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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 20, 2013
There was a point Saturday where Alabama fans probably felt afraid to check the score of any SEC football game, including their own.
But while the rest of the SEC was preoccupied with doing exactly the opposite of what was expected of them, Alabama played strictly according to script. The Crimson Tide mauled an overmatched Arkansas team that was as lacking in confidence as it was any kind of ability.
The 52-0 beating Alabama administered, however, came with a price. Vinnie Sunseri, the emotional glue of the Crimson Tide defense, appeared to suffer a significant knee injury on kickoff coverage. Starting cornerback Bradley Sylve, who had quietly solidified the position opposite Deion Belue, left with a high ankle sprain, the kind of injury that can either heal overnight or hang around for a month.
But injuries are part of the game. And for Alabama, domination is starting to be equally as so.
Alabama gave up 42 points to Texas A&M in the second week of the season. At the time, the Alabama secondary was, at best, a work in progress. Neither Sylve nor true freshman Eddie Jackson had gotten meaningful playing time yet (in Jackson’s case, no playing time whatsoever). The safety rotation, which included Nick Perry before a shoulder injury felled him, hadn’t yet been firmed up. True freshman defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson was just beginning to push into the playing rotation.
Did the subsequent changes make any difference? In Alabama’s other six games, the Crimson Tide has allowed 26 points – total.
With this resume, Alabama is really the only team in the SEC playing consistent defense at the moment. While it is true that Alabama has yet to face another elite offense – and might not unless the Tide qualifies for the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta and draws Missouri – Alabama did shut out an Ole Miss team that has proven more than competent. The Rebels are averaging 29.0 points per game against teams not named Alabama.
As such, Alabama is in the catbird’s seat the rest of the way in, provided Landon Collins, Geno Smith or Jarrick Williams is able to capably fill in for Sunseri. Defense still trumps offense in this league, and in this sport as a whole. And Alabama may be the only team in college football, with the possible exception of Florida State, that is serious about playing it. But with LSU always dangerous, Auburn and Tennessee improving and Missouri and its high-powered offense looming, Alabama can’t sleepwalk through the rest of its schedule – especially with Oregon and Florida State undefeated and the national media looking for any reason it can find to knock Alabama out of the BCS title game.
As for Arkansas, there isn’t much to add to what TideFans.com profiled in the pregame preview. This is a team in transition on offense, and bereft of game-changing talent on defense. The parts of the Razorback team that are currently SEC worthy – running back, defensive line, maybe special teams – are overshadowed by the parts of the team that lag so far behind the norm that simply putting up a decent showing should be considered a victory.
As Alabama awaits a Tennessee team coming off an impressive upset of South Carolina, here’s a look back at Arkansas through the lens of the Five-Point Breakdown:
1. Alabama shuts out the second level of Arkansas’ defense. In our preview, we noted the Razorbacks had a good front four but problems elsewhere. It was even worse than expected. Only one Razorback linebacker finished in the top eight in tackles for the day – and that player, Braylon Mitchell, had zero unassisted stops. Mitchell was credited with 5 assisted tackles; the next-highest total came from reserve linebacker Byran Jones, with 1 solo stop and 3 tackles overall. Defensive backs took positions 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 on the sheet, despite the fact Alabama completed only 15 passes. While DT Darius Philon was impressive, gathering 8 tackles, he got almost no help. Alabama held Trey Flowers and Chris Smith, the Razorbacks’ talented ends, to a combined 5 tackles, none of which came behind the line of scrimmage. The Razorbacks got a whopping 0.5 tackles for loss from all linemen and linebackers combined. The reason Alabama running backs appeared to be galloping unimpeded for the end zone is because … they were galloping unimpeded for the end zone. It’s unclear what Arkansas’ linebackers were doing after the snap, but sticking their noses in the pile didn’t seem to be atop the to-do list.
2. Lack of playmakers hamstrings the Hog offense. Tight end Hunter Henry, who was recruited by Alabama, caught 3 passes for 42 yards but seemed to be even more involved than that. He’s already a good one, and will probably get better with each passing year. Having said that, he can’t work alone. Javonte Herndon caught 2 passes for 42 yards but never threatened the defense deep. Unless Arkansas can invent, hire or concoct via test tube some additional receivers within the next week, the three wins Arkansas counts at the moment might be the only three the Hogs have at season’s end. Running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who combined for 128 yards on 31 carries, end up looking even better in the final analysis, as Arkansas had no other weapons to use to keep the heat off them.
3. Playcalling has quietly become a consistent strength. Playcalling gets too much heat when players don’t execute, and too much credit when something works. For the most part, it can be evaluated the same way game officials are: When you’re not talking about it, it’s better than when you are. Alabama’s efficiency numbers have been off the charts for much of the 2013 season and Doug Nussmeier seems to be at his best the better the level of competition is. Alabama averaged 9.5 yards per rush, 7.5 yards per pass attempt and 8.7 yards per play overall against the Razorbacks, and A.J. McCarron completed 71.4% of his passes. Alabama could have named the score.
4. What to do with Ryan Kelly? Allegedly, Kelly was available for this game, but he didn’t play. Chad Lindsay started before eventually giving way to Kellen Williams late in the game. There are a lot of factors that go into what constitutes successful offensive line play – and the level of competition on the opposing line is certainly a big part of that – but the fact is, Alabama has looked much more efficient and powerful since Lindsay took over for Kelly against Ole Miss. The Alabama coaches are big fans of Kelly’s intellect and ability to make line calls, but he was getting pushed around a lot prior to his injury and it’s hard to argue with the results Alabama has gotten since. Alabama’s inside rushing game has started inching closer and closer to 2012 levels with Lindsay calling the shots, so what does that mean for Kelly going forward?
5. Defensive back rotation up in the air again. Alabama started Deion Belue and Bradley Sylve at the corners, with John Fulton the first off the bench. Fulton replaced Sylve after Sylve suffered an ankle injury, and Arkansas immediately noticed, pouncing on Fulton for a couple of long completions after Fulton got himself out of position. Belue was never challenged, a phenomenon that has begun to repeat itself each week. Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones entered with the next wave of substitutions, and Maurice Smith was the final cornerback to play. Jabriel Washington did not get meaningful snaps. The question of who (besides Belue) looks the best tends to change with each passing week, but Jones jumped a route and picked off a pass, while Jackson did not yield a completion on his side. It will be interesting to see where Alabama goes should Sylve not be able to rebound immediately. While Fulton is a popular senior and knows the defense, he unfortunately has a target painted on him at this point and every opponent Alabama faces goes after him as soon as he enters a game. Alabama even used Landon Collins as a corner on a few snaps. If Sylve can bounce back quickly, Alabama likely plugs Collins in Sunseri’s place and rides on. But if Sylve is slow to recover, Alabama has some decisions to make. Does the Tide continue to play Fulton, or go back to some combination of Jackson/Smith/Jones? Does Dee Hart or Christion Jones play both ways, as each was doing in the spring? Does Washington get more snaps, or does Alabama take a look at Jai Miller, who had a long audition Saturday in the fourth quarter? Whatever Alabama decides to do, doing it quickly and developing confidence in the players chosen for the jobs will be paramount.
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