Arkansas, as a program, finds itself at a crossroads. Ahead lies the domain of legitimate national title contenders. Behind lies the program’s checkered SEC past. To each side represents a holding area for where Arkansas is now – respected, feared by some, but ultimately an also-ran.
Ever since Bobby Petrino arrived in Fayetteville and showed Arkansas fans that, yes, Houston Nutt really had snowed them for the better part of a decade, Arkansas has been trying to jump from the land of the Mississippis to the land of the LSUs and Alabamas. It has always seemed to end poorly for Arkansas, usually with a heartbreaking loss to Alabama or Auburn at the front end of the season and then by getting trounced later in the year by an SEC East team.
Arkansas feels 2011 is different. The Razorbacks not only have offensive weapons, they have a veteran defense as well. The special teams have been reasonably good, and with Petrino calling plays, Arkansas has a real chance.
More importantly, if Arkansas doesn’t do it this year, the question is if it will ever happen.
Both Arkansas and Alabama are in a similar spot in 2011. Both teams have new quarterbacks and have opened with three wins over opponents that appeared to be grossly overmatched. This will be the first test for Arkansas, and perhaps the first for Alabama as well, depending on one’s opinion of Penn State. Arkansas has been talking this game up as a program-changer.
Arkansas is fully committed to a passing spread attack. The Razorbacks will use three wide receivers on virtually all downs, but they won’t forget the running game. Arkansas is currently ranked 8th in the country in passing offense and scoring offense, 11th in total offense and 52nd in rushing offense. They are talented at the skill positions with plenty of veteran presence, but the offensive line has been a question mark thus far and the tackles are suspect. Alabama counters with its two-tight-end-based attack built around the running of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. The Tide isn’t far off Arkansas’ numbers for the year, although the rushing and passing statistics are flipped.
Tyler Wilson and A.J. McCarron had similar numbers coming into the season, although the way Wilson amassed his yardage – through a memorable performance against Auburn after then-starter Ryan Mallett went down with an injury – had more meaning than McCarron’s multiple appearances against overmatched foes. So far in 2011, Wilson has proven to be more dynamic than McCarron, if not more effective. Wilson is 59-of-86 (68.6%) for 822 yards, 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while Alabama’s McCarron is 48-of-75 (64.0%) for 579 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
The two teams are blessed with similar depth, as Alabama’s Phillip Sims and Arkansas’ Brandon Mitchell both have seen time in games. Mitchell has a year’s worth of experience over Sims, though. The key for Arkansas is whether Wilson is completely healthy. Pass-blocking issues in the first three games have turned Wilson into somewhat of a punching bag, and he had a concussion prior to the win over Troy last week. His status for this game is probable, although one good shot and Alabama will probably see Mitchell. For Alabama, McCarron has gotten the job done three weeks in a row and in comparison to Sims, has looked more comfortable under center. His playmaking ability, though, is still in development. Assuming Wilson stays healthy, Arkansas has the edge here. Advantage: Arkansas
The loss of Knile Davis was huge to Arkanas, and the loss of backup Broderick Green was just about as bad. Ronnie Wingo Jr. is a capable starter, but the depth situation behind him is now a bit questionable. Dennis Johnson, De’Anthony Curtis and Kody Walker will split those carries, with the true freshman Walker getting most of them. Both he and Wingo are big backs with a lot of power, if not blazing speed.
Alabama counters with the duo of Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. Both players have looked superb in 2011, with Lacy averaging an unbelievable 10.9 yards per carry thus far. Richardson has averaged 6.3 yards and has already scored 8 touchdowns. It’s unlikely the duo will be able to keep up that torrid pace against a SEC defense, but in two years no one has really had an answer for either player. Jalston Fowler and Blake Sims provide depth for Alabama. Neither team uses a full-time fullback. Advantage: Alabama
The trio of Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs is the most experienced receiver group in the SEC. Each brings something different to the table. Childs is a mismatch problem even for the tallest cornerbacks. Adams has running back skills. Wright has front-line speed and great hands. But Wright may miss this game with a knee injury. Cobi Hamilton, Javontee Herndon and Maudrecus Humphrey will fill his slot if Wright can’t go. New tight end Chris Gragg is already involved in the passing game, but he’s not the threat D.J. Williams was in 2010. Hamilton already has 13 receptions for 252 yards (19.4 avg.) even though he’s technically the fourth receiver.
Alabama counters with Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, a senior duo with skills in their own right. Hanks got his first action of the season against North Texas, but Maze has been a weapon in all three games this year. He has more than twice as many catches (15) as the next most proficient Tide receiver, and no defense enjoys watching him with the ball in his hands. Brandon Gibson, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood provide depth. Tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley have become important cogs in the receiving game and give Alabama an edge there over Arkansas’ Gragg, but there’s no contest between Arkansas’ wideouts and those playing for Alabama. Advantage: Arkansas
Neither team has looked superb so far, but Alabama has been a far sight better than Arkansas. Despite playing three patsies, Arkansas ranks 9th in the conference and 77th overall in sacks allowed, and even run blocking has been an issue. The big issue is left tackle, where true freshman Mitch Smothers has been pressed into action. Another freshman, Brey Cook, will see time at right tackle along with journeyman senior Grant Freeman. To put it bluntly, none of these is going to be all-SEC without major improvement. The middle is in better shape with Travis Swanson at center, Grant Cook at right guard and Alvin Bailey at left guard. Swanson, in fact, is one of the conference’s best at his position.
Alabama counters with William Vlachos at center, Anthony Steen and Chance Warmack at guard and Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker at tackle. The Steen-Warmack combination has been scattershot so far, but Vlachos appears healthy again and Jones and Fluker have been good tackles. Cyrus Kouandjio figures to get some work at tackle and Alfred McCullough at guard. Alabama has issues, but Arkansas has more of them. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas runs a 4-3 front that often morphs into a 4-2-5, a fairly straightforward alignment and philosophy that has been an issue for the Hogs ever since Petrino arrived. The defense was expected to be the difference between mediocrity and competing for a division title in 2011, but again, Arkansas finds itself in the SEC’s middle – and this is after a diet of Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy. Arkansas is ranked 27th in rushing defense, 35th in total defense and 35th in pass efficiency defense, but the secondary gives up a lot of yardage (68th in raw pass defense).
Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has yielded very little to anyone. The Crimson Tide is 2nd in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, 3rd in total defense and 4th in rush defense. Alabama is 5th in raw pass defense. Aside from getting a pass-rush push from the front three, Alabama has not displayed a weakness.
This was supposed to be a strong point for the Razorback defense, but DE Jake Bequette has been hurt and Arkansas ranks just 89th in sacks. Bequette has a hamstring issue that kept him out of the Troy game and may keep him out of this one at well. At best, he’ll be limited. Depth at end is thin, as Tenarius Wright and Chris Smith are backed up by a true freshman, Trey Flowers, and not much else. But tackle is another situation entirely. The Razorbacks have six quality tackles including Bryan Jones, DaQuinta Jones, Robert Thomas and Alfred Davis. Zach Stadther and Lavunce Askew are also available. The Razorbacks won’t be easy to run on up the middle.
Alabama counters with Josh Chapman at nose tackle and Jesse Williams and Damion Square at the tackle/end combo slots. Quinton Dial and Ed Stinson will back up the end positions along with Undra Billingsley, while Nick Gentry helps out in the middle. The Tide front has been strong against the run and has gotten better at pressuring the quarterback, but sacks have been hard to come by. Alabama probably already had a slight edge, but with Bequette not at 100 percent, that edge gets bigger. Advantage: Alabama
Jerry Franklin has developed into a solid middle linebacker, and the Bret Harris-Alonzo Highsmith combination at weakside backer is a good one. Jerico Nelson plays a hybrid linebacker/safety position and makes plays, although size is an issue for him. Franklin is the one to watch, as he seems to always show up in big games. Depth is good, with Ross Rasner offering experience behind Nelson and Braylon Mitchell and Terrell Williams inside along with Jarrett Lake.
Alabama, though, has a murderer’s row of Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley and Jerrell Harris, with Nico Johnson coming off the bench. Alabama’s linebackers have the coverage ability of safeties but the size of some teams’ defensive linemen. It’s hard to fairly compare Alabama’s linebackers to those on other teams, as Alabama’s are asked to do so much more and play a variety of roles. Depth is excellent, with Trey DePriest and Tana Patrick available inside and Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard outside, along with Jonathan Atchison. Nothing wrong with Arkansas, but the Hogs simply aren’t Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
A great debate has raged for a couple of years concerning the importance of experience versus ability. Arkansas has plenty of experience in the secondary; the question is, do the Razorbacks have the ability. Isaac Madison and Darius Winston start at corner with Elton Ford and Tramain Thomas at safety. Thomas is probably the best of that bunch. Jerry Mitchell and Greg Gatson offer excellent depth at corner, but safety is a little thin, with little-used junior Ryan Farr playing a big role along with sophomore Eric Bennett, who is undersized.
As with the linebacker group, Alabama dominates. Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner are a powerful cornerback trio, while Robert Lester, Mark Barron and Will Lowery are effective safeties. Lester suffered a back injury late against North Texas, however, so prepare to see Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Nick Perry or Jarrick Williams if need be. Phelon Jones and John Fulton offer depth at cornerback. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has been solid in special teams thus far. Kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley have been passable, punter Cody Mandell has done more good than bad, and the Tide return and coverage units have been particularly sharp. Marquis Maze is developing into a dangerous return man, and Alabama covers kicks and punts very well. Arkansas, though, has been a step better in all facets. Punter Dylan Breeding is one of the best in the conference, and kicker Zach Hocker has been solid. Arkansas ranks 3rd in kickoff returns and 17th in punt returns, mostly behind the prowess of Joe Adams. This category is pretty close, but Arkansas has proven more. Advantage: Arkansas
Alabama leads in five categories, Arkansas in three. Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its defensive line versus the Arkansas offensive line, and due to Bequette’s injury, also wins the battle of Tide OL versus Pig DL. Alabama might win that battle anyway even with a healthy Bequette.
The real issue Alabama will have to contend with is one of emotion. This game was the target game for Arkansas throughout all its offseason workouts. Petrino knows the importance of the game, and the loss at home to Alabama in 2010 still leaves a sour taste. Lose this game, and it’s especially difficult to maintain a position in the SEC West race.
Fortunately for Alabama, the Crimson Tide has not seemed to have much trouble with Arkansas under Petrino. The 2010 game was the closest, and Arkansas held all the cards and was playing at home. Alabama was dealing with injuries to its running backs, an ineffective offensive line and a defense that was still finding its legs. None of that is present in 2011 outside of perhaps a few concerns along the OL, and Arkansas has much bigger questions in comparison.
Still, Arkansas is dangerous. The wide receivers will be the best Alabama will face, at least in the regular season, and this is a veteran unit with plenty of players who both want to win and know how to do it. Alabama must affect QB Tyler Wilson early in the game, must find a way to penetrate the middle of the Arkansas rush defense somehow and keep whichever quarterback it chooses to play from making mistakes against a Razorback secondary that has some chops.
The early betting line was 14 points to Alabama. Don’t look for the Tide to cover, but do look for the Tide to win.
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