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By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 4, 2018
Although the Bret Bielema era ended rather unceremoniously in Fayetteville, through at least the first four games of the year, Bielema suddenly looked like Vince Lombardi in the rear-view mirror as far as most Arkansas fans were concerned.
Arkansas lost games to Colorado State and North Texas. As bad as that was, the Mean Green of North Texas blew out the Razorbacks. The combination of factors necessary for North Texas to blow out an SEC team occurs with the frequency of ice ages. Apparently 2018 was the year of the Mean Green Woolly Mammoth.
There was another blowout loss to Auburn to follow, but Auburn didn’t run the ball well in that game and Arkansas could at least find a few silver linings in the cloud that hung over its defense. And then came Texas A&M.
Granted, the Aggies were likely hung over from their loss at Alabama – crimson-colored beatdowns have the effect of breaking some teams permanently – but for a Razorback program in dire need of something positive, a 24-17 score against a much more talented rival, not to mention having the ball with a chance to tie the game inside the two-minute mark of the fourth quarter, has to count as a trip to the Optimist Club. It was just enough to provide fuel for several “shock the world” posts on Arkansas message boards. But that’s probably all it means.
Alabama comes into this game fresh off another blowout win in which the Crimson Tide nearly made the betting line by halftime. While Arkansas’ defense is scrappy enough, it probably won’t be very effective against Alabama’s passing attack. And Arkansas still has major questions at its quarterback position, which has proven to be the very definition of ineffective.
New Arkansas head coach Chad Morris couldn’t be any more different from Bret Bielema if he tried. Morris is a speed-demon, pass-happy spread aficionado, who unfortunately doesn’t have the roster to run the offense he likes. As such, Arkansas is stuck in the middle of nowhere, a spread team possessing a power-I depth chart. The Razorbacks are 108th in total offense, 95th in rushing offense and 88th in passing offense. That last number is actually evidence of overachievement, as the Razorbacks rank 117th in passing efficiency. They’re 124th on third downs.
There is literally no offensive stat, major or minor, where the Razorbacks rank higher than 66th (red zone offense), except for fewest fumbles lost (5th). They more than make up for not losing fumbles by being the worst-ranked team in America in throwing interceptions. Alabama, meanwhile, leads the nation in scoring, passing efficiency and 4th-down conversion percentage, is 2nd in third-down conversions and 5th in total offense.
We’ll let you know who Arkansas decides to play when we see the first snap. The Hogs have used four quarterbacks this year, but this game will likely come down to seeing either Ty Storey or Cole Kelley. The Razorbacks seemed to move the ball better against Texas A&M under Storey, but his numbers and Kelley’s numbers are pretty much equal – equally bad. Storey has a passer rating of 117.5 while Kelley’s is 113.6.
By comparison, Tua Tagovailoa chimes in with a 238.3 and Jalen Hurts with a 198.9. Storey offers mobility, rushing 27 times for 71 yards (2.6 avg.) and 1 touchdown, which includes yardage lost to sacks. But both Bielema and Morris have continued to give reps to Kelley, most likely because of his 6’8”, 265-pound pocket presence. But Morris has a strange throwing motion that isn’t easily repeatable. Both players have thrown 4 interceptions and are completing barely more than 50 percent of their passes. Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones have also played, but they’re true freshmen and unlikely to see action this week with the game on the line.
Overall, the Razorback QB corps has thrown 10 interceptions against just 7 touchdowns. Alabama will use Tagovailoa and, likely, Hurts in this game, as few expect Arkansas to be able to keep the score close. Mac Jones is an even-money bet to get snaps, too. Tagovailoa has already thrown for more yardage than the entire Arkansas roster despite playing only half the game. No contest. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas’s Devwah Whaley is a decent back with some breakaway ability, but he’s coming off a concussion and is listed as doubtful for this game. That would put true freshman Rakeem Boyd at the front of the line, with Maleek Williams and Chase Hayden as the backups. Boyd and Hayden are both small for SEC backs, but that’s not so important in an offensive system like Morris’.
What is important is that the Arkansas offensive line has been a mess and Arkansas needs running backs with special ability to make up for it. Boyd is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, but hasn’t scored yet and is averaging fewer than 10 carries a game, so the sample size is off. Hayden has been wholly ineffective; Williams has just 10 carries on the year. T.J. Hammonds might also play, but he’s been much more effective as a receiver than a running back, where he is averaging fewer than 3 yards per tote.
Alabama has two backs already with more production than Whaley, and has five rushers in triple digits whereas Arkansas has just two. Damien Harris, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson Jr. should all get time in this game, and the biggest limiting factor on whether Alabama uses Jerome Ford or Ronnie Clark would be whether the SEC’s limit on travel squads found either of them caught up in the numbers. Alabama’s rotation system has kept everyone fresh, and besides not having an A-back as good as the Harrises, Arkansas lacks anyone with the kind of multi-functional capabilities Jacobs brings to the table. Not close, whether Whaley is available or not. Advantage: Alabama
The production Arkansas has gotten from La’Michael Pettway and Jordan Jones hasn’t been bad – especially in Jones’ case, as he’s not a regular starter – but there just hasn’t been enough of it filtering down through the depth chart. Alabama will have to account for Pettway, who is averaging 15.3 yards per catch and has 3 touchdowns to his name already. At 6’2” and around 225 pounds or more, he’s a physical presence that could present matchup issues if aligned against a smaller DB.
Veterans Jared Cornelius and Deon Stewart are listed as the other starters, with Jones and Michael Woods the primary rotation. Cornelius and Stewart have been exceptionally quiet in 2018, combining for just 11 catches and averaging right at 10 yards per. Arkansas uses the tight ends with regularity, but neither Austin Cantrell nor Jeremy Patton are as formidable as some of the others to play that spot in recent years, and Patton will miss this game with a leg injury.
All four of Alabama’s primary receivers (starters Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III and top reserve Jaylen Waddle) have more production than Arkansas’ Pettway. Aside from perhaps Ole Miss, there isn’t another school in the conference that can touch Alabama’s wideouts in regards to quality, consistency or big-play ability. Derek Kief, Tyrell Shavers and Xavian Marks are all good bets to see action as well. At tight end, Irv Smith Jr. continues to be a dangerous downfield weapon, and Hale Hentges is another option. Three overwhelming category leads in a row for Bama. Advantage: Alabama
Consistency has not been Arkansas’ friend in 2018. Even with four veteran starters returning, Arkansas ranks just 97th in tackles for loss allowed and 101st in sacks allowed. It’s basically the same line as the one anchored by center Frank Ragnow last year, but the cracks were visible in 2017 and have spread even farther apart with the new offensive system going into place. Replacing Ragnow in the middle is Ty Clary, with Hjalte Froholdt and Johnny Gibson at the guards and Colton Jackson and Brian Wallace at the tackles. Depth comes from four freshmen, Shane Clenin, Kirby Adcock, Noah Gatlin and Dalton Wagner. Arkansas hasn’t found the right mix yet.
Alabama saw both tackles go down against Louisiana, but neither injury was serious. If Alabama were playing The Citadel this week instead of a conference opponent, Jonah Williams might sit it out, but he’s expected to be at left tackle and Jedrick Wills back at right tackle as well. Ross Pierschbacher starts at center flanked by guards Lester Cotton and Alex Leatherwood. Chris Owens, Scott Lashley and Matt Womack will be the backup tackles, while Owens also backs up the center position.
Josh Casher and Deonte Brown provide depth at guard. Alabama hasn’t exactly been driving people into the ground in the running game, but the Tide is 9th in sacks allowed and has risen to 21st in fewest tackles for loss allowed. Big gap number four. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama vs Arkansas Defense Preview