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Hope for the Best: Arkansas edition

The Hogs are 1-4 under first-year coach Chad Morris, and this Saturday’s game appears to be a mismatch. Can Arkansas really stifle the Tide?

Arkansas v Texas A&M
Can Ty Storey right the leaking Arkansas offensive ship against Alabama?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

No matter how much changes, some things stay the same.

Just ask Arkansas. They’ve changed coaches. They’ve changed systems on both side of the ball. They’ve changed quarterbacks. They’ve altered almost every aspect of their program over the last five years, and yet, the result is always the same.

They’re still chasing Alabama in the SEC West. And they’re way, way behind the Tide.

Since Nick Saban took over the Tide program in 2007, Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama, no matter where they’ve played. In that time, they’ve met in Tuscaloosa, Little Rock, and Fayetteville, yet the Hogs have perennially come up on the short end of the stick. In the six times the Hogs and Tide have faced each other under Saban while Bama was ranked number one, the Razorbacks only managed to come within single digits of winning once (in the infamous 2010 season, the score was 24-20.) In the other meetings, the Tide absolutely routed the Razorbacks (52-0 in 2012, 52-0 in 2013, 49-30 in 2016, and 41-9 last season).

During Saban’s 11-year tenure in Tuscaloosa, the Razorbacks have gone through five non-interim coaches (Houston Nutt in 2007, Bobby Petrino from 2008-2011, John L. Smith in 2012, Bret Bielema from 2013-2017, and now current coach Chad Morris). That’s quite the litany of coaching changes, and it has created great instability in a program that once was able to compete with the best in the SEC.

Now, however, they face the indignity of losing to Sun Belt teams, as they fell to North Texas by a score of 44-17 in Fayetteville earlier this year. Alabama, on the other hand, has looked like the man among boys against its competition to date, putting games out of reach in the first half and emptying the benches in the second stanza of every game they’ve played this season.

So what possible intrigue could this weekend’s game between Alabama and Arkansas hold? It seems like an open-and-shut case. Arkansas’ most recent loss this season came last week at the hands of Texas A&M in a 24-17 game that the Razorbacks had a chance of winning. On the other hand, Alabama absolutely crushed the same A&M team that beat the Hogs a week ago. Though the transitive property doesn’t always hold water in college football, in this case, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who gives the Hogs much of a chance this week.

But this is still the SEC. As bulletproof as the Tide has looked to date, bad things happen. Heroes fall. Schemes fail. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. As superhuman as Alabama has appeared, they’re still just a passel of young men, prone to the foibles that haunt young men the world over. No one expected a juggernaut Gator team led by a Heisman winning quarterback to fall to then-lowly Ole Miss back in ’08. Who’d have given the 2012 Texas A&M team with a freshman under center and a newly-minted and untested SEC head coach much chance of beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa? The point is, things happen, and it is when the mighty appear most unbreakable that they often fall.

As roughly-shod as Arkansas has appeared to date, they are still an SEC team. They’re an SEC team with a roster full of SEC-caliber players. Alabama can’t afford to sleep on them lest they risk taking a stone to the dome that could fell the mightiest of champions.

The margin for error is slim for Alabama, both in terms of the schedule and personnel. One defensive injury could be problematic for the Tide in the secondary or linebacking corps. A single loss could knock the Tide from the playoff picture. The world is just looking for a reason to keep Bama from competing for another title, and a loss to an overmatched Arkansas team would be a resume killer.

Then there’s the fact that the Tide will play this game on the road, before thousands of angry, disenchanted Razorback fans. Tua Tagovailoa and his young teammates performed well in the rowdy confines of Oxford’s Vaught Hemingway Stadium a few weeks ago, but will they be able to stay level-headed amongst the raging chorus of woo-pig-souieee and a snarling mass of rowdy Ozarkian humanity? The environment will test the mettle of Tua’s steely resolve at least, and a young Alabama team will have to deal with its most hostile environment to date.

Can Arkansas’ find a way to muster better secondary play and stop the Crimson Tide’s passing attack? Or will they be blown out by Bama’s air strike? Can Alabama’s running game dominate for the first time this season against an Arkansas front seven that is playing excellent football? If the Hogs can slow down Tua and force him into uncharacteristic mistakes, can they take advantage with what has to date been an anemic offense?

We’ll know soon…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense versus the Arkansas defense

Any observer of southern football over the last two decades knows the name John Chavis. The wily former defensive coordinator at Tennessee, LSU, and Texas A&M is well-traveled, and for good reason. He’s an excellent, proven coordinator with an effective scheme who recruits the best athletes and turns them into defensive headhunters.

Chavis’ most recent stop puts him in Fayetteville as part of head coach Chad Morris’ inaugural staff. Arkansas faithful hope he can bring the same kind of hard-hitting, tenacious play to the Hogs that he installed at his previous stops. That said, Chavis doesn’t yet have the roster with which to play his style of defense, so he’s largely getting a pass this season as he breaks in the Arky defenders.

As good as Chavis has been as a defensive coordinator, however, he’s struggled against Nick Saban-coached Alabama teams. At LSU, Chavis’ defense was part of only two Tiger victories between 2009 and 2014 (LSU and Bama played seven times in that span, one extra time for the national title in 2012). In his time in College Station, the Aggies couldn’t beat Alabama in three consecutive tries between 2015-2017. Why would it be any different a few clicks north in Arkansas?

Arkansas’ defense this season bears the watermark of Chavis’ system. They play a lot of press coverage with aggressive, well-masked schemes. The front features dogged, quick pass rushing ends who are charged with tearing upfield from the edges, and space-eating behemoths in the middle to snarl the front. They are determined to take the ball from opposing offenses, as they have 10 turnovers on the year so far, most of them fumbles.

But the Razorback defense has had its struggles as well. Despite the coach at the helm, they’ve had a hard time stopping teams that pass the ball with any consistency, with a pass defense ranked 99th nationally in yards allowed through the air. That is a huge problem against the foe they’ll face this week, as Alabama’s Tagovailoa is the nation’s top passer with the highest passer rating in the country. He’s already thrown 14 touchdown passes this season with no interceptions, and he’s rarely played in the second half so far. In fact, he’s not taken a single snap in the fourth quarter to date, as has been well-documented in the media this week.

Not to mention, he’s helming an aerial assault loaded with elite receivers that has the Tide ranked first in scoring offense (54.2 yards per game), 10th in passing offense (335.8 yards per game), fifth in total offense (553.2 yards per game), and second in third-down offense (59.7 percent conversion rate). The Tide is accomplishing those offensive goals without a dominant running game, not because the running game can’t get the job done, but because the passing game has been so explosive to date. Exhibit A: The Tide offense has scored 37 touchdowns through five games to set an SEC record. Exhibit B: Of those 37 touchdowns, 12 were scored in 60 seconds or less. Five were scored in less than 30 seconds.

Any way you choose to slice it, the prospects for Arkansas’ defense are bleak. While they are solid against the run, allowing only 105.8 yards on the ground per game, calling their pass defense a sieve would be gracious. The Hogs give up 256.6 yards per game through the air…and they haven’t played an elite passing team yet. Even with the benefit of an above-average run defense, the Razorbacks rank a putrid 106th nationally in defensive S&P+, an advanced metric that removes garbage time and accounts for opponent strength. Conversely, Alabama’s offense is ranked second in offensive S&P+. One needn’t be a mathematician to see the numbers just don’t add up in favor of the Razorbacks.

Expect to Chavis stick with his script. He’ll have his undersized defensive backs attempt to jam the Tide receivers up close, and they’ll play press coverage to try to narrow the windows for Tua to exploit. Chavis will have his defense crash the edges with the ends, and he’ll let his linebackers play off the line against the run. He’ll use his big tackles to create a swirling maelstrom in the middle and dare the Tide to run into it. The thing about going against a coordinator with as many years in the hopper as Chavis is that there are few surprises left, and Bama OC Mike Locksley has been around long enough to know exactly how to exploit them.

Truthfully, what Chavis does from a scheme standpoint probably doesn’t even matter, so great is the disparity in execution and personnel between the Bama offense and the Hog defense. What makes the Tide’s offense so terrifying is the efficiency with which it can morph and dispatch an opponent. Load the box and Tua will cut you up underneath and stretch the field on explosive plays. Drop six into coverage, and the Tide’s backs can run wild while Tagovailoa exploits holes underneath with quick, accurate passing. When Jalen Hurts enters the game, he brings an added element of elusiveness on the perimeter. It’s just too much for any defense to handle over four quarters. Alabama can do anything offensively, and it can do it at a high level. Defenses thrive on taking away what an opponent does best and forcing them to be one-dimensional. Against Alabama, that’s not a possibility, as the Tide can attack quickly from a variety of angles with equal aplomb.

For example, Chavis is known for walking up a safety as a running game enforcer. If he does that, Tua will make his defense look silly. There are no Razorback defensive backs capable of consistently covering the Tide’s receivers in man coverage, so those safeties are better served providing help to the outgunned corners over the top. Even a two-high scheme (which Chavis favors) leaves too much leeway for Tua, as he can make any throw on the field and take advantage of mid-range routes with plenty of YAC. Chavis doesn’t have the athletes he had at LSU at defensive back, and overall depth in the secondary is a problem. Eight of the top 10 defensive backs are underclassmen, most of them freshmen. Does anyone see a freshman defensive back (not named Patrick Surtain) successfully covering the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devonta Smith, or Jaylen Waddle? And say one guy did lock down one of the Tide’s star receivers…who has the other two in a three-receiver set?

If Alabama attempts to feature the run, the going will be tougher. Arkansas has a legitimate run defense, and they create havoc through fumbles. While they lack the proper talent for Chavis’ scheme in the back end, up front they are beastly. Yards on the ground won’t come easy for the Tide. But Alabama would have to play right into the Arky strength while shying away from its own for that to happen. Locksley knows that points are to be had through the air against Arkansas, and you can believe the Tide offense won’t leave any on the field. The advantage for the Tide in this match-up is a large one, making it impossible to ignore.

The Alabama defense versus the Arkansas offense

If the Razorback defense is in hot water against the Tide’s potent offense, then the Hog offense may as well have leapt headlong from the boiling pot and into the fire. In a word, the Arkansas offense has been wretched to date, and that’s not an exaggeration. The Razorbacks rank no higher than 88th nationally in any major offensive stat (passing offense, 207 yards per game). Bear in mind they’ll be facing a Tide defense that is ranked third in passing efficiency defense, and you can see the Hogs will have their work cut out for them.

Usually a run-based team, the Razorbacks have also struggled in that regard. They are only averaging a mere 141.8 yards per game on the ground, good for 95th in the nation. Consider that the Hogs’ leading rusher, junior tailback Devwah Whaley (5-11, 216 pounds) may not be back in action thanks to a concussion, and the road gets that much longer for Arkansas in the uphill battle against Alabama’s defense.

No matter what they do, the Razorbacks have had a tough time breaking the plane. They only average 23.8 points per game, putting them at 102nd (out of 129 teams) in scoring offense. They’re even worse at converting third downs with a paltry 23.7 conversion rate (124th nationally). Alabama’s defense may have regressed a notch or two from the units that were the strength of the team for much of the last decade, but this Alabama defense is still fearsome enough to get the job done against far more potent offenses like Ole Miss and Texas A&M. These offensive numbers paint a bleak picture for the Razorbacks against an Alabama defense that, while not playing to the standard of Tide defenses past, has been mostly rock-solid outside of garbage time breakdowns.

The Tide’s pass rush has been on fire in the last several games, and Alabama is fifth in team sacks (18 total, 3.6 per game). That plays right into one of the Razorbacks’ many offensive weaknesses, as through last week, they’d allowed 14 sacks (tied for 101st in the country). Expect Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Anfernee Jennings, and Christian Miller to feast on the Arkansas offensive line Saturday. The Arky O line is massive (they are, after all, a product of the Bielema offense), averaging 314 pounds across the front (right guard Johnny Gibson is a gargantuan 6-4 and 345 pounds). But to date, they’ve not distinguished themselves in run blocking or pass protection, and the statistics back that up. Bama’s front seven will wreck the Arkansas backfield, and presumed quarterback Ty Storey (the Hogs have alternated between Storey and the massive Cole Kelley at 6-7, 263 pounds) will ultimately pay the price.

When Alabama begins to run away on the scoreboard and the Hogs get desperate, they’ll go to the air as they did last week in a 17-point failed comeback attempt against the Aggies. Between the pressure from the front seven and the ball hawking of the Tide’s Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney, Patrick Surtain, and Trevon Diggs, that tack will probably expedite the disaster for the Razorbacks. The Bama defense has been opportunistic with turnovers this season. They have 10 turnovers, most of which came via interception. Those are the kinds of errors that will toll the death knell of an already-struggling offense like Arkansas, as Kelley and Storey have combined for eight interceptions through five games (four each).

Alabama’s defense is strong where the Razorbacks are weak, and as a result, the Hogs will likely stagnate and fail to move the ball much, let alone score. Last week against A&M, the Hogs had only 248 yards of total offense and seven three-and-outs. Against a team with an offense like Alabama’s, that can be disastrous because the Tide will likely score every time they get the ball.

Pessimism can keep one’s expectations grounded. But in this case, pessimism about Alabama’s ability to shut down the Arkansas offense just flies in the face of good old-fashioned reason and logic. Alabama’s defense should dominate the point of attack, stuff the Hogs’ running attempts, harass the passer, and terrorize the passing lanes. That’s not Gumping by any stretch against the Arkansas offense. After all, they only mustered 17 points again North Texas.

Special Teams

Just when the Tide faithful thought they could rest easy about the place-kicking duties, Joseph Bulovas missed two makeable kicks under limited duress. Who knows what’s going on in the kicking game, but it appears that the Tide’s long-standing woes can’t be placed on the proverbial back-burner just yet.

The return game was dynamic last weekend, however. Jaylen Waddle finally got his chance, and he exploded for a TD return that was as dynamic as it was impressive. His athleticism is through the roof, and there simply isn’t a more exciting return man in the country at this point. May he continue to terrify opponents and provide the Tide with NOTs.

Alabama is not alone in its kicking game struggles, as the Razorbacks platoon a pair of punters in freshman Reid Bauer (38.6-yard average with a long of 50) and Blake Johnson (30.4-yard average with a long of 44). In the placekicking role, Connor Limpert has been so-so, hitting 7-of-10 field goal attempts, though he’s perfect on PATs with 14-for-14.

Arkansas has its own pair of excellent return men who handle both punts and kicks, as sophomore De’Vion Warren and junior Deon Stewart provide good production as returners. Warren is the primary punt returner, and he averages 22.7 yards per return with a long of 34 yards. Stewart has returned two punts this season for 31 yards. He also averages 19.7 yards per return on kickoffs and has broken a long return of 45 yards.

As good as it is to keep one’s head out of the clouds when it comes to pigskin prognostication, it’s hard to see the product that Arkansas has put on the field through the first five weeks of the season as anything more than cannon fire for the battery of weapons the Tide brings to battle. No matter which measure one observes, whether it’s performance against common opponents, statistical rankings, or relative strengths vs. relative weaknesses, all signs point to an Alabama rout. It doesn’t matter where these two teams met, be it Fayetteville, Tuscaloosa, or the Vatican…the Tide would likely win going away in 10 of 10 contests. That’s the width of the gulf between the two teams at this point. One is a proven champion on its way to a likely date with history while the other will be lucky to finish with a .500 record.

That said, things can go wrong. A single injury to a pivotal key player could change the Tide’s fortunes in an instant. That almost happened last weekend against Louisiana Lafayette, as the status of star left tackle Jonah Williams was put in jeopardy by an ankle injury. The Tide could possibly find a way to patch its line together without Williams, but there are other players on the roster whose absence would create considerably greater complications for Alabama’s eventual championship success.

At this point, after five weeks of playing one half before putting it on cruise control, the Tide’s greatest opponent remains complacency. Rat poison is in the water these days, as everyone has pegged the Tide as the team to beat in this year’s title chase. That venom is most potent when ingested by the young, as they are most susceptible to it. As Saban himself has said, premature praise can lead to complacency, and complacency is the enemy of greatness. As unbeatable as Alabama has looked this year, they haven’t yet proven anything other than they can go 5-0.

It’s games such as this one, against downtrodden but talented teams that should put up little fight, that true champions must forge their determination to execute to a standard. There’s little question that Alabama can beat Arkansas. The real puzzle is whether a still-developing Tide team can master itself, as it appears only Alabama can beat Alabama at this point.

In the words of Nick Saban, this team still needs to find its identity and determine how great it wants to be. The ceiling in that regard is infinite…hope for the best.