes of those Arkansas boasts is bound to cause problems for anyone they play.

But as has happened in the last two meetings, this year’s game between the old men of the SEC will devolve not into a high-flying offensive show, but a bare-knuckled, brutal brawl in which both teams emerge beaten and bruised. It will be physical, and it will be nasty. Few crowds get as fired up as the Woo Pig Soieee contingent when the Tide comes to town, and though Alabama has faced down better opposition in equally loud venues, the prospect of facing a salty veteran defense in front of the home team’s cheering section is never easy for a freshman signal caller.

Does a lighter, faster Alabama retain enough physicality to do battle with a pro-style foe of equal size and strength? Will Alabama’s defense contain the potent Hog running game and force them into a one-dimensional maelstrom from which they cannot emerge? Will Allen be able to pick Alabama’s secondary apart as only Chad Kelly has done before him? Will Alabama’s running game be able to assert its will at the point of attack and allow Hurts to do what he does best?

We’ll have our answers soon enough. Man-ball, pro-style, ground-and-pound…no matter what you call it, this display of old-school football will be a 12-round bloodbath. Hope for the best…