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Hope For the Best: Arkansas edition

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Though the Razorbacks are precariously perched on the edge of a potential losing season, they are still feisty. After all, a wounded hog is a dangerous hog…

Florida v Arkansas
Could a beating at the hands of Alabama be in the cards for Bret Bielema and his Razorbacks?
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

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 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 welcomes the always-tough Arkansas Razorbacks to Tuscaloosa for Homecoming. 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 few 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 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. Then came the zone read with a dual-threat quarterback, something that most fans would have found laughable a half-decade ago. Now, under new coordinator Brian Daboll, the Tide has pivoted to a new hybrid game plan: a pro-style offense with spread concepts that employs the skills of the electrifying dual-threat stylings of Jalen Hurts and a battalion of elite backs.

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, mauling 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 assert its own physical roots against an Arkansas team that isn’t afraid to roll up the sleeves and engage in fisticuffs.

Will Alabama’s multi-pronged rushing attack overwhelm an Arkansas run defense that has struggled at times this year against good running teams? Or can Arkansas force Alabama out of its comfort zone and into the air to achieve victory? Will the Tide’s aggressive front seven dominate a Razorback offensive line that has not quite lived up to the standards of their predecessors? Or will the dinged-up gun-slinger Austin Allen be able to move the ball on the Tide defense the way he has done in past meetings?

Time will tell as Alabama marches towards its destiny…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas defense

Over the course of Bret Bielema’s term in Fayetteville, two things have been constant: the Hogs will run the ball with abandon, and they will play physical, hard-nosed defense. The latter is generally accomplished without a roster of five-star talent, but rather in more blue-collared fashion. The players that stud the Razorback defensive roster are not the most coveted recruits, nor are they at the top of the Sparq ratings, generally speaking.

What they are, however, is full of grit. They are grinders who are more interested in a physical performance than a flashy one. There’s something about the way the Razorback defense plays the game that Nick Saban respects, as each year he directly mentions the Hog defense as one of the bigger challenges his men must face in the annual match-up between the two teams.

Despite their tenacious reputation, this year the Hogs seem to have taken a step backwards regarding their defensive standard of play. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has ushered in a new era for Razorback football, as he has transitioned the unit to a 3-4 scheme after years spent playing in the tried and true 4-3 alignment. Though it may pay off in the long run, the early returns have been mixed, as Arkansas has continued to struggle in a few key metrics while players learn the nuances of a two-gap defense after years of crashing the line with reckless abandon in the 4-3.

The scheme won’t matter nearly as much in the grand scheme this week, as there is no question what Alabama is going to attempt to accomplish. Likewise, Arkansas’ mode of attack is just as easy to discern. Alabama, which boasts the nation’s seventh most productive rushing attack (301.7 yards per game), will attempt to run over, through, and around a Razorback defense that is currently ranked 59th against the run (146.0 yards per game). There’s no reason to believe that Alabama won’t be able to accomplish that goal, as even with a lackluster performance by the O line last weekend against Texas A&M, the Tide pretty well imposed its will on an Aggie defense that is by all accounts playing better football at the moment than their counterparts from Fayetteville.

Arkansas won’t go gently into that good night, however, as they have the physical tools to be more than a speedbump for the Tide rushing attack. With a pair of rising stars on the defensive line in McTelvin Agim (6-3, 286 pounds) and Austin Capps (6-4, 300 pounds) and the veteran presence of senior nose Bijhon Jackson (6-1, 339 pounds), running against the bulky front of the Razorbacks will be no easy task. The line may be young and somewhat lacking in experienced, quality depth, but the first string will pose a challenge if Alabama repeats its lackluster performance from last week in the trenches.

The linebackers for the Razorbacks also pose a challenge to the potent Tide running attack, as they are adequately sized for the task at hand, and are extremely active, especially leading-tackler De’Jon Harris (6-0, 242 pounds). Unlike in many other cases, Alabama won’t simply be able to bully past the Hogs with bigger, more physical backs, as the Arky ‘backers are themselves quite a load. There will be violent collisions and the kind of carnage that results from a strength-on-strength match-up between physical football teams. Where Alabama has the advantage, however, will be on the edges. The Hog linebackers may be big, but they are not particularly fleet of foot, and if the Tide can routinely get the edge against Arkansas, those big ‘backers will be running in wet concrete by the time the second half opens, magnifying the already-present Tide advantage in the speed game.

While Damien Harris has been the breakaway back of the early portion of the season, with speed, balance, and power, a back like Josh Jacobs could have a huge day against the likes of Arkansas. His quick first step, intuitive hole-hitting ability, and strength as a receiver could help leverage his speed against a somewhat lumbering front seven for Arkansas. Honestly, outside of the secondary, there is no player up front who can catch Jacobs once he gets up a head of steam, and if Daboll can find ways to get the ball in his hands on the edges, he could have a historical day against the Hogs.

What, for the sake of argument, if the Razorbacks can find a way to bottle up the Tide’s running attack, or at least limit it and snuff out promising drives? One possibility would include an increased focus on the passing game for Alabama to loosen running lanes, move players away from the line and out of the box, and open up big play possibilities downfield. Alabama is still in the lower third of teams nationally in passing stats (101st, with a mere 181.3 yards per game), but it’s not because of a lack of ability. Rather, because the Tide has run the ball so prolifically, Alabama has elected to keep dancing with the proverbial girl they came with.

The much-discussed improvement in the passing game has seemingly materialized, though many are still withholding judgment until the Tide faces better pass defenses. While Arkansas does have a decent corps of defensive backs, their pass defense has been workable but not stellar (39th nationally, ceding 204 yards per game). Corner Henre’ Toliver (6-1, 185 pounds) is a solid senior corner, but he’s paired on the opposite side with a true freshman in Kamren Curl (6-1, 193 pounds). Curl may prove to be the second coming of Deion Sanders, but expecting a true freshman to cover the likes of Bama’s elite receiving talent may be a little much to ask at this point. And even the senior Toliver has been prone to big play busts in the past, so there will be opportunities to exploit for the Tide, especially if the running game flourishes even modestly.

There are also some obvious match-up issues that the Tide can exploit in the passing game. While Arkansas’ linebackers are solid against the run, they are, in general, not elite in coverage. If Alabama can find a way to get backs matched-up in coverage against linebackers, it could spell disaster for the Hogs. Imagine this scene: Josh Jacobs isolated out past the hash with only a 240-pound linebacker between him and the Promised Land. That match-up favors Alabama heavily. Daboll exploits those mismatches well, and if he can find a way to put Arkansas in those unfavorable situations often enough, the Hogs will have little chance of even hanging with the Tide, let alone winning the game. Hurts can also work the seam with tight ends Hale Hentges and Irv Smith, as either of those players can find an opening against backs built like tanks. The Tide passing game thrives off such mismatches, and if Arkansas falls prey to them, it could get out of hand quickly.

Alabama’s tactic will be simple: they’ll run the ball at the heart of the Hog defense, with a helping of edge running to spread the speed-challenged defense. If that doesn’t pay dividends, then they’ll give Hurts a package of safe passing options to draw safeties Josh Liddell (6-1, 211 pounds) and Santos Ramirez (6-2, 198 pounds) away from the box. That will, in turn, loosen the lanes for Alabama and help jumpstart the ground game, which will result in more play action opportunities in the passing game. Alabama is more talented than Arkansas across the board, so success will come if Alabama does what it does and puts its elite playmakers in a position to simply make plays.

The Alabama defense against the Arkansas offense

The Alabama defense struggled a little last week against the A&M offense late in the game, but the word “struggle” is relative when talking about the Tide’s vaunted unit. Yes, Alabama allowed the Aggies to score late in a game that was sealed away not long after the half. Was Texas A&M ever a legitimate comeback threat? Probably not. Alabama toyed with them the way a cat toys with a recently killed squirrel, lifting it into animation with its paw only to smash it to the ground once again.

Alabama’s second half lethargy last weekend was likely a product of waning depth that has become a specter haunting the Tide this season. After a rash of injuries to key players in the front seven, Alabama finds itself having to utilize players who have little experience in a Crimson Tide uniform. And those players are playing more snaps, as evidenced by Saban’s comments earlier this week. When asked about defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, who had a fantastic breakout performance against the Aggies, Saban indicated that he was pleased with Buggs’ play but realized that he played too many snaps, which impacted his ability later in the game.

Depth issues aside, there’s not much that Arkansas has demonstrated the ability to do this year that Alabama can’t stop defensively. The Hogs have a formidable, balanced running attack implemented by a three-headed Cerberus consisting of sophomore Devwah Whaley (5-11, 216 pounds), senior David Williams (6-1, 229 pounds), and freshman Chase Hayden (5-10, 191 pounds). The carries are evenly divided, and each back is averaging more than four yards per carry. Behind a solid run-blocking line, the trio would make hay against most defenses of above-average quality.

But Alabama’s run defense is something else entirely. The Tide once again boasts the nation’s number one rush defense, allowing a paltry 73.3 yards per game. While those aren’t historic numbers (yet) for the Tide under Saban, they are quite impressive. Three backs or not, it would be surprising to see Alabama struggle against any running game, let alone one led by an offensive line that is full of youth.

Though Arkansas displays a decided lean towards the running game, they are also blessed with a quarterback who brings to the table an arm capable of pinpoint accuracy and the athleticism to remain elusive. Austin Allen (6-1, 215 pounds) has had solid outings against the Tide in the past, slinging the ball around to his stable of receivers. As Saban said in his Wednesday press conference, Allen is a guy who can make “all the throws” and buy time when pass protection breaks down. That will be a critical component of the offense for the Hogs, as their offensive line has struggled mightily against opposing pass rushes this season. In fact, Arkansas is tied for 99th nationally in sacks allowed, as they allow 2.6 per game. If Arkansas can’t do better than that, a hungry stable of Tide pass rushers will eat, and they’ll eat often.

There is also some question about Allen’s health this week, as he was dinged up against South Carolina. Though the senior QB insists he will play Saturday in his final meeting with the Tide, the next man up is 6-7, 268-pound Cole Kelley, a massive signal-caller with a Tim Tebow-esque skill set who could be a wild card in this game. Alabama hasn’t had to deal with a dual-threat QB with Kelley’s size and skill set, and though he is still rough around the edges as a passer, no one knows exactly what to expect from the large QB. Obviously, if Austin can’t go, Arkansas would likely shelve the aerial attack that the senior QB could wage against Alabama’s secondary in favor of a more ground-centric offensive game plan.

If Kelley gets the start, Alabama’s defense will need to quickly gird their collective loins for the onslaught, as a running threat of Kelley’s size could get considerable lean. If he has any passing ability at all, it could make things interesting. That said, if Austin starts, there could be aerial fireworks, though because of inconsistency in pass pro, the quarterback’s productivity has seen a sharp drop from last season, when he was widely believed one of the most apt field generals in the SEC.

While Arkansas is not inept offensively, their production is down roundly in 2017, largely due to offensive line play and the absence of game-breaking receivers who can lead defenders out of the box. The Hogs are ranked 81st in total offense (392.6 yards per game), and against an Alabama defense that is ranked fifth in total defense at this point in the season (allowing 258.8 yards per game), there’s little chance they’ll see those numbers buoyed much.

Special Teams

There simply isn’t a lot to say about the Arkansas special teams unit, as they grade out as neutral, neither providing great benefit nor great drawback for the team. Sophomore punter Blake Johnson averages 39.7 yards per punt with a long of 58 yards, and his counterpart at place kicker, Connor Limpert, has hit a single field goal in one attempt this season (a 48-yarder). Toliver returns punts, and he has a single return on the season that went for two yards. Kick returner De’Vion Warren has done a nice job, averaging 26 yards per return with a long of 42 on the season.

At this point in the season, Alabama’s kicking game is what it is going to be. The punting is generally consistent and supports the Tide’s field position goals (with the exception of an occasional shank). The place kicking continues to be a bit of an adventure, but that seems to be the status quo for many teams around the league this season. The Bama return game is neither electrifying or terrifying. Alabama gets the nod in punt and kick coverage, however, as those units have demonstrated a momentum-building tendency to spark the rest of the team when they can get a hand on a kick or punt.

Overall, there is little mystery about what kind of game will be played Saturday between Arkansas and Alabama. It will be physical, gritty, and hard-fought early on. That said, the token resistance offered by the Razorbacks may not last much more than a quarter, as they are thin on experienced depths, and that depleted roster simply can’t match talent for talent with what the Crimson Tide will put on the field for homecoming this week.

If Alabama bounces back from its suboptimal performance against Texas A&M last week with a vengeance, Arkansas will simply be the next victim stuck to the bottom of a crimson boot destined to march to the College Football Playoffs. However, if Alabama plays fast and loose with the ball, if they repeat the mental errors that allowed the Aggies to mount an ultimately-unsuccessful comeback, then Arkansas has enough offensive firepower to score points and hang with Alabama. Such an outcome is unlikely, but one can never underestimate a team like the Razorbacks. Much like their trusty namesakes, they possess surprising ferocity when backed into a corner, and for Bielema, his coaches, and his players, it just may be the perfect time for an upset victory with the hounds baying in the woods.

Will Arkansas start the seasoned Allen or the potential phenom Kelley against an Alabama defense likely to be fired up after a lackluster day in College Station? Will the triple-edged running attack the Hogs bring to bear finally crack the crimson run defense armor? Or will Alabama set the pace by taking advantage of depth issues on the Hog defense? Can Alabama use its greatest strength to attack the Razorbacks’ greatest defensive liability?

Time will tell, and Saturday evening draws nigh…hope for the best.