In recent weeks, Alabama fans have seen both the floor and the ceiling for the Tide offense, with outstanding performances against Mississippi State, Tennessee and New Mexico State sandwiched around that frustrating LSU outing that very nearly led to the worst upset loss in Nick Saban’s tenure, even worse than the one to a Louisiana-Monroe squad that came to Tuscaloosa as 24 point underdogs in 2007.
This week will provide a fine litmus test and perhaps some indication of whether Alabama has a shot to win this conference.
Execution has been uneven across the board for the Tide, from missed blocks to dropped passes to presnap penalties, but one of the greatest concerns has been an inability to exploit the holes in zone coverage. For whatever reason, QB Bryce Young has been somewhat hesitant to throw the ball through windows at times, but he is simply going to have to against Arkansas.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom would never say it, but he knows that he doesn’t have the horses in the secondary to press most SEC offenses. Thus, he stays in a soft zone coverage on the back end while switching between three and four man fronts on the line and using stunts to confuse the offensive line. They are very adept at forcing offenses to stay patient and drive the field, as Jimbo Fisher noted earlier in the year after the Hogs took down his Aggies.
Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said the Aggies wanted to take deep shots but the Hogs’ defense prevented them.
“We didn’t have time, and we had [deep] calls,” They’re playing 3-5-3. They were playing a really, really deep zone. They were bailing. They were trying to give you all underneath throws or all intermediate throws. ... The way they play, they take a lot of your deep balls away. We called about six shots in the game, and they played them and that’s why we were checking the ball.”
Running a system with lots of stunts and changes up fronts requires on-field leadership, and Arkansas has that in linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool. Morgan is a super senior and a prime candidate for the Burlsworth trophy given annually to the nation’s best former walk-on. Morgan and senior running mate Bumper Pool allow Odom to use the entire playbook. The Hogs haven’t been great against the run this year at 4.0 yards per carry allowed, but they don’t give up many explosive plays.
Off the edge, the man to watch is another senior in Mizzou transfer Tre Williams. The 6’5” 255 lb. NFL prospect leads the team with six sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Clogging the middle is redshirt senior John Ridgeway, who will be a challenge for the interior of the Alabama line. In the secondary, look for Montaric Brown and Jalen Catalon, who have combined for six interceptions.
The Arkansas defense is a bit short on top end talent, but it has plenty of experience at all three levels and is a well coached bunch that won’t beat themselves. More importantly, they are schematically similar to the Georgia defense that Alabama hopes to see in a couple of weeks. If the Tide can look strong in this one, communicating well up front against the various stunts, running the ball well, getting passes out on time and accurately, and actually catching the football, then that will portend well for their chances going forward.
Of course, should the Tide offense struggle in this one, that won’t inspire much confidence. Nick Saban has expressed some concern about the team’s preparation this week, so we really don’t know what we are going to get. That about sums up the 2021 Alabama season, doesn’t it?
As always, hope for the best.