Arkansas wrap-up: Bama wins a shootout, largely of its own making

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Anyone who thinks Nick Saban isn’t willing to do whatever it takes to get this team into the playoffs should know that even today – Senior Day in Tuscaloosa, that is – Saban sent two senior starters to the bench in favor of freshmen in an effort to get by an Arkansas team that transformed into the 2010 Auburn team before everyone’s eyes.

Right tackle was replaced in the starting lineup by Damieon George Jr., who is listed as a sophomore but technically didn’t play enough games in 2020 to burn a year of eligibility. Midway through the game, senior cornerback Josh Jobe joined him on the sideline, replaced by true freshman Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry.

Owens did get one snap in relief of George, and it happened to be a play on which scored. Overall, George played reasonably well, giving up a sack but doing a solid job in the running game and usually giving QB Bryce Young a quiet pocket. McKinstry replaced Jobe after he surrendered a long touchdown pass; McKinstry was mostly invisible in relief, which is probably a compliment, all things considered.

This team isn’t the steamroller that previous incarnations have been, and this is the second game in 2021 – Florida being the first – where Alabama had to really dig the fingernails in against a lesser opponent to hang on for a close victory. The differences between Arkansas and Florida were the venue – home versus road – and the fact that the Razorbacks are a team on the rise under Sam Pittman rather than a team in repose, as Florida under Dan Mullen has become.

might have actually triggered Florida’s fall, but it is highly unlikely the Crimson Tide will end up doing the same to Arkansas. Unlike Florida, Arkansas is a team playing far above its on-paper talent levels, and having to play Alabama in its own house appeared to have little negative effect on the Hogs’ psyche. With all the vacant coaching jobs out there this year, or near-vacant, or might-be-soon-vacant, perhaps it’s time for athletic directors to start inquiring about Sam Pittman’s ultimate career goals.

won the SEC West with this victory and will advance to Atlanta to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide holds the tiebreaker over Ole Miss, so even if the Rebels win the Egg Bowl and Alabama loses against Auburn next week, the Tide has a date at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But there is also no denying that Alabama has issues it still hasn’t solved: a defense that can be dominating one week and porous the next, a wide receiver corps that alternates jaw-dropping plays with drops or fumbles after the catch, an offensive line as erratic as an old British sports car.

For these reasons, the primary point of conversation may actually not be the game against rival Auburn – which somehow found a way to lose to South Carolina on Saturday – but rather Georgia the week after, which hasn’t displayed the inconsistency of at any point this year. Once the Bulldogs settled their quarterback situation early in the season, the Georgia team became a freight train, steadily plowing forward through the rest of the SEC East and into the league’s championship game, for the most part unabated.

Now that has its ultimate conference goal well in sight, and the opportunity to claim it in hand, it’s an appropriate time to talk about what needs to happen to close the deal. Against Auburn, Alabama will mostly have to avoid silly mistakes and the typical voodoo that emerges from the grounds of Stadium in odd-numbered years. Auburn, especially without QB Bo Nix, simply doesn’t have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s offense, and the Tigers have recently turned into one of the league’s worst teams after halftime.

But Georgia, that’s another matter. The Bulldogs’ defense is clearly more consistent than Alabama’s, and the offense has shown the ability to combine point production with ball control and a physical nature largely unseen among most modern-day offenses. won’t find an easy path in either contest.

Do we feel this way because of the close call against Arkansas? Perhaps, but not everything that came out of this game was bad. Alabama’s offense took over the game in the second half and displayed a quick-strike ability that recalled the offense of the last couple of years. The performance bolstered feelings regarding Alabama’s ability to close gaps or build big, early leads. But the mistakes and inconsistencies are a reminder that whether it’s due to youth, coaching turnover or injuries to key personnel, anything – good or bad – could happen in the following two weeks.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for -Arkansas:

1. dodged its second QB “career day” of the season. Our biggest miss in the pregame previews turned out to be the quarterback position, because we saw now way that Arkansas QB K.J. Jefferson could be as efficient as he was. Jefferson came into the game averaging slightly less than 200 yards passing per contest, but finished the day 22-of-30 (73.3%) for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Jefferson also ran 13 times for 22 yards, which included 24 yards lost to sacks. More so than the physical skills, Jefferson looked in charge of the offense mentally, and was able to make quick evaluations of Alabama’s defensive schemes.

thought that it had gotten its Stephen Garcia game out of the way earlier in the year, when A&M’s Zach Calzada caught fire for 60 minutes and led the Aggies to a victory in College Station. Jefferson is proof that lightning can strike twice, and while he was overshadowed by Bryce Young’s monster stats on the night, never really contained Jefferson in this game. Had the Arkansas OL kept the bust count down a bit, we might be talking about a different outcome.

2. Arkansas offensive design gave trouble by matching the play to the UA front. would have liked to have played three bigs across the front of the defensive line, but too frequently found that scenario to give Jefferson far too much time to throw. As soon as Alabama would sub into its 2-4-5 look, though, the Razorbacks would – almost automatically – shift to a running play and gash Alabama off-tackle. It’s a good bet there was an automatic checkdown programmed into the system for Jefferson to read Alabama’s front personnel and adapt accordingly. As is typical of Alabama, the longer the game went along, the better Alabama caught up to it, but a lot of damage had been done prior to that point.

3. Front seven did well enough against the run, and kept pressure on Jefferson even though he had several “hero” plays. Rather surprisingly, and Arkansas finished with almost identical stats in the running game, and as much damage as Jefferson did, it could have been worse had not figured out a way to get to his face and make him make a bad read. Arkansas ran for only 2.6 yards per carry as a team, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark until very late in the contest. As for pass pressure, Alabama recorded 3 sacks, which is a bit below what the Tide would have liked, but Jefferson didn’t have a lot of time to throw at any point in the game, which both says something for the defensive front but also pays Jefferson a compliment for being able to do as much as he did.

For much of the season, Alabama’s defensive breakdowns have come across the middle of the field, but against Arkansas, they were on the outsides and frequently involved cornerbacks, which is also a new wrinkle. OLB Will Anderson Jr. recorded just 1 sack, but was praised in the postgame by Nick Saban for being able to contain and collapse the pocket at the same time, which helped keep Jefferson from taking off so much.

Things would have been even better had D.J. Dale not suffered a freak knee injury in warm-ups; he’s apparently fine, but it was a scary moment and may have gotten out of its gameplan early on. Tim Smith and got most of Dale’s snaps and did a good job of containment, but perhaps not so much in regard to game-changing plays. might be surprised to find out just how many points were given up as the result of odd busts outside the box; the front seven, though, stayed in solid form for most of the night.

4. Special teams breakdowns are occurring at the wrong time of the season. PK Will Reichard’s warmup kicks were a bit erratic, and once the game started he managed to miss a 47-yarder short, although he hit two other kicks. Punt returner Slade Bolden muffed one ball but did recover, although Arkansas nullified the return game overall.

The biggest negative, though, was somehow getting caught for the second time this year on a fake kick while in a kick-safe alignment, this time a long field goal attempt that turned into a 32-yard pass for Arkansas punter/holder Reid Bauer. A very similar thing happened in the LSU game, and these things aren’t supposed to ever happen twice. We’re not sure what the fix is here but needs to discover it posthaste.

5. Bryce Young’s record-setting day didn’t even tell a complete story about his mastery in this game. What’s a bit strange to consider is that Young started slowly, missing a couple of open receivers by launching the ball too high for them. To say he settled in after that, however, would be a gross understatement. Young threw for 559 yards, ran for another 22 yards before those were wiped out by the sack yardage, and scored a two-point conversion.

For those criticizing Young’s deep passing ability, just ask Jameson Williams how things looked from his end. The scariest thing Young did Saturday, from the perspective of future opponents, is move quickly through progressions while at the same time displaying a lightning-fast release. Young had already established himself as one of the nation’s best quarterbacks long before this game, but what he was able to do against the Razorbacks was both special, as well as a sign of being able to make the entire offense even more effective.

Follow on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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