It’s a safe bet that no one saw Sam Pittman’s success coming, aside from maybe the athletic director who hired him. Even last year, Pittman began turning Arkansas’ mental game around, and in 2021, Arkansas has quickly become a tough, formidable opponent that no one really finds fun to play.
Whether Pittman ever becomes the recruiter and overall program manager that Nick Saban has been since the turn of the century, he certainly has copied Saban’s ability to build a team that opponents would prefer to avoid. And of course, Alabama gets the great fortune of playing Arkansas at this point in the season, a week before Auburn, thanks largely to schedule changes that were in the works before Pittman ever took over in Fayetteville.
Alabama comes into this game a bit more beaten up than expected, since its last opponent was lowly New Mexico State. Alabama lost backup running back Roydell Williams for the season, and top punt returner JoJo Earle until at least the playoff/bowl season. Both would have been welcome additions to the gameplan this week, but it was not meant to be.
Arkansas is still not a complete team; the Razorbacks are masters at running the ball, but they don’t throw well and the defense, while much improved under Pittman, is still limited in spots by its talent. This will not be an easy win for Alabama, but the Tide still holds most of the cards.
Both teams base out of a one-back attack, but Arkansas likes bigger personnel more often, and is more committed to running the ball, especially from the quarterback position. The Razorbacks rank 6th in rushing, but only 95th in passing. Total offense ranks a respectable 34th and passing efficiency clocks in at 23rd, but scoring offense is only 52nd, in large part to problems on later downs. Arkansas is 89th in third-down conversion percentage and 83rd on fourth down. Alabama leads the nation in third-down conversions and is 12th on fourth downs. The Crimson Tide is 10th in total offense, 11th in passing, 68th in rushing, 4th in passing efficiency and 3rd in scoring.
It’s fair to say Arkansas’ K.J. Jefferson has developed into a better overall quarterback than most expected, but he’s still limited somewhat as a passer. His best attribute is his mobility, as evidenced by the fact he’s the second-leading rusher (107 carries, 474 yards, 4.4 avg., 5 TD, which includes yardage lost to sacks) on a team full of talented backs. As a passer, he has a great overall QB rating (161.2), not far off Alabama’s Bryce Young (180.1), thanks to a 65.0% completion percentage and just 3 interceptions thrown against 17 touchdowns. He throws for less than 200 yards per game, however, and the team’s struggles on third down point to difficulties throwing when everyone in the building knows he’s about to throw.
For Alabama, Young has already crossed the 3,000-yard mark and has become an absolute dealer, spreading the ball across the field to multiple receivers and now beginning to show the wheels everyone knew he already had. Young has almost twice the number of touchdowns (33) as Jefferson while throwing the same number of picks. In regard to depth, Alabama holds a strong edge, as both Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe are better options than Arkansas’ Malik Hornsby is at this point. Hornsby is basically a running back who occasionally throws the ball at this stage in his development, but he’s young still. No real comparison here in terms of skill set, but Jefferson isn’t a liability, either. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas has no clear featured back, but what it does have is a chorus of players who can all sing their parts. Trelon Smith and Dominique Johnson are a bit ahead of Raheim Sanders in terms of ability, with Johnson and Sanders the power backs and Smith the smaller outside runner. All average 5 yards or better per carry, but curiously, none of them are used much as receivers out of the backfield. Not a single Arkansas back has double-digit catches on the year, and Smith has caught just 2 passes for 12 yards despite being the size of a slot receiver. A.J. Green adds additional depth for Arkansas.
For Alabama, it’s a one-man show now. Brian Robinson Jr. will play virtually all of this game due to his prowess as a pass blocker if nothing else, but he got back on the horse against New Mexico State after a rare down week against LSU. Robinson has 14 touchdowns on the season, almost as many as all three of Arkansas’ top backs combined, and has run for 823 yards and caught another 205 yards in passes.
If Alabama had both Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams still available, we’d be splitting hairs here trying to find an edge, but now the backup situation is the still-not-100-percent Trey Sanders, and then basically no one. Sanders is still recovering somewhat from an automobile accident last fall, and how well he can stand up to blitzing linebackers is fairly unknown. Behind him, Alabama will have to use either converted wide receiver Christian Leary, who is a scatback in terms of size, or converted linebacker Demouy Kennedy, a bigger player but one who appears to lack fluidity and natural running back skills.
Walk-on Jonathan Bennett may get pulled into the discussion at some point but right now it would be a surprise to see Alabama use anyone other than Robinson or Sanders while the game is on the line. Because of the depth situation, this one isn’t very close right now. Advantage: Arkansas
Treylon Burks has emerged as a wide receiver as good as any in college football. What he lacks is a second receiver anywhere near as good as he is. Burks has caught 51 passes for 796 yards (15.6 avg.) and 8 touchdowns, but the next-nearest totals are those belonging to Tyson Morris, who has just 20 receptions in 10 games. Morris is a thicker receiver, but not necessarily tall like Burks, and he’s tough for smaller corners to bring down, but Alabama has some beef in the secondary. De’Vion Warren and Warren Thompson split the outside X-receiver spot, and while they’ve combined for 400 yards at around 15 yards per catch, Warren has been shut out of the end zone and Thompson has only scored twice. Arkansas likes to line Burks up in the slot for matchup purposes, but he’ll be working against Malachi Moore if he does that Saturday, and Moore isn’t the typical slot DB.
Blake Kern is a decent tight end but nothing special; his backups include Trey Knox, who has a wide receiver’s build but enough height to be dangerous around the goal line. Alabama’s Jameson Williams is the top threat on either side, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark on the season last week. He has elite speed and has the ability to get open against tough coverage, but still has items to work on, namely blocking on screens. John Metchie III and Slade Bolden will be the other two starters, and Metchie has been solid lately after a tough game at Texas A&M.
The question now is who will back up the starters, now that JoJo Earle has been lost. Traeshon Holden seems set as the fourth receiver, but Alabama will need to find help from a group that includes Ja’Corey Brooks, Javon Baker, Agiye Hall and Thaiu Jones-Bell. Jones-Bell is a natural slot, so he might end up being the guy, but Brooks got into the game ahead of the others last week. At tight end, Cameron Latu has separated himself from Jahleel Billingsley, whose season continues to be one of missed opportunities. There’s a good chance Billingsley gets tried at receiver with Earle out, but suddenly, dropped passes have become an issue for him. Arkansas has a quality group, but even with Alabama’s depth concerns, the Tide leads here. Advantage: Alabama
Injuries have hampered Alabama lately, but the Tide seems ready to get C Darrian Dalcourt and LG Javion Cohen back from ankle and wrist injuries, respectively. If so, Chris Owens will move back to right tackle, while Emil Ekiyor Jr. continues to start at right guard and Evan Neal at left tackle. Tommy Brown did well in relief of Cohen last week, while Damieon George Jr. played solidly at right tackle in place of Owens. The starting lineup will be some combination of those, with J.C. Latham flexing between tackle and guard if needed. Arkansas will start Myron Cunningham at left tackle, Brady Latham at left guard and Ricky Stromberg at center; those three have started all 10 games.
The other two positions, for now, are Beaux Limmer at right guard and Dalton Wagner at right tackle, although Ty Clary has five starts on the year at multiple positions and is the team’s sixth man. Arkansas is 50th in sacks allowed, which bests Alabama’s ranking of 88th, but the Razorbacks give up a lot of negative plays in the running game, ranking 104th in tackles for loss allowed compared to a ranking of 68th for Alabama. Given the heavy use of option and QB runs, though, some of those issues may be due to Arkansas’ offensive scheme as much as anything else. Still, those numbers are disappointing for an Arkansas line that was expected to be, potentially, the best in the SEC in 2021.
Arkansas is one of the few teams that can claim equal or better depth to Alabama, and while we’d be tempted to pick Alabama due to the better on-paper metrics, Alabama’s struggles against the best teams on its schedule coupled with the current injury issues push this one to the Hogs. Advantage: Arkansas
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