Whether Chad Morris gets the chance to enjoy the fruits of his recruiting remains to be seen, because Arkansas truly is one of the least potent teams in the SEC, if not all the Power Five conferences.
Arkansas has enough problems with its own roster — problems that are of its own making — to land the Razorbacks in the bottom half of the SEC West for years to come. But one factor in the Razorbacks being made to resemble mere piglets Saturday night ultimately came from a sincerely welcomed feel-good story – the near-flawless performance from Alabama backup quarterback Mac Jones.
Most everyone knew Alabama could have beaten Arkansas with any of its quarterbacks, including wide receiver Slade Bolden running his patented “BoldCat” package. The Razorbacks are just not very good. Defensively, Arkansas is slow on the edges and subpar in the middle. Offensively, the line may be the worst right now in the conference, the backs are average at best and the receivers are green.
Arkansas’ quarterbacks, when in the company of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, recall the George Gobel commentary on sharing “The Tonight Show” stage with the well-known Dean Martin and Bob Hope: In a world of Tua tuxedos, Nick Starkel and friends are like a pair of brown shoes.
But that didn’t mean Alabama was going to beat Arkansas the way it did. Most probably expected a slow pull-away from the Crimson Tide as its superior talent level simply outlasted Arkansas over the long haul. That’s not what happened in the least; Alabama jumped on Arkansas early, made the Razorbacks pay maximum penalty for turnovers, and Jones ended the first half 16-for-20 for nearly 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added another pair of completions, including a bomb to Jerry Jeudy in the third quarter, before yielding to Taulia Tagovailoa to handle the bleeding of the clock.
Jones’ first start with Alabama mimicked his appearances in the second halves of games: a bit of a slow, cautious start that eventually found him hitting everything that moved. As Alabama coaches got more comfortable letting him extend the Arkansas defense vertically, Arkansas’ ineptitude reached a critical intersection with Jones’ ability. Had Alabama not taken Jones out of the game and dialed back the game plan, the Crimson Tide could have named the score.
Although Alabama didn’t come out of this game injury-free by any means, most of the bumps taken against Arkansas appear to be minor, or at least manageable. What Alabama was able to glean from Jones’ performance is something else entirely, and something far more meaningful: If Tua Tagovailoa can’t stay healthy against LSU or Auburn, it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that the Tide will fold. Jones doesn’t have Tagovailoa’s laser-like accuracy, but he knows exactly what he can and can’t get away with doing. It was that live-fire decision-making that stood out above all else this day for the third-year backup quarterback.
As for the rest of this mismatch, if Arkansas ever puts Nick Starkel in at quarterback again, Chad Morris should probably be evaluated for sanity. Starkel went 5-of-19 for 58 yards and 3 interceptions and combined with his lack of rushing ability, there’s no way he can put a team like this on his shoulders and carry it to victory against talented ballclubs. Backup John Stephen Jones, while no superstar himself, at least brought the threat of a running game to the table.
Arkansas has a very long road to travel to get back to respectability in the SEC. Whether they travel that road under Morris or another coach is a different story. For now, the Razorbacks are so far behind the rest of the conference that Alabama fans’ biggest problem coming out of this game is how to evaluate it.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. Mac Jones’ performance was not only big for Bama; it was huge for Jones himself. In a way, this game might prove to be the source material by which any kind of campaign Jones tries to lodge to replace Tua Tagovailoa next year is based. Jones was always going to have to answer unfair questions about performances at A-Day due to the format: The P1 QB always has to work against the first-team defense, while the P2 QB always gets the much easier assignment of going against the 2s. Now Jones has real film against hostile targets in his back pocket.
Before we go there, let’s talk about what Jones did well in this game in the year 2019 that helped the 2019 team move its season along: His greatest asset was probably the gray matter between his ears. Jones didn’t force any throws, made only one bad decision all night (and that turned into a reception for Miller Forristall, anyway), and sometimes the decisions he didn’t make were the memorable ones. His throwaway out the back of the south end zone came after a long, progression read where he passed up a quick out to the weakside receiver before declining to force something across the middle of the field.
If you hadn’t told anyone that Jones was getting his first action with a game on the line, you probably would never have believed it, much less known it. His confidence and consistency put pressure on Arkansas repeatedly, and it didn’t take the Razorbacks long to realize they couldn’t overcome turnovers or other critical errors. Now, going forward: Jones may very well enter the 2020 season with the most experience but with fans expecting him to actually drop back from P2 to P3.
Taulia Tagovailoa, who played significant snaps in the second half of this game, is far more mobile than Jones and probably a touch more arm strength. Highly-rated high school senior Bryce Young is being touted as Tua spliced with Kyler Murray. Jones? He’s just a boring ol’ backup quarterback from the old stand-and-deliver school of football (although he has better wheels than one might first expect). But now, no one can take away what he did against a real SEC opponent under some real stress (i.e., no availability from Tua to fall back upon). Spring 2020 just got fantastically interesting.
2. Bama’s outside linebackers are like lions off the leash right now. Terrell Lewis is finally healthy and showing out. Anfernee Jennings spent the first half of this game imitating Dikembe Mutombo. If Alabama can get a bit more consistent inside push – whether that comes from Christian Barmore, the return of LaBryan Ray or whoever – no team is going to be comfortable on passing downs. With the rest of Alabama’s defense waxing and waning depending on the moment, having the consistency of two top-tier outside rushers is a luxury. It couldn’t have come at a better time, too, because Alabama will have to play over its head to keep LSU’s Joe Burrow contained two weeks from now.
3. Perine had another productive night punting, and special teams as a whole seem to be stable. Henry Ruggs’ gaffe on a kickoff return notwithstanding, Ty Perine had two good punts and Joseph Bulovas made both his field goal attempts, as well as having a solid night on kickoffs. Alabama isn’t asking for miracles here but having special teams grade out as “average” would be an improvement down the stretch. It looks like Bulovas will be kicking against LSU – Will Reichard’s hip injury probably won’t fully heal before December, if that – so Alabama at least knows what it has and can plan accordingly. LSU has had a couple of special teams hiccups of its own, although not nearly to the extent Alabama has suffered them. Playing the Tigers to a stalemate in that category would be a huge win for Alabama.
4. Running game, OL play has opened up the playbook. Steve Sarkisian has, all things considered, acquitted himself well as a playcaller, even if Alabama could still use improvement in the red zone. He has, without a doubt, done a solid job with the quarterbacks he was hired to coach. And he has effectively made use of Alabama’s strengths up front, primarily in pass blocking, to set up an offensive scheme that has a lot of baked-in flexibility. Alabama didn’t yield a sack to Arkansas despite the Razorbacks having some ability in the pass-rush game. For that matter, Alabama quarterbacks never got particularly close to feeling harassed.
The continued improvement of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. as running backs also has made things a lot easier on Sarkisian, and this game was no different. Probably the most readily evident facet of the offense attributable to Sarkisian has been the short stuff, not just the quick-slant routes Tua Tagovailoa has become famous for, but the “candy” surrounding Alabama’s pop-pass game, zone running game and the RPO elements. Even Mac Jones was able to utilize those portions of the playbook to his benefit, despite not being a true rushing threat himself. Alabama was able to hit its scoring average almost directly on the nose, despite Tua’s absence and despite playing the fourth quarter so conservatively that it was endorsed by the estate of Calvin Coolidge.
5. Injuries weren’t an issue against Arkansas, but could be an issue against LSU – and we’re not talking Tua. DeVonta Smith probably got the worst of it Saturday, as a shoulder injury forced him to come out of uniform and put his arm in a sling. He’ll probably be ready for LSU, but he’ll be susceptible to a hard shot or two. Najee Harris turned an ankle, but he stayed on the sideline and in uniform. His ability to perform jump cuts at 100 percent is crucial to Alabama’s chances in two weeks.
Groin injuries to safety Jared Mayden and left guard Evan Neal aren’t expected to be serious, but Alabama has been Groin Injury Central for about a decade now, along with its kissing cousin, the sports hernia. This is in addition to the injuries already affecting DE LaBryan Ray (foot), RB Trey Sanders (knee) and, of course, Tagovailoa. Everyone’s a bit banged up by this time of the season, anyway, although LSU has made it through better than most. Alabama also saw special teams demon Brandon Ale Kaho break a hand in this game, but he’s not expected to miss time.
It’s not even so much that Alabama is worried it can’t get some of these players back in two weeks, it’s the concern over how detrimental those injuries will be to their performances against LSU. Over the past few years, Bama fans have consistently felt their team is playing big games with a hand tied behind its back – or in a cast.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN