When the dust eventually settles on the 2019 SEC football season, someone is going to spend a lot of time breaking down the Arkansas Razorbacks … and very few people are going to appreciate the work.
Are the Razorbacks one of the better teams in the SEC? A flat no. Arkansas, if everything went right, would have trouble achieving a winning record in 2019. But the Razorbacks are certainly better than the record they’ve managed to post. Arkansas is 2-5, and with few prospects for potential wins on the horizon. Its best chances come against either Western Kentucky (although the Hilltoppers are 5-2) and Mississippi State. In all its other games, the Razorbacks will be double-digit underdogs and probably 20-plus-point underdogs, or even more.
Still, Arkansas was gifted its best chance to pull an upset that would “shock the world,” as most upsets are advertised to do, when Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa went down against Tennessee with an ankle injury. As a result, the Razorbacks will not see Tagovailoa in this game unless it’s Tua’s brother Lia. Most immediately, the Hogs will have to deal with Mac Jones, who has looked competent in limited work. Alabama will still be favored to win this game, but it will be favored to win by double digits, not potentially triple digits as it would have been with Tua taking snaps.
Arkansas has its own quarterback woes to deal with, but they are of the more conventional kind: poor performances, nagging injuries and a general quarterback controversy born when two graduate transfers arrived in Fayetteville at the same time.
Head coach Chad Morris has a warm seat at the moment, but probably not truly a hot one. While Arkansas should have won a couple more games than it has – we’re looking at you, San Jose State and Kentucky – the Razorbacks have an overall talent problem that Morris has yet to solve. But there’s still enough talent here to make Alabama work for it.
Alabama saw what Morris could do last year when Arkansas had more offensive talent. The offense is Clemson Lite, a mixture of spread components and pro-style components that prioritizes key matchups and doesn’t try to take from areas that aren’t fertile ground. The passing offense has started to come around – it’s 54th nationally, not great but not as bad as it could have been given the circumstances – but the rushing offense trails badly at 96th and total offense is an aggregate 84th. Arkansas has had problems scoring (93rd) and passing efficiency, usually a Morris hallmark, has been flat awful at 111th.
Alabama’s offense will have a different look for this game. While the Crimson Tide currently ranks 4th in passing offense and scoring offense and 9th in total offense, Bama doesn’t have Tagovailoa and it’s going to make a difference in approach. Alabama’s running game still ranks just 68th but it’s been on an upswing for the better part of a month and has developed consistency.
This comes down to the devil you know versus the one you don’t. The one(s) you know, which play for Arkansas, come from the graduate transfer route: Nick Starkel from Texas A&M, and Ben Hicks from SMU. Hicks was SMU’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, but it hasn’t translated to his time in Fayetteville, and now he’s hurt. Hicks has played in five games and started three of them, but a shoulder injury has limited his effectiveness. He got the majority of snaps last week against Auburn but didn’t do much with them. On the year, He’s completed almost exactly half his passes, but has thrown for just 2 touchdowns in five games and carries a QB rating of 103.1, which is fairly dismal. He isn’t a bad athlete, but he’s not a great scrambler. Nick Starkel, by comparison, is statuesque. While Starkel has thrown 7 interceptions to go along with his 7 touchdowns, he has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in passing and has a better rating (124.1).
Alabama will likely see both players in this game. For the Tide, the devil you don’t know (yet) is Mac Jones, who will get his first start. Jones has been, previously, somewhat of a slow starter who warms up significantly as he gets more snaps. He’s not exactly a rhythm passer, but he does seem to thrive on shorter, quicker routes, or routes set up by deep play action. What he isn’t, is a pocket-motion guy like Tagovailoa who can feel a rush and respond to it deftly. Jones is probably a better runner than both Arkansas quarterbacks, but is not really a dual-threat quarterback at all. For the year, he’s completing 62.5% of his passes and has a QBR of 128.8. Despite that, there’s no question where the experience advantage lies here, and even with Hicks and Starkel proving to be useful spare parts instead of game-changers, one would expect either of them to respond better to adversity and the machinations of a keen defensive coordinator better than Jones. Basically, Jones has to prove himself first. Advantage: Arkansas
Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley are identically-built runners who would seem to thrive more when the Razorbacks can get the inside running game working. Statistically, it’s a bit scary how the two’s statistics, both as runners and receivers, are almost identical to those of Alabama’s Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. The difference probably comes down to effectiveness against better opposition, and Harris and Robinson are both on a bit of a hot streak. Neither Arkansas’ Chase Hayden nor Alabama’s Keilan Robinson has gotten a tremendous amount of work as a third-string back; Robinson has shown more in that role, however. Plus, Hayden is recovering from a concussion. It’s a battle that comes down mostly to potential and overall athleticism, and Alabama has a fairly clear edge there. Advantage: Alabama
To no surprise of any Alabama fan, Arkansas’ leading receiver is a tight end, Cheyenne O’Grady. Arkansas’ tight end passing game lit up Alabama last year, making the game a lot closer and higher-scoring than it ever had the right to be. O’Grady had 7 catches and 2 touchdowns in that game, and Alabama’s inside linebackers haven’t gotten any better at middle-field pass defense in 2019, so hold on to your hats. Beyond O’Grady, Arkansas has gotten decent production out of a very young group of receivers headed by sophomore Mike Woods and true freshmen Treylon Burks and Trey Knox. Junior Tyson Morris provides depth. Arkansas may be without De’Vion Warren for this game, as he recovers from a concussion, but he had only 3 catches on the year anyway. Grayson Gunter and Chase Harrell provide depth at tight end.
For Alabama, tight end is a team weak spot – but it’s one Alabama might rely upon more in this game. Every quarterback has his favorite targets, and Jones seems to like throwing to tight ends, especially when the play is breaking down. Miller Forristall is a very capable receiver, but blocking is suspect on its best day. He and Major Tennison played a lot after Jones took over for Tagovailoa last week, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue. What Alabama might get from converted offensive linemen Chris Owens and Kendall Randolph, no one knows.
They are both assets in the running game, but you’d expect as much; when both are in, Alabama is basically playing with seven OL. Cameron Latu, Jahleel Billingsley and Giles Amos might all get time in the tight end rotation this week as Alabama tries to figure out something that would work better than the status quo. But the big edge for Bama, of course, comes from the A-group of wide receivers – Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. There’s no better salve for having to start a young backup quarterback than to have four future NFLers running routes at the same time. Arkansas is starting to develop the nucleus of a group that should be very good in a year or two; Alabama has that group now. Advantage: Alabama
Having to work around Colton Jackson’s leg injury has been a running theme for Arkansas, and it’s not one the Hogs have dealt with stupendously. Arkansas is 56th in sacks allowed and 78th in tackles for loss allowed. If ever a word could describe a unit, “malaise” fits here. Arkansas is expected to start Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner at the tackles, Ty Clary at center and Austin Capps and Ricky Stromberg at the guards. Jackson will tentatively provide depth at tackle – and he’s the only other tackle listed on the depth chart outside of Cunningham and Wagner – while Shane Clenin and Kirby Adcock back up the middle of the line.
Alabama has far more depth than does Arkansas, and the Crimson Tide seems to have righted the ship now that right guard Deonte Brown is back from suspension. Landon Dickerson will continue to start at center, with Evan Neal at left guard and the tackle combo of Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills. With the move from Tagovailoa to Jones at quarterback, Leatherwood is now once again the blindside tackle, as Jones throws with the opposite hand. Whether Alabama adjusts its protection packages accordingly, stay tuned. For the Razorbacks, Cunningham and Stromberg are new starters this season, Cunningham a JUCO transfer and Stromberg a true freshman. Stromberg checks in at only 260 pounds, a far cry from the Razorback maulers of old. Alabama has been significantly more effective here. Advantage: Alabama
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