By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 5, 2016
When Arkansas hired Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin, there was but one question regarding his ability to take Arkansas to the ranks of contender in the SEC West: Could he recruit at a level high enough to make the jump?
The answer, so far, has been no.
There is very little question about Bielema’s actual coaching ability. He’s the best coach Arkansas has had since joining the SEC by far, and one of the best in school history. But Arkansas has planted itself squarely in the middle of the SEC West and hasn’t moved much up or down.
This year’s Arkansas team looks to be following a familiar path. Arkansas upset TCU in double overtime, 41-38, and it looked like the Razorbacks might be ready to take a step up. But a too-close win over Louisiana Tech (21-20) in the opener was still fresh on people’s minds, and then Arkansas got beaten handily by Texas A&M, another middle-of-the-division team, 45-24. The Razorbacks come into this game with a 4-1 record, but the question of just how good this team really is still looms large.
What doesn’t seem to be questionable, though, is the expected effort Arkansas will put into playing Alabama. The Crimson Tide is a marked team, and Bielema has been more than frank in the past about his desire to benchmark his own team by how it plays Alabama.
Arkansas is one of the few remaining adherents to the pure I-formation power offense, and with Les Miles’ dismissal at LSU, that number will probably shrink yet again. Arkansas has shown surprising balance in 2016, given the change at quarterback; the Hogs rank 48th in rushing and 55th in passing, for a total offense ranking of 52nd. Arkansas runs pretty much everything off play action and an inside running game, so Alabama will be in its base defense more for this game than perhaps the rest of the year combined. Alabama brings its multiple, pro-style attack to Fayetteville; the Crimson Tide is 26th in rushing and 52nd in passing for a total offense rank of 30th.
It’s safe to say Austin Allen has been the pleasant surprise of the year for Arkansas. The little brother to departed star Brandon Allen was thought to be little more than a faded copy of his older sibling, but he’s putting up numbers anyone would find respectable. The younger Allen is 94-of-139 (67.6%) on the year for 1,232 yards, 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. One thing he won’t do is hurt teams much with his legs; Allen has carried the ball 16 times on the year for a total of minus-15 yards, which includes yardage lost to sacks. Backup Ty Storey has no experience; he’s thrown just one pass in five games. If Allen were to get hurt in this game, Arkansas would be in a massive pinch.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who continues to put up solid showings each week. Hurts’ total passing numbers trails Allen’s (1,232 for Allen to 989 for Hurts) but Hurts’ dual-threat capabilities narrow the gap significantly. In total yardage, Hurts leads Allen with 1,265 yards to Allen’s 1,217. Allen only has slightly more experience than Hurts all things considered, but he does have more years in the system. Where this category eventually turns is on depth. Alabama’s Cooper Bateman did a solid job in relief of Hurts last week and has proven himself a capable No. 2 quarterback over the past two seasons. While the comparison of Allen to Hurts comes down to which player offers the greatest advantage in one phase of the game, Bateman is a clear winner over Storey. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas doesn’t have the stable of running backs it has had in the past. Arkansas’ running game this year rests squarely on the shoulders of one player, Rawleigh Williams III. Williams has had three times the carries of his backup, Devwah Whaley. Williams’ numbers are solid – 101 carries, 559 yards, 5.5 avg., 1 TD – but he is not the all-around threat Alex Collins was for this team in past seasons. Whaley is averaging more per carry (6.7 yards) but has found the end zone just once. Kody Walker is the short-yardage specialist and will also play fullback. Arkansas is one of the few remaining teams to use a full-time fullback, and there is some uncertainty in the depth chart this week given that usual starter Hayden Johnson was arrested on public intoxication charges last week. His status for this game is uncertain. If he’s suspended, either Walker will start at fullback or Kendrick Jackson will.
Alabama’s running back rotation has so far avoided both rhyme and reason, but it appears Alabama is settling into Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs as co-primary backs, with Bo Scarbrough in a support role and B.J. Emmons as depth. Jacobs put together a stellar outing against Kentucky that won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, and for the year he’s averaging 7.4 yards per carry and has scored 3 times. He’s also a receiving threat out of the backfield. Damien Harris is averaging 8.5 yards per carry but will come into this game still nursing an ankle injury. Emmons and Scarbrough each have their roles, but Scarbrough has not shown either the requisite elusiveness or ability to shed tacklers. Alabama uses Mack Wilson as a goal-line fullback but not often enough to rate for this category. Arkansas holds the edge on experience here, but Harris and Jacobs are both better than Williams and Emmons might be as well. With the uncertainty at fullback for the Razorbacks, it further drives this category to Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas will likely be without No.2 receiver Keon Hatcher for this game, as he is nursing a pulled hamstring. It’s a big loss for Arkansas, because Hatcher was averaging more than 20 yards per reception and brought experience to the table. Even without him, Arkansas’ receiver corps isn’t bad. Drew Morgan already has 28 catches and is a valuable possession receiver. Jared Cornelius has breakaway ability and will replace Hatcher in the starting lineup. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has been surprisingly productive. With Hatcher out, Cody Hollister and Dominique Reed will get promotions. Austin Cantrell has been a nice addition at tight end although he’s just a freshman. The running backs will likely get a greater share of the workload.
Alabama will get ArDarius Stewart back this week, although he probably won’t be 100 percent. Still, his return bolsters a strong unit led by Calvin Ridley and also including Gehrig Dieter, Cameron Sims, Treyvon Diggs, Robert Foster and Derek Kief, among others. Ridley, Stewart and Dieter have been the most-utilized of the bunch so far, although Sims and Foster are continuing to work their way back from minor injuries. O.J. Howard gives Alabama a receiving weapon at tight end, and his blocking has also improved in 2016. Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Brandon Greene and Irv Smith Jr. provide depth there. These two groups wouldn’t be as far apart as one might think, if Hatcher was available. With Hatcher out, Alabama has a clear lead. Advantage: Alabama
Four-fifths of Arkansas’ line is set, with Dan Skipper at left tackle, Hjalte Froholdt at left guard, Frank Ragnow at center and Jake Raulerson at right guard. The right tackle spot has been shared by Brian Wallace and Colton Jackson so far this year, and it appears Wallace will get the call in this game. As per usual, Arkansas has stacked up the beef on its line, but this year the Razorbacks are also protecting the quarterback well. Arkansas ranks 31st in sacks allowed nationally, a solid performance for a group most concerned with clearing paths for running backs. Depth is in good shape for Arkansas, with Johnny Gibson doing most of the reserve work inside and Jake Hall helping out at tackle.
For Alabama, Bradley Bozeman will start at center, flanked by guards Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor and tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams. Lester Cotton will back up the guard slots, while J.C. Hassenauer provides depth at center. Alabama in thinner at tackle than Arkansas, but probably deeper inside.. This is a close call, but the Hogs get the not thanks to superior experience, especially from the center left. Advantage: Arkansas
Arkansas is a pure 4-3 team that has struggled off and on over the years due to substandard athleticism compared to that of its peers. This year is no exception. Arkansas has struggled against the run, ranking 73rd, while pass defense numbers are improved but not great (46th raw pass defense, 35th pass efficiency defense). The Hogs do a good job in pressuring the quarterback (38th nationally, 5th in the SEC) but have been behind the curve in regards to run-defense efficiency. Alabama will use its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme that for this game, will actually spend a good amount of time in base defense. Alabama ranks in the top 10 in three of the five major defensive statistical categories and its worst rank is 27th in raw pass defense. In other words, a typical Nick Saban year.
This is a mid-pack defensive line for Arkansas, but one with a good bit of experience and not a lot of quit. Taiwan Johnson and Jeremiah Ledbetter make for a capable starting tackle duo, and Bijohn Jackson, Austin Capps and McTevin Agim provide more than enough quality depth. Each is a threat to make plays behind the line of scrimmage if Alabama gets sloppy. At end, Deatrich Wise Jr. has developed into a top-half-of-the-conference pass rusher, but Tevin Beanum, his counterpart, is having a rough year with limited production. Arkansas would also like more production out of reserves JaMichael Winston and Karl Roesler. Randy Ramsey plays limited snaps but is probably the most productive end outside of Wise, at least on a per-snap-average basis.
Alabama will counter with Da’Ron Payne and Josh Frazier at nosetackle, flanked by some combination of Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, Dakota Ball and Da’Shawn Hand at end. Given Alabama will be in base defense for a larger portion of the game, it will be interesting to see whether additional players – perhaps Raekwon Davis or O.J. Smith – find a way into the game at the tackle slots. Arkansas has better depth than Alabama, but Alabama has been far more productive and the athleticism advantage is fairly substantial. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas basically plays two linebackers, preferring a nickel base look. Brooks Ellis is a gamer at middle linebacker and has made more key plays this year than perhaps was expected. Dre Greenlaw starts at weakside linebacker and while he is leading the team in tackles, has made fewer big plays than Ellis. Josh Williams is listed atop the depth chart at strongside linebacker, but while he has played in every game, he has yet to record a tackle. Arkansas has been in a nickel front so much, reserve end Randy Ramsey has probably played as much SLB as Williams. De’Jon Harris and Dwayne Eugene are the primary bench players.
Alabama will start Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, with Tim Williams at Jack linebacker. Ryan Anderson is battling an injury in practice this week, so it wouldn’t be a surprise necessarily to see Anfernee Jennings or Christian Miller there. Jamey Mosley provides depth outside while Rashaan Evans, Keith Holcombe and Mack Wilson bolster the inside linebacker positions. Ellis is a competent player for Arkansas, but a lack of dynamic playmaking ability has cursed the Razorback linebacker group for the entirety of Bielema’s stint as head coach, and goes even further back than that. Alabama has no such issues, especially with Foster, Hamilton and Williams on the field. Advantage: Alabama
To the surprise of no one, opposing teams have chosen to pick on Henre’ Toliver at cornerback rather than Jared Collins, but Toliver has made them pay frequently enough that Alabama might start treating these two as equals. Santos Ramirez and Josh Liddell will get the start at the safety positions, which are probably more of a weak spot than the edges. There’s experience behind the starters, but not enough of it. De’Andre Coley is the only other safety the Razorback coaches trust, while D.J. Dean and Ryan Pulley are the reserve corners. Coley and Pulley get most of the nickel and dime work. Reid Miller will probably see some action, but not much.
Alabama will start Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick at cornerback, and for this game, Fitzpatrick might actually play corner more than Star safety. Ronnie Harrison and Eddie Jackson will start at safety, and this is the kind of game in which Harrison should shine. Anthony Averett will be the first reserve to enter, and Laurence Jones will be the dime safety. Alabama might not go any deeper than that, so long as injuries don’t happen or the game stays close. Toliver and Collins have done a nice job at corner for Arkansas, but Alabama is stronger across the board and much deeper. Advantage: Alabama
Cole Hedlund has attempted just 6 field goals this year, making 4, with misses coming from both 22 and 44 yards out. Consistency was the concern with Hedlund in the preseason, and it hasn’t changed. Both Toby Baker and Blake Johnson have displayed strong legs at punter, with Baker getting most of the work there. Arkansas ranks highly in net punting (10th) but the rest of this unit needs work. The Razorbacks are mediocre in punt returns (48th) but horrid in both kickoff returns (116th) and kickoff defense (108th). This is unusual for a power-I team, which must be rock solid in special teams out of necessity. Alabama will counter with Adam Griffith at kicker and J.K. Scott at punter. Scott is having a superlative year, while Griffith is about what Alabama expected. Alabama has one of the best punt return units in the sport, and kickoff returns and kickoff defense have been adequate. No one should go make a sandwich when either kicker is out there. Alabama holds the edge everywhere else. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama is a narrow loss in the offensive line category away from yet another straight-eight advantage. The Crimson Tide does, however, control both OL-DL matchups.
Arkansas has had a history of playing Alabama very tough in Fayetteville, though, and given the Crimson Tide is still working with a true freshman quarterback and an offensive line that is a work in progress, it would surprise few people if the game took on a 2014 or 2010 feel. In other words, bring your extra blood pressure pills.
This year’s Arkansas team, though, looks more blue-collar in places that Alabama can exploit (DL, LB, RB). The one tough conference test the Razorbacks played, they came off looking like pretenders. Were it not for the double-overtime win over TCU, the discussion would probably once again be on how patient the Arkansas brass was going to be with Bielema’s tough-guy coaching/red-chip recruiting persona.
Instead, the conversation centers on whether Alabama is a good enough road team to beat back an Arkansas team that will be nothing if not physically tough. Given that a road game to hated Tennessee waits seven days later, it’s also fair to ask the question of whether Alabama might get caught looking ahead.
Arkansas is good enough to beat Alabama if the latter is true. Nick Saban’s challenge will be to make sure it isn’t.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN