Nick Saban, by all rights, should be the default choice every year for SEC Coach of the Year. But he never wins the award, because the award is no longer about being the best coach, but about being the one who won more games than the “experts” said he should.
Therefore, while Saban absolutely should walk away with the award in 2020, it will probably fall to Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz, Florida’s Dan Mullen, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, or Arkansas’ Sam Pittman.
When Pittman took over in Fayetteville, he did so to a chorus of hoots and hollers, because why would any mid-level SEC program trying to climb the ladder entrust its future to a lowly offensive line coach who no one knew, and who hadn’t been a head coach since 1993 at Hutchinson Community College and, before that, in 1988 at Princeton Junior-Senior High School in Missouri?
To be fair, nothing else was working. Arkansas had gone the “hot, young genius” route with Chad Morris and had watched the experiment end in disaster. This came after watching Bret Bielema flail along while fielding some tough, but outmanned teams after Arkansas convinced Bielema to leave the relative safety of a job in the Big Ten at Wisconsin.
It’s unclear what Pittman will do long-term, but despite his low profile, Pittman has been credited with a sizeable chunk of Georgia’s recruiting success in recent years. And if there’s one truism about Arkansas football, it’s that the Razorback program lags the rest of the SEC terribly in terms of raw talent.
For now, though, Alabama will be facing a thin team that Pittman is trying to inject with his own brand of toughness. It might make for an interesting first half, but Alabama has too much talent on the board for Arkansas to overcome.
Like most teams, Arkansas is a three-wide, one-back base offense. The Razorbacks have mobility throughout the quarterback depth chart, in what has been a change from the Morris years, which mostly used stand-and-deliver quarterbacks. Arkansas has kept the tradition of using the tight end as a central focus of its offense. It also has decent balance, ranking 51st in total offense, 69th in rushing offense and 42nd in passing offense – not great numbers, but not bad in a coaching changeover year. The offensive coordinator is Kendall Briles, considered an up-and-coming offensive-minded coach. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks in the top five nationally in four of the five major offensive categories.
Felipe Franks may never develop into what some recruiting analysts thought he’d become, but he has developed into a good fit for this offense, with enough big-play ability to keep defenses honest, excellent efficiency and good wheels. The only issue is … he might not play in this game. Franks missed the Missouri game and was replaced by redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson, who put up nearly 300 yards passing, threw for 3 touchdowns and had no interceptions. Jefferson is a more physical version of Franks, but he doesn’t have the experience. The overwhelming bulk of his 2020 stats came during that one game. As a runner, Jefferson is more apt to take off, but Franks has been more effective in gaining ground. Alabama will start Mac Jones, who continues to put up numbers that put him in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Jones has thrown one fewer interception than Franks (3 vs. 4) while also putting up 10 more touchdowns (27 to 17). Jones has limited value as a runner, but hasn’t needed it yet. Backup Bryce Young has about as much experience as Jefferson does, although it’s more spread out. Young’s recent work either indicates he’s in between developmental plateaus, or he simply hasn’t been allowed to run the full offense, given that he appears only in blowouts. If Franks is 100 percent for this game, the comparison gets a lot closer than most Alabama fans realize. But now that tape exists of Jefferson, don’t expect him to have the same success against Alabama that he had against Missouri, if it comes to that. Advantage: Alabama
When Rakeem Boyd decided to opt out of the season, it created a fairly massive hole in the Arkansas depth chart. At this point, it would be a surprise to see anyone other than starter Trelon Smith get any carries at all. Boyd had 82 carries on the year when he quit, and Smith has 115 on the season. Next up? A converted wide receiver, T.J. Hammonds, who is now listed second on the depth chart ahead of any other returning running back the Razorbacks had on the roster. Dominique Johnson, a freshman listed third on the depth chart, has yet to log a carry. A’Montae Spivey, the only other running back with any stats, has just 4 carries for 11 yards. Boyd was struggling when he opted out, but Trelon Smith has been a solid back, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring 5 times. He also has 21 receptions on the year. But those numbers pale in comparison to Alabama’s Najee Harris, who has 1,038 rushing yards on the season, 20 touchdowns on the ground, and another 26 receptions for 247 yards out of the backfield. Add in Brian Robinson Jr., and it fails to be anything approaching a close call. Then pitch in Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams and, well … it’s a mismatch. The other issue is Smith’s size; at 5’9”, 185, he’s not the ideal candidate to try to go inside against Alabama’s defensive line. Advantage: Alabama
Treylon Burks is one of the most underrated receivers in the conference, and also one of the most physical. He’s built like a tight end (6’3”, 240) and has caught 49 passes for 804 yards (16.8 avg.) and 7 touchdowns. Mike Woods, a more typically-sized wideout, has 29 catches for 576 yards (19.9 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. That’s as good a 1-2 punch as Alabama has seen, or will see, at the outside receiver positions. Like Alabama, Arkansas lost one of its starters, as De’Vion Warren tore an ACL in mid-November. Arkansas has yet to adequately replace him; Trey Knox and Tyson Morris haven’t moved the needle much since getting more playing time. T.J. Hammonds could play receiver as well as running back. Starting tight end Hudson Henry will likely miss this game, or will be very limited even if he does play. He splits the spot with Blake Kern, who actually has marginally better receiving stats. The issue there for Arkansas is depth; Nathan Bax, Marcus Henderson and Blayne Toll have all played, but have no catches. Alabama will start DeVonta Smith and John Metchie III as its outside receivers, and there is a lot of similarity between how Alabama and Arkansas divide the work between their main receivers and the off-receiver. Like Arkansas, Alabama still hasn’t found the answer at the third receiver position. Slade Bolden has fumbled twice now after the catch, which is inexcusable and along with an ankle injury, has led to tight end Jahleel Billingsley getting work with the receivers. Depth effectively ends there, as Javon Baker has not produced in a reserve role, while Xavier Williams was injured just as he started to make a move. Billingsley has effectively replaced Kendall Randolph as the starting tight end opposite Miller Forristall in Alabama’s base Ace package, with Randolph still playing Y (and Forristall rotating back to H) when Alabama needs the extra oomph in the running game. Carl Tucker has become the chief reserve tight end at both H and Y, and could wind up playing much more this week if Randolph gets pulled into the starting offensive line (see below). Overall, there’s no question that Smith is the best player on either group – maybe even the best player on Alabama’s entire team at the moment – but Arkansas has developed a high-quality receiving unit, and depth only slightly edges toward the Crimson Tide, mostly due to Hunter being hindered at tight end. Burks will be a matchup problem for Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas’ last major struggle on offense is getting the line fixed. It’s been the hamstring issue all season along, as the Razorbacks rank 103rd in sacks allowed and 63rd in tackles for loss allowed. That’s dead last in the conference in the first category and 11th out of 14 teams in the second. Left tackle Myron Cunningham and left guard Brady Latham have been starters in every game, but the rest of the unit has been shuffled and there is an injury in play as well. Arkansas would like to start Noah Gatlin at right tackle, but he’s missed the last several games and Pittman announced earlier in the week that his return for Alabama was not likely. That puts Dalton Wagner in the lineup at right tackle next to right guard Ty Clary and center Ricky Stromberg. Depth is a huge issue; Arkansas only had three tackles before Gatlin’s injury, so there technically is no backup tackle on the main depth chart. In addition, Clary is listed as Stromberg’s backup. Beau Limmer has started a handful of games this year but is mostly thought of as an inside player. Shane Clenin is a veteran, but seems to have been shuffled out of the mix as the season has gone along. Regardless, they along with Notre Dame transfer Luke Jones are all that make up the Razorback bench. This would be a runaway Alabama edge, except that midweek, rumors broke out of Tuscaloosa that “one or two” of Alabama’s offensive linemen, including at least one starter, would be out of service due to Covid-19 contact tracing. The usual lineup, of course, is Landon Dickerson at center with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guards and Evan Neal and Alex Leatherwood at tackle. Alabama has plenty of depth, so it’s mostly about picking the right pieces in the event of someone being out. The offensive line seems to have been the position group most affected by Covid for Alabama this year, as the makeup of the second team OL has changed several times over the course of the season. As it stands, the top backups at each of the positions are Chris Owens at left tackle (and, effectively, center as well), Tommy Brown and Kendall Randolph at the guard spots, Darrian Dalcourt at center (although Owens will play here over Dalcourt) and Javion Cohen or Damien George Jr. at right tackle. Amari Kight, Pierce Quick, Seth McLaughlin and Tanner Bowles are others that have played inside. The thought process is that Owens will start if it’s a tackle that’s out, and Randolph or Owens if it’s a guard that is out (unless Owens or Randolph are, themselves, not available). Having Randolph at guard, though, removes a lot of flexibility at tight end. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Arkansas ends up with the better offensive line this week. And if the rumors are false, it’s pure domination. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas’ talent deficiencies show up most often on the defensive side of the ball, and the Razorbacks could be missing multiple starters this week. The Razorbacks flex between a 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 base in Barry Odom’s defense, but the results have not always been pretty. They rank 103rd in total defense, 101st in raw pass defense and 91st in rushing defense. Pass efficiency defense is 49th, a much better number. But scoring defense ranks 92nd, and Arkansas can’t get off the field on either third down (95th) or fourth down (84th). Alabama continues to make incremental improvements, and for the most part held LSU in check last week. Alabama is 35th in total defense, almost all coming on the back of a raw pass defense ranking of 74th. In the other major categories, Alabama is solid: Rushing defense is 21st, scoring defense is 17th and pass efficiency defense is 19th.
Arkansas ranks 102nd in sacks and 88th in tackles for loss, not necessarily surprising as it continues to move into a new defensive system. Even Chad Morris’ staff couldn’t totally complete a modernization of the Razorbacks’ longtime 4-3 base front before the most latest transition caught the personnel in yet another shift. In its current iteration, Arkansas starts Jonathan Marshall at nosetackle, with Eric Gregory and Isaiah Nichols at the ends. Nichols is a sophomore and Gregory just a freshman, and the results aren’t that surprising – 4 sacks between the three, with Gregory and Nichols combining for only 3.5 stops of any kind behind the line of scrimmage. Marshall, a senior, has been much more effective at controlling the middle gaps, but there are no real outstanding playmakers here. Julius Coates, who splits almost half of Nichols’ time, was not practicing with the team at the start of the week and will probably miss the game. If he does so, he’s the only bench player with any kind of measurable production. Clemson graduate transfer Xavier Kelly and freshmen Taurean Carter and Marcus Miller would be the second group at that point. Alabama continues to develop a strong defensive front, with Phidarian Mathis, D.J. Dale and Tim Smith splitting nosetackle duties, while Justin Eboigbe, Christian Barmore, Byron Young, LaBryan Ray and Jamil Burroughs playing outside. With the possible exception of Burroughs, who has just recently gotten more playing time, each of the others brings something unique to the table. Advantage: Alabama
Grant Morgan might be the most valuable player on the Arkansas team, and is one of the most overlooked inside linebackers in the SEC. He’s also hurt, didn’t practice for at least the first half of the week, and may be out. If he is, Hayden Henry is an experienced senior reserve who has performed well in spots this year, but he’s not Morgan and can be overexposed, especially in pass coverage. Henry, for instance, has one PBU and one pass defended on the season; Morgan had 11 of those combined. Morgan’s absence would put even more pressure on overachiever Bumper Pool, the starter at weakside linebacker. Odom has turned Pool into a more predictable weapon on defense, but he lacks the pass rush skills employed by Morgan. Outside linebacker has been a bit of a mess. None of the group that is made up of Dorian Gerald, Zach Williams or Mataio Soli has been particularly effective off the edge. Alabama will start Dylan Moses and Christian Harris inside, with Will Anderson Jr. and Christopher Allen starting outside. Anderson and Harris are both peaking, while Moses has fewer bouts of inconsistency. Allen, though, is really starting to play downhill. Ben Davis and Josh McMillon offer depth outside and inside, respectively. Were Morgan available, this would almost be a push, but if he’s out or even a little less than 100 percent, it becomes an Alabama edge. Advantage: Alabama
More injuries to report for Arkansas. Starting cornerback Montaric Brown, who leads the secondary in PBUs, and reserve safety Myles Slusher were both injured against Missouri. As of Friday, Slusher was expected to miss the game, while Arkansas was hoping Brown could give it a go. If Brown is out, Khari Johnson will start in his place, with freshman Malik Chavis forced into a depth role. Hudson Clark will start at the opposite corner position, while Jalen Catalon and Joe Foucha will start at the safety spots. Greg Brooks will play the nickel position. The one thing Arkansas does excellently is pick off passes, ranking 3rd in the nation and tops in the SEC. Every DB is a potential thief. Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain II at the cornerback spots, with Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright at the safeties. Malachi Moore and Brian Branch will play start and dime, while DeMarcco Hellams will continue to get some time in the safety group. Both teams give up more yardage than they’d like but are good at stopping the big plays, as well as creating painful outcomes for their opponents. Like linebacker, an injury is keeping this from being as close a comparison as it otherwise would be. Advantage: Alabama
Duke transfer A.J. Reed will kick for Arkansas, but he’s missed two PATs and has sprayed the ball a bit on field goal attempts. Arkansas has been terrible in the return game this year, ranking 123rd in punt returns and 106th in kickoff returns, while being equally bad on punt return defense (74th) and kickoff return defense (117th). Punting has been a much better story, with both Michigan transfer George Caratan and sophomore Reid Bauer hovering around the 45-yard mark for gross punting average. But net punting is just 82nd due to the poor coverage. For Alabama, Charlie Scott continues to be reliable at punter, while Will Reichard has been more than that as placekicker. DeVonta Smith gives Alabama a weapon as a punt returner. Chase Allen appears to be back in the role of kickoff specialist, and while Alabama has a somewhat maddening inability to kick touchbacks, the kickoff return defense has been such that Alabama hasn’t needed the extra help. Like a lot of other areas, Alabama has improved steadily in this category, and takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories, and has sizable leads in both OL-DL cross-matchups. On paper, this would appear to be a slaughter in the making.
But Arkansas continues to play over its head, and a large reason for that is the dynamic ability at quarterback coupled with the big-play ability of the two primary receivers. There’s a reason most of Arkansas’ losses have been close ones.
Pittman is still finding his way, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Arkansas make this game closer than it should be, especially if Covid really has hit parts of Alabama’s rosters like the rumors claim. Alabama’s primary goal here is to remain healthy for Florida, but it can’t sleepwalk through this game like many people seem to believe. Arkansas is a tough out – but Alabama is a tougher opponent for Arkansas than most of the Razorbacks’ opponents have been.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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