By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 6, 2014
Whether Arkansas actually follows through with doing the near-impossible this weekend, it won’t be for a lack of confidence that the impossible can be done.
In year two of Bret Bielema’s tenure in Fayetteville, Arkansas might not be one of the SEC’s best teams, but it’s not from a lack of believing. And with Alabama coming to town fresh off being made to look very mortal by Ole Miss, the Razorbacks will surely speak with a noticeably louder oink this week.
Arkansas is a one-dimensional team: The Razorbacks run the football. They don’t throw it particularly well, and they don’t stop much of anything on defense. But they can run the football. It is their DNA and they will do it until Alabama proves to them that it can’t be done.
For Alabama, this will be a tough game under even much smoother circumstances than the ones currently facing the Crimson Tide. Alabama was beaten up against Ole Miss, suffering two crippling injuries on offense and another significant bump on defense. Arkansas, meanwhile, comes in with just one key player hurt and had an off-week last week to fully rest up for this game.
The Crimson Tide still has a massive advantage in overall talent. But it won’t mean much if Alabama approaches this game the way it apparently approached Ole Miss last week.
Arkansas runs an I-formation and runs, runs, runs the ball out of it. The Razorbacks have the 6th-best rushing offense in America, and the 109th-best passing attack. Mostly because Arkansas scheduled defense-poor Texas Tech and defense-none Nicholls State early in the season, the Hogs rank 7th in scoring offense. Alabama will counter with its multiple, pro-style attack that got a little less multiple thanks to injuries suffered in Oxford. Alabama didn’t drop much in the rankings following the Ole Miss loss; the Tide is 9th in total offense, 21st in rushing and 24th in passing, which shows nice balance. Given that Arkansas’ defense is quite a few steps below Ole Miss’, Alabama should have an easier time moving the ball this week.
Brandon Allen has some nice stats for Arkansas (58-of-97, 59.8%, 751 yards, 9 TD, 1 INT), but Allen’s best passes come when the defense is expecting something else. Left to direct an actual passing attack, Allen has had trouble in the past and still has issues with decision-making and field vision. His brother Austin Allen is the backup, but Austin Allen is just 5-of-10 on the year and is several steps off his big brother in terms of raw talent and ability. Alabama will start Blake Sims (90-of-128, 70.3%, 1,319 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT). Sims didn’t have his best game last week by far, but was still competent even in the face of the best defense he’ll likely play this season. Sims is still struggling to spot open receivers at times, but he has a better skill set than Allen and is more dangerous in just about every facet of the game. Jake Coker is also a far superior backup, and for that matter, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman are both probably superior to Austin Allen. Advantage: Alabama
With Kenyan Drake out for this game, Arkansas has a clear advantage at tailback. Both Jonathan Williams (66 carries, 486 yards, 7.4 avg., 8 TD) and Alex Collins (86 carries, 621 yards, 7.2 avg., 6 TD) are close to, equal to or better than Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon in ability. Collins is listed at 215 pounds, but there’s little chance such a listing is accurate. Collins runs like a 240-pound NFL veteran, although his lateral change of direction isn’t as good as Williams’. Korliss Marshall (22 carries, 117 yards, 5.3 avg., 1 TD) offers a burst of speed off the bench. Fullback Kody Walker actually has legitimate rushing stats (17 carries, 83 yards, 4.9 avg., 0 TD), and Patrick Arinze provides depth there. Alabama will use Yeldon and Derrick Henry in a two-back rotation. With Drake out and Tyren Jones likely out as well, Altee Tenpenny becomes the third option. Jalston Fowler has developed into a capable fullback, but his contributions come more from the passing game or from blocking than from running the ball. Michael Nysewander backs him up. Injuries aside, Arkansas would have the edge here. With Drake and Jones out for Alabama, it’s a significant edge. Advantage: Arkansas
Amari Cooper’s heroics aside, the wide receiver corps has underachieved for Alabama. Christion Jones’ 2014 season is in freefall, and while DeAndrew White has been very effective when healthy, he hasn’t been healthy on a consistent basis. Chris Black has played, but the coaches have limited his snaps as well as those of backups Cameron Sims and ArDarius Stewart. It will be interesting to see whether Jones plays less this week, and who would take his place if he was limited. As for tight ends, Alabama needs to get more consistent production from both O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler. Dakota Ball will also play as a blocking specialist. Arkansas, meanwhile, has its own issues. Only Keon Hatcher has double-digit receptions, and aside from using tight ends A.J. Derby and Hunter Henry on play action, Arkansas doesn’t really have a second option. Demetrius Wilson, Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister will provide depth, and Arkansas does target them often enough to be considerations. Still, Cooper is so much better than anyone Arkansas has, and Howard and White are just dangerous enough that Alabama should hold a nice edge here. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas’ line has not only been the key to the nation’s sixth-best rushing attack, the Razorbacks rank 2nd in the country in fewest sacks allowed. Granted, some of that is due to Arkansas not throwing the ball much, but the one area in which everyone expected Bielema to make an impact – offensive line play – he’s done exactly that. Arkansas has a solid starting five and has also developed some depth. Dan Skipper and Brey Cook will start at the tackles, while Mitch Smothers starts at center flanked by Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland at the guards. Luke Charpentier and Austin Beck offer depth inside, while Cameron Jefferson can back up the tackles. If there is one weak point here, it’s pass protection on the right side, as Cook and Tretola aren’t the quickest against speed rushers. Alabama, though, has its own issues. Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd are solid tackles, and left guard Arie Kouandjio has become one of the conference’s best at that position, but right guard is in flux and Ryan Kelly is out for likely a month at center. Bradley Bozeman will start in his place, but either true freshmen Josh Casher, J.C. Hassenauer or walk-on Paul Waldrop will have to back him up and be ready to go. Leon Brown appears to be holding onto the right guard position despite continuing to accumulate penalties, with Alphonse Taylor and Dominick Jackson still in the mix there. If Kelly were still available, this would be closer, but for now it’s a solid edge to the Razorbacks. Advantage: Arkansas
Arkansas runs a fairly standard 4-3 defense, and has for years, due mostly to its inability to stockpile recruits on that side of the ball. Arkansas ranks just 74th in total defense, which includes rankings of 51st in rushing defense, 94th in raw pass defense and 85th in pass efficiency defense. The Razorbacks also rank 71st in scoring defense. Alabama’s defense let the Tide down in the fourth quarter Saturday, but for the most part, this has been a solid year for the Tide. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme ranks 3rd in both total defense and rushing defense and 12th in scoring defense. The problem area has been the secondary, which has stats (29th in raw pass defense, 38th in pass efficiency defense) that cover up somewhat how average its play has been.
Trey Flowers is the overall best player Arkansas has on the line, but former Alabama signee Darius Philon has been the most disruptive this season. Still, Arkansas needs better sack production upfront; Flowers and Philon have combined for just 2.5 sacks on the year. Tackle Taiwan Johnson’s 3.5 sacks leads the team, but he’s too erratic and hasn’t been effective against the run. End JaMichael Winston needs to increase his productivity across the board. The reserves – ends Deatrich Wise Jr. and Tevin Beanum, tackles DeMarcus Hodge and Bijohn Jackson – have been mostly placeholders. Alabama’s defensive line has been lights-out against the run, with A’Shawn Robinson starting at nosetackle flanked by Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway. Expect to see more of reserves Jarran Reed, Brandon Ivory and Josh Frazier in this game, as Alabama goes big to stop the Razorback rushing attack. Dalvin Tomlinson, Darren Lake and Da’Shawn Hand should also play. Significant edge to Alabama here. Advantage: Alabama
For the first time this season, fans will see more of Alabama’s base package than its nickel and dime packages. Unfortunately, fans won’t see strongside linebacker Denzel Devall, who had surgery this week. Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland will start inside, and there’s a good chance bruiser Reuben Foster gets some work in as well. Outside, Xzavier Dickson will start at Jack, while either Ryan Anderson or Dillon Lee will get the call on the strongside. Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans offer depth outside, while Shaun Dion Hamilton will back up DePriest. Arkansas is led by Martrell Spaight, who has 43 tackles already and has been active against both the pass and the run. But he needs help. Brooks Ellis starts in the middle next to Spaight, but he lacks the athleticism common in SEC middle linebackers. Braylon Mitchell will man the strongside, but he’s often off the field when opponents bring in a third wideout. Josh Williams will offer depth inside, but Randy Ramsey might be out for this game. Even with Devall’s injury, Alabama has better depth here and is a bad matchup for Arkansas. Advantage: Alabama
As mediocre as Alabama’s performance against Ole Miss was, Arkansas would still trade secondaries in a heartbeat. Carroll Washington and Jared Collins are average corners at best, without the athleticism needed to stop elite athletes. Safeties Rohan Gaines, Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel have a lot of experience, and Mitchel has a knack for breaking up passes, but raw speed is an issue for all three. Alabama will start Cyrus Jones at one cornerback position opposed, probably, by Tony Brown. Eddie Jackson is still nursing injuries. Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve offer depth. At safety, Landon Collins is coming off his worst game in crimson, but he’s still potentially the best defensive back in the conference on his best day. Nick Perry and Geno Smith will split the free safety position, while Jabriel Washington and Jarrick Williams add depth. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama punter J.K. Scott could very well be the best punter in America as a true freshman. He’d certainly be in the conversation if Florida didn’t have Kyle Christy kicking. Placekicker Adam Griffith had a rough game at Ole Miss, but it’s hard to fault him for misses from long distance, and his technique is much more solid than Cade Foster’s was a year ago. Alabama’s real problem comes in coverage and returns, where something has to change relative to ball security. Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones are presumably battling for the jobs this week, and Landon Collins is also in that mix. Punt coverage is solid, but kickoff coverage must improve. As for Arkansas, it’s much the same story. The kicking situation – either John Henson or Lane Saling – needs to improve. The longest kick the Razorbacks have made so far this year is 29 yards. Punter Sam Irwin-Hill isn’t in Scott’s league in terms of raw leg strength, but Arkansas is 20th in net punting and Irwin-Hill is a factor on fakes and directional kicking. Arkansas ranks 3rd in the nation in kickoff returns, but is just 80th in covering kicks, a function of the Hogs’ lack of athleticism. Still, it’s almost impossible to defend giving Alabama the edge in this category until more improvement is shown. Advantage: Arkansas
Alabama leads in five categories, Arkansas in three. Things get interesting in the trench matchups, though: Arkansas controls the matchup of its OL versus Alabama’s DL, while going the other way, it’s a no better than a push thanks to Ryan Kelly’s injury.
That’s not good news for Alabama, given that Arkansas will utilize trench warfare in this game whether it’s working particularly well or not. Alabama must press its advantages elsewhere, which includes the ability to be more dynamic on offense, while also having the best LB-DB combination Arkansas has faced yet.
But more than anything else, Alabama must simply clean up the mistakes. The fact some Alabama players admitted to playing tight against Ole Miss is not good news; it points to trust issues and a lack of confidence in abilities. It would have been nice had the schedule set up the other way, with the Arkansas game first, but it didn’t, and now Alabama will have to use this game as proof it can bounce back.
If Alabama struggles in this game, the Tide is in for a long season.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN