By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 11, 2017
Arkansas does not. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
There’s not an easy way to talk about mismatches that occur within the borders of the conference without sounding condescending, but a cursory look at where certain teams fall in the five-year rolling average for recruiting rankings tells the story. In Texas A&M’s case, the Aggies have been in the top third of SEC classes most of those years. For Arkansas, getting out of the bottom third even one out of five times has been a chore.
It shouldn’t have been a terribly big surprise to see Texas A&M show up tougher than expected last week and cause some problems for Alabama. If Arkansas causes problems for Alabama this week, it might be time to reevaluate the Crimson Tide.
The Razorbacks suddenly have quarterback issues, and on defense haven’t been able to keep the opposition out of the end zone, ranking 97th nationally in scoring prevention. Despite taking Texas A&M to overtime Sept. 23, Arkansas doesn’t seem to be capable of troubling elite-level SEC teams. If Alabama is indeed an elite-level SEC team – and there’s no evidence at this point to suggest otherwise – the Crimson Tide and its fans can expect a fireworks-free fourth quarter at least.
The Razorbacks are more multiple on offense than prior to the arrival of Dan Enos, one of the league’s better offensive coordinators. Long gone are the days of I-formation-only, ground-pounding plays that pretty much claimed every first- and second-down snap. Enos has brought balance, and a three-wide base set that still makes use of multiple tight ends and fullbacks, but is at its heart a power-spread not unlike Alabama’s current offense. Arkansas ranks 47th in rushing offense and 49th in scoring, not terrible numbers, but the passing attack is off this year. Arkansas is 83rd in passing and 50th in efficiency, helping the Hogs fall all the way to 81st in total offense. Alabama took a step back against Texas A&M, but still ranks 19th in total offense, 7th in rushing offense and 10th in scoring offense. Passing efficiency is 21st, but the passing attack itself is hovering in triple digits, 101st, with little sign of rising at the moment.
Austin Allen was probably the surprise quarterback of the SEC last year and garnered significant all-SEC attention in the preseason. All that now looks like a mirage. Allen has completed just 66 of 117 passes (56.4%) for 850 yards, 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions so far. On top of that, he comes into this game with a bad wing, as a shoulder injury threatened to knock him out entirely for this contest. Instead, he’s listed as “questionable,” with backups Cole Kelley and Ty Storey bracketed as his backup. Kelley is the only one to actually attempt a pass this year, completing 11 of 18 throws (61.1%) for 186 yards, 3 touchdowns and a pick.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who continues to mostly manage the passing attack while doing the majority of his damage while escaping pressure. Hurts is Alabama’s leading rusher, and through the air has completed 63 percent of his passes, thrown 7 touchdowns and has been interception-free. Backup Tua Tagovailoa has numbers comparable to Kelley’s, but he has looked more explosive than Kelley in limited work. The one thing worth noting in regards to Kelley is if he is forced into this game, he has much better wheels than Allen, to the point that Alabama will have to contend with a guy who has some true dual-threat leanings. Overall, though, this one isn’t that close, and it’s not entirely due to Allen’s injury. Advantage: Alabama
Despite the forced retirement of Rawleigh Williams III, Arkansas still has managed to put up respectable numbers on the ground. Where those numbers are coming from, though, has been a mild surprise. Freshman Chase Hayden is the leading rusher by numbers (50 carries, 274 yards, 5.5 avg., 4 TD), but he is the backup behind bracketed starters Devwah Whaley and David Williams. Whaley and Williams are nipping at Hayden’s heels in regards to numbers, as Whaley has rushed for 246 yards and Williams for 235. Williams also holds the team lead in rushing touchdowns with 5. Arkansas does use a fullback, but neither Kendrick Jackson nor Hayden Johnson has run the ball yet this year, and Johnson has just 1 catch.
Alabama counters with mostly a two-back combination of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Harris has 500 yards and 7 touchdowns on the year, while Scarbrough has recorded 295 yards and 4 scores. Scarbrough has been a bit limited in regards to plays called for him, however, as he has seemed to take on the role of short-yardage back, third-down specialist and has been the guy beating up on tired defenses late in games. The next wave includes combo back Joshua Jacobs and true freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, the latter also a factor at H-back/fullback. Arkansas isn’t bad by any stretch, and all three of its top backs have proved their worth. But Alabama has superior depth overall, and the kind of breakout ability Arkansas lacks. Advantage: Alabama
Calvin Ridley will play in this game despite a thigh bruise suffered against Texas A&M. But Alabama needs someone to step up and help him out. Against Texas A&M, Robert Foster had one of those games no one wants to remember, and Cameron Sims was rendered largely a non-factor. Both need to get moving, because true freshmen Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith could all be tagged with the label “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” At tight end, Hale Hentges has a couple of touchdown catches but has been largely ignored outside the red zone. Irv Smith Jr. is coming off probably his worst game as a blocker, but he’s been sure-handed the times he’s been targeted.
This has been an erratic category for Alabama all year, but Arkansas is no better. Most of the Razorbacks’ production has run through a single guy, Jonathan Nance. The loss of Jared Cornelius for the season has made Enos rethink some of Arkansas’ base sets, and three-wides aren’t as prevalent as before. Deon Stewart and Jordan Jones split the other starting position and they have similar production to Alabama’s Foster and Sims. Where Arkansas holds a clear edge is at tight end, where three players – Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O’Grady and Jeremy Patton – have combined for 19 catches, 214 yards and a touchdown already. Basically this comes down to what one thinks of the matchup of Ridley vs. Nance, and whether Ridley is even 100 percent. Alabama has much better depth within the receiver group itself, but Arkansas holds the edge at tight end. Much closer here than it should be. Advantage: Alabama
Besides quarterback, nowhere has Arkansas’ fall-off from preseason expectations been so obvious as here. The Razorbacks have been inconsistent, failing to capitalize on the experience edge they hold over most opponents. Center Frank Ragnow has probably been the best of the bunch; either he or left guard Hjalte Froholdt. Incumbent right tackle Brian Wallace played himself out of a job earlier in the year, and is still fighting Paul Ramirez – a senior who wasn’t even in the two-deep leaving spring camp – for the job. Colton Jackson at left tackle and Johnny Gibson at right guard are decent but haven’t proved special. Another player with starting experience, Jake Raulerson, hasn’t been able to claim a job. Ty Clary has four starts as a lightly-regarded true freshman this year but has apparently settled into a swing role. Arkansas ranks 57th in tackles for loss allowed and 99th in sacks allowed, which helps explain Allen’s bum shoulder.
Alabama is coming off its roughest performance since at least the Florida State game, and the issues were mostly contained in the middle of the line. Tackles Jonah Williams and Matt Womack have largely nailed down their spots, although Jedrick Wills continues to push Womack at right tackle. Center Bradley Bozeman, who played through an injury last week, and guards Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton need to atone somewhat for a poor performance against Texas A&M, one which say the Aggie defensive tackles control the point of attack far too often. Alabama should get a chance to work the backups a bit this week; Brandon Kennedy backs up Bozeman at center, while Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer are at the guard spots and Wills, Alex Leatherwood and Scott Lashley get work at tackle. As up-and-down as Alabama has been so far this year, Arkansas has been far less effective. Advantage: Alabama
Bama vs Arkansas DEFENSE Preview
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