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Arkansas wrap-up: Tide’s biggest opponent is complacency

Oct 14, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) carries against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 14, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Damien Harris (34) carries against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 15, 2017

By the time Nick Saban was finished with the media this week, every writer in the state was scared to write anything about the Crimson Tide that could be remotely construed as a positive comment.

The now-famous “rat poison” rant, though, was aimed at his own players and staff as much as the working press. Complacency kills good teams when they least expect it, rotting them from the inside out.

Against Arkansas, Alabama mixed in a complacent second quarter with three solid quarters of football and beat an overmatched Arkansas team 41-9, coming within one missed Razorback PAT from matching exactly’s predicted score in our preview. It wasn’t a win that’s going to win any style points, but style points don’t matter for Alabama, who has a guaranteed spot in the final four so long as it keeps winning. Alabama kept things simple, didn’t show much to future opponents and just bludgeoned poor Arkansas into pork soup.

Just as it had last week, Alabama got things started with a touchdown on its first offensive snap and just kept pouring it on from there. Arkansas, outsized by Alabama (except for mammoth QB Cole Kelley, who weighs in at 6’7”, 270), couldn’t play straight-up and didn’t hit on enough of the chances it did take. Outside of the second quarter, in which Alabama lollygagged around to the extent it recalled the locker room scene from “Bull Durham,” the Razorbacks never threatened the starting defense, and couldn’t get the starting offense off the field.

At this point, complacency is Alabama’s biggest enemy. Its next opponent, Tennessee, may change head coaches this week. The Volunteers have enough talent to make things uncomfortable for Alabama, but it is still a matchup Alabama should win easily absent heavy casualties or some kind of cosmic fallout. From there, Alabama will have difficult matchups against both LSU and Auburn – and Mississippi State isn’t a total pushover, either – but for the most part, Alabama wins all those games going away unless it stops itself.

It has reached the point in Tuscaloosa where Alabama fans not only expect to win, they expect to win by 40 points and ask “what’s wrong?” if they don’t. This level of domination, arguably, has never before been seen in the SEC, even during Paul “Bear” Bryant’s salad days as a coach. Certainly not for such a consistent time period. Bryant’s epoch period, the 1961-1966 teams, could make a case, but the changes in rules governing modern offenses make what’s happening now so much more mind-blowing.

For now, Alabama will have to prepare for multiple scenarios during Tennessee week. If Butch Jones is let go early next week – and the rumor mill is beginning to crank up in earnest that it will indeed happen – there’s no telling whether the Vols show up in town looking like the disorganized, confused and intimidated team it looked like against South Carolina, or running the wishbone, or anything in between.

After seeing this Alabama team dispatch seven foes so handily, though, Alabama’s biggest opponent is Alabama. Even its worst quarter tonight saw Alabama outscore Arkansas 7-0 during the period. And when you get to that point, when your worst is still better than the other team’s best, it’s time to look inward for the greatest challenges.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama vs. Arkansas:

1. Alabama’s DL got consistent pressure, and the game got too big for Cole Kelley. Kelley was put in a truly unwinnable position, his first start coming in relief of Austin Allen and facing a defense that feasts on bad quarterbacking. And unfortunately for Kelley, he was pretty bad for most of the evening. His rather incredible size kept him in the game, and Arkansas might have been well-served to run him more, given that he tended to fall forward for extra yardage on every hit he took. His long-term projection as an SEC quarterback is cloudy at best, given what appeared to be a lack of arm strength and/or throwing mechanics on “hammer throws,” meaning passes that force a quarterback to put the ball on time, on target and with zip behind them. Kelley appeared weak in that regard on several occasions, in spite of his size.

But the other issue for Arkansas was an offensive line that despite being one of the most veteran in the SEC, and one that has a couple of potential NFL pros starting on it, could not keep Kelley clean. Pressure came from the edges, up the middle, everywhere. Rashaan Evans and Jamey Mosley both terrorized Arkansas’ tackles, along with Anfernee Jennings and whoever else happened to line up outside. Up the middle, Alabama got consistent penetration, blew up running plays and kept Kelley lumbering out of the pocket, seeking sanctuary. By the time Kelley got his feet under him, Alabama was up 31-0 and composure no longer mattered – only survival.

Sep 30, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on prior to a game against the Mississippi Rebels at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2017; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

2. Alabama’s playcalling was simplistic, almost too much so, but perhaps by design. Nick Saban referred to it in his post-game press conference, speaking of a couple of called rollout passes in the second half. Saban seemed to insinuate Alabama could have been much more complex in the passing game had it needed to. Aside from two throws – the interception and a miss of an open DeVonta Smith on a middle slant route, both of which were thrown behind the receiver – Jalen Hurts arguably had his best passing game of the season. He fit throws into tight windows all night, made the correct pre-snap read on the touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III, and when Arkansas began cheating to traditional running plays late in the game, broke out the option and led two scores.

The second quarter was a bit of a mess, particularly Alabama’s almost stubborn refusal to do something to deal with blitz pressure, but after Alabama broke out the rollout game in the second half, Arkansas was forced back on its heels a bit. In the end, Alabama just missed another 500-yard day, and didn’t appear to give away any secrets. Call it a success.

3. Pass blocking continues to be an issue, but Alabama has developed a killer running game. Fitting that Alabama chose this day to honor the 1992 national championship team. In addition to the clock malfunctioning at the end of the first half, perhaps in tribute to the 1992-era clock at Legion Field, Alabama pulled a Gene Stallings special on Arkansas by beating down the front door in the running game (43 carries, 308 yards, 7.2 avg., 4 TD) and throwing mostly as a sideshow. Alabama’s Damien Harris led the way with 125 yards on 9 carries, giving him 625 yards on the year on 68 carries, good for a 9.2-yard clip.

Every running back Alabama has used this year has been successful, and more importantly, the philosophy plays to the strengths of the Tide’s offensive line. But that silver lining comes with its own gray tint, because pass blocking continues to be an issue, especially on the right side of the line. Lester Cotton appeared to struggle at times in both areas against Arkansas, and unless Alabama had made adjustments in the playcalling at halftime to create more space for Jalen Hurts, we’d be spending a bit more time complaining here. But no one has really stopped Alabama on the ground in 2017, with the Crimson Tide ranking 7th nationally at more than 300 yards per game on average. This truly has turned into the team most people said they wanted in recent years: physically imposing, downhill, and as Stallings would say, “arriving in a bad humor.”

4. Defensive highlights: Secondary offers Bama flexibility; rush defense is playing lights-out. Arkansas rushed for 27 yards on 29 carries, and Alabama recorded 5 sacks and 9 tackles for loss. At that point it didn’t matter if Cole Kelley was Brett Favre. Alabama’s defensive line has been a study in injuries (Da’Shawn Hand, and tonight, Isaiah Buggs late in the game) and inexperience, but it’s getting the job done. The linebacker package – which like the offensive playcalling, was simplified Saturday and largely lacked some of Alabama’s more intricate blitz/coverage packages featuring Keith Holcombe – has become almost an unsolvable puzzle. But the real hay is being made in the secondary. Despite being the “weakest” part of Alabama’s defense – Alabama ranks 25th in raw pass defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense, compared to being 1st against the run – Alabama’s prowess in the secondary allows the front seven to go on the attack with less concern for possible breakdowns behind them.

Levi Wallace, ranked the top cornerback in college football in terms of opposing pass efficiency on targeted throws, allowed just one catch Saturday while breaking up three passes. Anthony Averett – who has become the most targeted defensive back simply because quarterbacks are hesitant to target anyone else – had a strong game and mostly kept damage in front of him. And the safety configuration of Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown need no description. Harrison’s improved coverage skills have been a boon to Alabama’s secondary, as his key pass breakup ended the first half and stoned Arkansas at the goal line. This isn’t Alabama’s deepest defense ever – take a look at the reserve cornerback situation if you want to get nervous – but it might be the fastest and most versatile.

5. Kickers did their job but special teams bordered on disaster otherwise. Let us count the ways: Henry Ruggs fumbled two punts, losing the second one. That brought Trevon Diggs into the game at punt returner, but Diggs hasn’t fully recovered from a leg injury yet and looked slow backpedaling. He also fumbled the ball on a fair catch, but recovered it. Then Alabama nearly lost its starting tailback to injury on a late kick coverage play after the game was in the bag; Damien Harris took contact after the whistle that initially, in the stadium, appeared to be a targeting foul but on replay may have been the result of friendly fire. Harris was knocked cold for a few seconds.

On the bright side, J.K. Scott pinned Arkansas’ kickoff returners deep all night, and appeared to get his mojo back in regards to his punting. Andy Pappanastos hit both field goal attempts and all his PATs. But the insanity that was born out of punt-fielding needs to be put down immediately, and once again, Alabama’s coaches would be well-advised to figure a way to get critical starters out of a game when the game has already been decided.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN2

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