Arkansas preview: Razorbacks may not have the horses to win this one

Oct 3, 2015; Knoxville, TN, USA; The Arkansas Razorbacks celebrate after beating the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Arkansas won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 3, 2015; Knoxville, TN, USA; The Arkansas Razorbacks celebrate after beating the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Arkansas won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 7, 2015

It is easy to dismiss Arkansas as “Georgia Lite” given the Razorbacks’ offensive tendencies, but Arkansas has frequently been a tough out for Alabama. So much so, in fact, that Alabama needs to avoid falling into the trap posed by this direct-from-central-casting “trap game.”

In 2014, Arkansas took Alabama to the wire before the Crimson Tide eventually won, 14-13. It was the game that the Alabama coaches used to eventually define the 2014 squad, and it also marked the last game QB Blake Sims really struggled to get through. In 2015, Alabama gets the Hogs a week after rolling around like a bunch of hogs in the Georgia mud. Fortunately for Alabama, the fourth quarter of its win over Georgia was little more than a mutual slap-fest, as prescribed by the stunningly poor weather conditions.

Arkansas is coming off a big win on the road last week over Tennessee, which marks the first SEC road win for head coach Bret Bielema. The victory may have settled the voices calling for Bielema’s removal following upset losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, but a win over Alabama would do more than settle Bielema’s critics down. A win here and Arkansas might rename a campus building in his honor and have the new sign up before the team plan landed back in Fayetteville, to boot.

Alabama is the better team here and should, by all rights, enjoy a comfortable victory over Arkansas. But the Crimson Tide needs to play like Arkansas is a much better team than it really is. A loss here would be devastating to playoff hopes that now appear hopeful after an early loss to Ole Miss.

OFFENSE

Arkansas runs the most traditional I-formation attack one can find, even more so than Georgia’s. That’s because Arkansas actually uses its fullback as a runner, bases almost its entire passing attack off play-action, and features an offensive line that could be generously described as “corn-fed.” The Razorbacks have shown impressive balance, ranking 32nd nationally in both rushing offense and passing offense. The Hogs rank 24th in total offense and 16th in passing efficiency, but only 87th in scoring offense, thanks to a middling turnover ratio and one of the worse red zone offenses in the land (124th out of 127 teams). Alabama counters with its multiple pro-set attack, which ranks 37th overall and has shown good balance. The biggest difference between the two teams, other than in passing efficiency (Alabama ranks 69th), is that Alabama has been much more successful converting production to points (33rd in scoring offense, 27th in red zone offense).

QUARTERBACKS
By the end of last season, Brandon Allen had become a solid complementary quarterback to a powerful rushing attack. This year, he has taken the next step. While Allen still isn’t good enough to run an entire offensive system through his throwing arm, he has put together a solid stat line: 93-of-141, 66.0%, 1,360 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT. This is more throwing than Arkansas quarterbacks usually do under Bielema’s system, but Allen has made the best of the situation. He is comparable to former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy but is a better runner (24 carries, 102 yards, 4.3 avg., 0 TD including yardage lost to sacks). What Arkansas lacks is a capable backup. Allen’s brother, sophomore Austin Allen, is listed as second-team but has yet to throw a pass this year. On the hoof, he doesn’t appear to be the same level of athlete as his older brother.

Alabama counters with Jake Coker, who had a coming-out party of sorts in Athens. Coker’s completion percentage still hovers around 57% and his efficiency rating trails Allen’s by a wide margin, but he’s getting better, and he also has a stronger gun on his shoulder than Allen does. Coker is probably a better runner as well, although Alabama hasn’t asked him to perform many designed runs and he hasn’t had to scramble as much as Allen. Alabama’s Cooper Bateman is a much more experienced – and naturally talented – player than is Austin Allen. In terms of depth, Alabama wins this one hands-down. But Brandon Allen’s experience and maturation give Arkansas the category. Advantage: Arkansas

RUNNING BACKS
The injury to Jonathan Williams laid Arkansas low for awhile, and only recently have the Razorbacks begun to find a suitable backup for its stellar starter, Alex Collins. Freshman Rawleigh Williams has carried 47 times for 226 yards (4.8 avg.) and 1 touchdown, but Collins (113 carries, 656 yards, 5.8 avg., 6 TD) is clearly the go-to guy in clutch situations.

Alabama counters with Derrick Henry (93 carries, 570 yards, 6.1 avg., 9 TD). The numbers for Henry and Collins are similar, but where Alabama pulls away is in the versatility of both Henry and his backup, Kenyan Drake. Arkansas rarely uses its tailbacks in the passing game and for good reason – Collins is ill-suited for it. The trust level in Williams is also clearly lower than for Collins, as Arkansas rode an injured Collins all the way until the clock hit zero against Tennessee. Alabama adds Bo Scarbrough to the rotation, along with Damien Harris, while Arkansas lacks a third option altogether.

At fullback, Alabama will use Michael Nysewander as a blocker and receiver in certain situations, but Arkansas holds an edge there with Kody Walker able to run the ball and block at a high level, although Walker has been shut out of the passing game so far. Despite the edge at fullback, the loss of Jonathan Williams turned one of the best running back units in the country into something far more ordinary. Collins is a talented running back, but Alabama has more weapons here. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
This is a hard call due to massive injuries on the Arkansas side and performance issues on the Alabama side. First, Arkansas: Both Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius figure to miss this game, which accounts for two-thirds of the projected production from this unit as evaluated in the preseason. In their place, though, is Drew Morgan (23 catches, 413 yards, 18.0 avg., 3 TD) who has quietly become one of the SEC’s most productive receivers. Arkansas also has the conference’s best receiving tight end in Hunter Henry (20 catches, 268 yards, 13.4 avg., 1 TD). But that’s it. Kendrick Edwards and JoJo Robinson, who will run routes opposite Morgan, have combined for 8 catches. Backup tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has almost as many (6). Another key reserve, Cody Hollister, will also miss this game. Arkansas’ entire bench – Damon Mitchell, Dominique Reed and Luke Rossi – have combined for a single catch.

Alabama counters with true freshman Calvin Ridley, who had a breakout performance against Georgia, ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney. Stewart has been erratic and Mullaney banged up in a couple of games, but both have bright futures on this team. The issue for now is depth. Cameron Sims is still showing the effects of a spring knee injury, while Chris Black has been slow to develop. Daylon Charlot has potential but isn’t as far along as his classmate Ridley. The tight end position continues to induce heartburn, as O.J. Howard hasn’t shown sufficient consistency, while Dakota Ball has been locked out of the passing attack. Ty Flournoy-Smith and Hale Hentges provide depth. The question is whether Arkansas having the two most productive players outweighs Alabama’s barely-better depth and superior potential. It doesn’t. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
Bielema is an offensive line guy at heart and this unit doesn’t disappoint. The Razorbacks are 5th nationally in fewest sacks allowed and lead the SEC in that statistic, to go along with their impressive run-blocking abilities. Mitch Smothers will start at center flanked by guards Sebastian Tretola and Frank Ragnow and tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. There’s a toughness here, almost a nastiness, that is hard to copy. The only issue is depth, as Arkansas employs four freshmen in second-team roles to go along with senior Marcus Danenhauer.

Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, Alphonse Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher at the guards and Dominick Jackson and Cam Robinson at the tackles. Alabama has better depth, with Bradley Bozeman and J.C. Hassenauer inside and Brandon Greene outside. If Alabama plays like it did against Georgia, this comparison tightens up quite a bit. Otherwise, it’s a significant Arkansas edge. Advantage: Arkansas

DEFENSE

The Razorbacks employ a 4-3 base coordinated by Robb Smith, who did about as good a job in 2014 as could be expected given the Razorbacks’ average talent that year. Unfortunately for Smith, the talent level dipped after graduation and the NFL Draft, as Bielema’s defensive recruiting has been somewhat lacking. Arkansas is a solid 16th in rush defense, but is a mediocre 51st in total defense and a deplorable 99th in raw pass defense and 106th in pass efficiency defense. Only a respectable red zone defense (38th) has allowed the Hogs to keep games close.

Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that absolutely baked Georgia last week. Alabama will be able to stay in base most of the time for this game, too, which means bad things for Arkansas. Only in raw pass defense (38th) does Alabama not find itself in the nation’s top 20 in major defensive statistical categories.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The best defensive line in the country resides in Tuscaloosa, and they showed their dominance over the Bulldogs last week. True freshman Daron Payne has managed to crack the starting lineup at nosetackle, which ought to speak volumes about his ability given the incredible depth that surrounds him. Darren Lake and Josh Frazier will back him up, while the end positions will be manned by some rotation of A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand. There isn’t a weakness here.

Arkansas, however, is a different story. The Razorbacks simply don’t sack the quarterback (ranked 118th nationally). The one bright spot in the middle has been senior DeMarcus Hodge, who has 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He can create problems for vulnerable offensive lineman. Outside of that, the rest of the interior players – Taiwan Johnson, Bijohn Jackson, Armon Watts and Mitchell Loewen – are fairly nondescript. At end, Jeremiah Ledbetter has been strong against the run and can be disruptive, but hasn’t done much against opposing quarterbacks. Tevin Beanum, who has 1.5 sacks, is probably the player Alabama is most concerned with. JaMichael Winston and Deatrich Wise Jr. offer depth. This is an epic mismatch. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
While the secondary has been Arkansas’ weak spot, the linebackers have been little help. Middle linebacker Brooks Ellis collects tackles, but he has only 2 for loss and is mostly absent against the pass. Josh Williams will start on the strongside while freshman Dre Greenlaw starts on the weakside. This trio has combined for 3 QB hurries and no passes defended. Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett provide most of the depth, and Hackett is a good player, but to say this unit lacks athleticism and dynamic ability would be understating the problem.

Alabama counters with Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, and Dillon Lee, Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans outside. This group put on a clinic against Georgia, a masterclass in setting the edge and taking away running lanes. Whether they can do the same against Arkansas’ better offensive line is another matter, but the raw talent and better gap discipline is evident. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Despite the presence of Jared Collins, who was expected to be one of the conference’s leaders at cornerback, Arkansas has struggled mightily. Collins himself has been rendered average, and off-corner D.J. Dean has been similarly inconsistent. The real issue, though, may be at safety, where senior Rohan Gaines has lacked star power. The coaching staff loves freshman Santos Ramirez at free safety, but he can be manipulated. Josh Liddell is a competent third safety, but Kevin Richardson has been subpar as a dime safety. The best player of all may be third corner Henre’ Toliver, who has 4 tackles for a loss and an interception from what amounts to a Star position.

Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and the improving Marlon Humphrey at cornerback, to go along with Geno Matias-Smith and the ballhawking Eddie Jackson at safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a revelation at the Star position, while Jabriel Washington, Maurice Smith, Ronnie Harrison and Laurence Jones offer depth up the middle. Harrison is starting to get more and more playing time and his physicality may allow him to challenge Matias-Smith for a starting job soon. Alabama can still be vulnerable, particularly at Humphrey’s corner position, but this is a fast-improving group and one with real ability to turn a game around. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Alabama’s special teams played one of its best games of the decade against Georgia, with the only black mark being a wobbly punt from J.K. Scott that was mixed in with several solid ones. Placekicker Adam Griffith has now hit his last four field goals and is booming kickoffs into the end zone with regularity. Scott’s game is coming around after a slow start. Cole Mazza was snapping again after two weeks out and did a decent job in his return. While kickoff returns are still problematic, things appear more promising with Damien Harris bringing them out, and Cyrus Jones did a stupendous job on punt returns, considering the weather.

For Arkansas, punter Toby Baker has been adequate, while kicker Cole Hedlund has struggled. He has one more successful kick attempt than Griffith, but his long make on the year came from just 27 yards out. Lane Saling’s kickoffs have been a sore spot for Arkansas, getting just 5 touchbacks on 24 attempts. Kickoff returns for Arkansas have been mediocre, but there is one area in which the Razorbacks excel – punt returns, where the Hogs rank 7th nationally at 22.4 yards per return. If Alabama can do a better job covering punts, the Crimson Tide seems to hold the edge everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Arkansas in two. For the OL-DL matchups, Alabama’s OL controls the matchup against Arkansas’ DL. Somewhat surprisingly, while Alabama also leads the DL-OL reverse matchup, the margin is actually closer thanks to the fact that Arkansas’ offensive line is so talented.

Alabama will win this game if it simply executes its gameplan. Arkansas doesn’t have the horses to stop Alabama unless Alabama helps out the Razorbacks. When the Hogs have the ball, only an unforeseen breakdown in rush defense could cause Alabama to fall. Special teams are another matter; while Alabama leads in that category, the Crimson Tide’s inconsistencies could come back to haunt the proceedings.

Last year’s close call appears to have been an anomaly, as it’s hard to imagine a team that fell to both Texas Tech and Toledo giving Alabama much of a problem. Still, Arkansas showed much improvement in the road win over Tennessee. Alabama will have to be diligent in its preparation, as both Brandon Allen and Alex Collins are capable of hurting the Crimson Tide defense.

In the end, look for Arkansas to struggle to win back-to-back SEC road games. The talent just isn’t there for the Hogs to seriously challenge the Crimson Tide.

Alabama 31
Arkansas 10

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