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Arkansas’ Barry Odom is considered a defensive guru after turning difficult assignments at multiple schools into opportunities to innovate. For Arkansas in 2021, that means a defense that lines up in a 3-2-6 more often than anything else. The base defense is most technically a 3-3-5, but expect the Razorbacks to give up some beef up front in favor of more defensive backs on the field. The Razorbacks currently rank 37th in total defense, which is a near-miracle considering the talent issues on this side of the ball. Raw pass defense is 24th and pass efficiency defense is 30th, although Arkansas struggles a bit against the run (68th), understandable given the preferred personnel groupings. Alabama has quietly climbed to a ranking of 5th in total defense, 4th against the run, but 34th in raw pass defense and 44th in pass efficiency defense.
Illinois State graduate transfer John Ridgeway has become an unlikely breakout star for the Razorbacks, anchoring a defensive line that is truly doing the best it can given the circumstances. The Razorbacks rank just 94th in sacks but can get stout against running backs, as the Hogs rank 29th in tackles for loss. Missouri grad transfers Markell Utsey and Tre Williams man the other two starting spots, giving Arkansas an all-portal defensive line. Backups Eric Gregory and Isaiah Nichols are quality players, but the line overall is thin.
Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis and D.J. Dale inside, with Justin Eboigbe or LaBryan Ray at the end position. Given the Arkansas rushing attack, Alabama will probably have three bigs on the field as a default setting, eschewing its recently-favored 2-4-5 sub front against passing teams. Byron Young adds depth outside, while Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. bolster the middle. Mathis has solidified the unit in a big way, while the return of Ray gives Alabama good flexibility. This is the kind of offense that Dale can excel against, as well. Will all due respect to Ridgeway and his story of ascension, Alabama holds a solid edge here. Advantage: Alabama
The biggest change for the Alabama defense post-Texas A&M has been at the linebacker position, where inside linebackers Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o have both taken steps forward. The outside linebackers were already strong – Will Anderson Jr. has become the most feared pass rusher in the SEC, Dallas Turner has been a revelation as a true freshman, and Drew Sanders is now back from a wrist injury. Having Chris Braswell to provide depth is practically unfair. Jaylen Moody and Shane Lee offer depth inside.
For Arkansas, the Jack linebacker, Zach Williams, is typically the first guy off when the Razorbacks go to their preferred 6-DB alignment. The inside linebackers – Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and Bumper Pool – are highly experienced players but lack the athleticism and game-changing abilities of most frontline SEC linebackers. Henry is capable against run or pass, but Pool has zero plus-category stats against passing games this year; he’s a cleanup player rather than an instigator. Morgan is somewhere in between. The three rotate on a regular basis across the two positions with Pool technically the non-starter in the group.
Arkansas is certainly productive – the inside backers are the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 tacklers on the team, with 258 total stops between them – but Arkansas doesn’t have someone that can change the game like Anderson can, or even a Turner or a Sanders. And with To’o To’o playing the way he has lately, it’s even more of a Bama edge. Advantage: Alabama
Arkansas believes the solution to pass defense is apparently to throw numbers at it. Eleven different Razorbacks have logged starts this year, and the shuffling continues in the wake of the loss of S Jalen Catalon in Week 6. Currently, the starters are Montarric Brown and LaDarrius Bishop at the corners, with Myles Slusher, Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. at the safety slots. Brown and Foucha are the only backs to start all 10 games. When Arkansas uses a sixth DB instead of a Jack linebacker, it’s most likely to be freshman Jayden Johnson, although Devin Bush, Simeon Blair, Malik Chavis and Hudson Clark are also possibilities.
Arkansas ranks 32nd in interceptions, which combined with the pass and efficiency defense numbers means the defensive theory is sound – especially given the red-chip pedigree of most of the talent here. Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at corner, Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams at safety and Malachi Moore and Brian Branch at Star and dime. Daniel Wright provides depth at safety, while Ga’Quincy McKinstry bolsters the cornerback group.
Alabama’s pass defense numbers the last few weeks have steadily trended to the good side, as Battle continues to have a banner year at safety and the corner duo of Jobe and Armour-Davis continues to have a strong year. This is the closest battle on the defensive side and one of the closest categories overall. Advantage: Alabama
Cam Little has been a solid placekicker for Arkansas, not really running into issues until the kick range gets outside of 50 yards. Punter Reid Bauer has a good leg, but shoddy punt coverage has led to a net punting ranking of 107th. Alabama also struggles in that category (112th) – for a different reason, as punter James Burnip has leveled off around the 40-yard gross mark. Placekicker Will Reichard is a stronger option overall than Little, but it’s not a wide margin. Arkansas is mediocre in the return game and is almost as bad covering kickoffs than it is punts, which points to the overall athletic talent available to fill coverage units. A comparison of kickers, specifically, is really a push but once the return and coverage teams get involved, Alabama pulls away. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Arkansas in two. The defensive back comparison could really go either way, but so could offensive line, and the running back edge to Arkansas flipped only because of depth. As for OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds comfortable edges in both.
This is when the on-paper comparisons don’t match up with people’s perceptions of how tough Arkansas promises to be. If nothing else, it points to the quality of Sam Pittman’s coaching. While an analysis like the one above would point to a 20- to 30-point Alabama win, we don’t expect it, and that’s almost solely because we believe Pittman’s influence – and the Arkansas mindset that has been crafted by its coaches over the last two years – will tighten the spread.
However, we also don’t expect Arkansas to have more than a puncher’s chance. The Razorbacks don’t force a lot of turnovers, and the offense’s struggles on third and fourth downs point to issues of dynamicism in the Hogs’ scheme. Arkansas’ biggest advantage here? Alabama has a date with Auburn next week in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Razorbacks might catch Alabama looking past this game to the next one.
But Sam Pittman isn’t the only coach in this contest who has done a good job focusing up his troops for the task at hand. It’s a safe bet Nick Saban won’t let Alabama get caught looking ahead. If everything goes right, Alabama will find a way to get off to a fast start (unlike the last couple of weeks, at least) and build a lead the Razorbacks can’t subsequently erase. Anything related to speed or explosiveness favors the Tide here, and it’s unlikely the Razorbacks can dodge enough bombs along the way.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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