So far in Sam Pittman’s tenure as Arkansas head coach, his strategy seems to have been one of throwing as much as he can at better opponents, pressuring them to stay disciplined and keep pace. If they slip up, the Razorbacks are ready to pounce.
It’s a strategy that has worked well, and has allowed Arkansas to reenter the middle tier of SEC West opponents. A program that looked moribund, almost dead under its previous regime has now positioned itself as a team with a legitimate chance to upset Alabama, maybe even compete for a division title.
Division contention took a hit last week on the most unfortunate of bounces, as PK Cam Little’s potential game-winning kick to beat Texas A&M was off by literally less than an inch, hitting the top of the upright and falling back into the field of play. With that, Arkansas’ margin of error went to zero; the Razorbacks must now beat Alabama and hope for Texas A&M to lose twice, and probably need to hope for one or two more Alabama losses just to be safe.
The problem with that strategy is it fails to account for an Arkansas defense that has been two steps too slow to stop opposing teams, especially in the passing game. The offense has potential; the defense has the potential to lose it at any moment.
Pittman’s offense focuses on dual-threat QB K.J. Jefferson and what he can bring to the table. The offense is tempo-filled, utilizes option and spread concepts both, and operates behind perhaps the best offensive line in the SEC West, if not also the entire league. It will be tough to stop or even slow down for long stretches. Arkansas ranks 26th in total offense and 9th in rushing offense; passing ranks 78th, as Jefferson is not a fluid natural passer, but he can throw it well enough to keep defenses off-balance. Alabama counters with a balanced, pro-style attack that is currently 6th in total offense, 10th in rushing and 33rd in passing.
The work Arkansas has done making K.J. Jefferson into a legitimate threat under center is nothing short of miraculous, because he was mostly a one-trick pony before Pittman’s staff got hold of him. Jefferson isn’t really a multi-read quarterback and doesn’t excel at throwing into specific windows, but he has good arm strength and uncommon mobility. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher with 274 yards on 64 carries (4.3 avg.) and 4 touchdowns; those totals include yardage lost to sacks. He’s also completing 69.1% of his passes, he’s thrown 8 touchdowns to just 1 interception, and he boasts a QB rating of 175.7. What Arkansas doesn’t have a lot of is depth.
The backup is Malik Hornsby, who hasn’t thrown a pass yet this year and only threw sparingly in 2021. Hornsby is equal to Jefferson as a runner, but Jefferson is far superior in both throwing skill and decision-making. The offense would likely be limited if Hornsby was forced into the game. Alabama will start Bryce Young, who has comparable running stats to Jefferson – more yards per attempt, but fewer total attempts – and is a superior passer.
Alabama also has two backup quarterbacks (Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson) that are better than Hornsby is. This isn’t to say Jefferson can’t hurt Alabama; he was more than even just a nuisance the last time these two teams got together and he’s got another year under his belt. But he isn’t Bryce Young. Advantage: Alabama
An injury to Dominque Johnson has put a crimp in Arkansas’ running back plans for sure, although starter Raheim Sanders (83 carries, 508 yards, 6.1 avg., 3 TD) is a quality SEC back in his own right. Arkansas’ rushing statistics rely heavily on what Jefferson adds to the mix at quarterback, however. Sanders’ backup is A.J. Green (23 carries, 99 yards, 4.3 avg., 1 TD), who has talent but has, so far in 2022, been a decided step down from Sanders when he’s in the game.
True freshman Rashod Dubinion is the third-team back but probably won’t see much action in this one; it will be Sanders and Green throughout. Alabama would have to add three of its top five rushers together to equal or exceed Sanders’ yardage count, but the point there is that Alabama has a lot of depth, along with greater flexibility. Jahmyr Gibbs and Jase McClellan will be the featured backs, while Roydell Williams will also play a role.
Like Arkansas, Alabama has gotten good rushing production from its quarterback. Trey Sanders and Jamarion Miller have also proved capable of contributing in a game like this. The other thing that separates Alabama from Arkansas aside from double the depth is the way Bama uses the running backs in the passing game. Gibbs alone has twice the receptions that Sanders has for Arkansas, and Sanders’ backup Green has yet to catch a pass (Dubinion has 1 catch). Alabama’s entire RB depth chart has at least one catch each; Gibbs is the team’s leading receiver in terms of receptions and is second in yardage. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s group took a big step forward against Vanderbilt, but that doesn’t mean all the problems are fixed yet. As the Crimson Tide begins to get its injured receivers back, though, things could change. That’s expected to happen, at least to an extent, this week, as Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell might be ready to contribute again. If he is, Alabama will add the deep threat it has been lacking.
As it is, Traeshon Holden has continued to show improvement week by week, and Ja’Corey Brooks is coming off a breakout performance against the Commodores in which he put up more than 100 yards. Jermaine Brooks is starting to look more comfortable, and true freshman Kobe Prentice has been reliable. Harrell’s return would shuffle the depth chart a bit, probably cutting out some of the reps another true freshman, Isaiah Bond, has been getting. If Harrell isn’t ready yet, expect to see both Bond and fellow freshman Kendrick Law continuing to add depth, along with Christian Leary.
The other two injured receivers, JoJo Earle and freshman Aaron Anderson, either likely won’t play at all (Earle) or aren’t ready for a bigger role (Anderson). Tight end Cameron Latu has become a real option in the passing game, and RB Jahmyr Gibbs lines up wide almost as often as he does in the backfield. Freshman H-back Amari Niblack figures to see his role increase over the next few weeks.
For Arkansas, production has been concentrated to the top of the depth chart – WRs Matt Landers, Jadon Haselwood and Warren Thompson and TE Trey Knox. Only one backup receiver (Ketron Jackson Jr.) has recorded a catch. Thompson is a Florida State transfer, Haselwood an Oklahoma transfer and Landers a Toledo transfer. However they got to Fayetteville, it works. Knox is more of a big receiver playing tight end rather than a real force as a blocker, but he did add weight over the offseason and it seems to have helped.
The commonality to all four of Arkansas’ lead receivers is height – they range from 6’2” to 6’5” and Alabama’s length at cornerback is almost a must in a matchup like this. This is a close call; production per spot favors Arkansas, while Alabama holds a clear edge in depth. If we thought Harrell was not just back, but back at 100 percent, we’d probably take the Tide. But we feel the strength of the players Arkansas has at this position is as much a reason for Jefferson’s improved QB play as Jefferson’s own improvement has been. Advantage: Arkansas
Alabama is starting to fix its issues, which surprisingly came from the interior of the line rather than the tackle spots despite the superior experience of the three middle starters. The “fix” may have been the insertion of true freshman G Tyler Booker to the mix. Booker has replaced sixth-year senior Kendall Randolph as the swing guard, actually displacing Randolph back to his blocking tight end role.
The starters remain Javion Cohen at LG and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at RG, but Booker will play both during the course of this game. The tackles have been solid – Tyler Steen on the left side, J.C. Latham on the right side. Center Darrian Dalcourt has been passable but not dominant. Alabama actually has better metrics than does Arkansas – Alabama ranks 21st in sacks allowed and 27th in tackles for loss allowed, while Arkansas is 44th and 54th in the same categories. But that may be more a function of the competition each team has faced.
Arkansas will start an upperclassman-laden lineup of Luke Jones and Dalton Wagner at the tackles, Ricky Stromberg at center and Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham at the guards. Limmer and Latham are juniors while the other three are seniors, and Stromberg may be the best center in the SEC. Again, Alabama has an edge in depth; reserve tackle Ty’Kieast Crawford is the only Hog with appreciable experience. Alabama seems to be getting better, but it’s going to have to prove it against something a little higher up the difficulty chart than Vanderbilt first. Arkansas was expected to have one of the 2-3 best offensive lines in the SEC in the preseason, and has done nothing to betray that prediction yet. Advantage: Arkansas
Arkansas operates from a 4-2-5 base set, with the expectation being that the extra defensive back in base formation would help the Razorbacks against the pass. It hasn’t happened yet; Arkansas ranks 91st in total defense and 76th in scoring defense, largely because the pass defense ranks 126th overall and 85th in pass efficiency defense. Rush defense numbers have been strong, though, at 27th overall. Alabama is top 10 in all categories – 2nd in total defense, 3rd in scoring, 4th in rushing, 6th in raw pass defense and 7th in pass efficiency defense out of a base 3-4 over/under.
Arkansas leads the nation in sacks and is 17th in tackles for loss, stats that nobody expected to see prior to the start of the year. Again, it’s been transfers – former Georgia Tech DE Jordan Domineck and erstwhile LSU Tiger Landon Jackson – that have done the most damage up front. Zach Williams and Jashaud Stewart, players originally recruited to Fayetteville, are still listed atop the last published depth chart, but it will be Domineck and Jackson who play the most there. Inside, Arkansas will rotate four players – Eric Gregory, Isaiah Nichols, Cameron Ball and Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton. Sack production falls sharply among the interior DL, as those four players have combined for just 1 sack.
For Alabama, Jaheim Oatis will start in the middle with a likely DE pairing of Tim Smith and Justin Eboigbe for this game, with D.J. Dale playing across the line. Byron Young suffered a sprained ankle late against Vanderbilt and his status is uncertain. Alabama’s second group – Jah -Marien Latham, Jamil Burroughs, Tim Keenan and Damon Payne Jr. – haven’t played much until late in games, so it’s not yet clear whether Alabama will promote a player from that group to the A-rotation if Young can’t go.
If Young was healthy, we’d be taking Alabama here – Alabama ranks 19th in sacks and 21st in tackles for loss, and the Crimson Tide has gotten more pressure from its interior players – but with Young on the mend, it’s a tough call. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama transfer Drew Sanders has been the talk of the media this week, and not just because he transferred from one of these teams to the other. He has 5.5 sacks at this point in the season, 2 passes defended and has forced 2 fumbles, and Nick Saban opined that if he’d stuck it out in Tuscaloosa, he’d probably be starting somewhere on the Crimson Tide’s defense now. He’s been the most productive linebacker on either team, including Alabama’s much-more heralded Will Anderson Jr., albeit not by much. Sanders has also managed to overshadow consummate program guy Bumper Pool, the Razorbacks’ middle linebacker, although Pool has 5 more total tackles than does Sanders. In the Arkansas scheme, the inside linebackers have tackles funneled to them, so comparing the two units is not exactly like-for-like. Chris Paul also gives Arkansas a quality backup, but the depth chart comes to a screeching halt after that.
We sound like a broken record here, but again Alabama’s depth comes through – outside linebackers Anderson, Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner, with Quandarrius Robinson and Demouy Kennedy also available; inside linebackers Jaylen Moody, Henry To’o To’o and Deontae Lawson, with Kendrick Blackshire backing them up.
For Alabama, Moody leads the team in tackles, but he’s being pushed by Lawson, and To’o To’o has become a dynamo as he’s gotten more accustomed to the scheme. Outside, Anderson trails Sanders by just a single sack and continues to make big plays when they’re most needed, while we’re watching to see if this is the week Braswell pulls even with or goes around Turner at the other slot. Hats off to Sanders (and Pool, lest he become the forgotten man) for a great start to the season, but Alabama simply has more players across the board and Arkansas’ production simply hasn’t been better by a large enough margin – especially in pass coverage – to leapfrog the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
There is no close call here; the Razorback secondary has been atrocious, and now injuries are starting to become an issue. Arkansas’ best defensive back, S Jalen Catalon, will miss this game and the rest of the season as well with a shoulder injury. Nickel safety Myles Slusher has been banged up and out for portions of games, but is expected to play the entire game this week.
Arkansas lost CB LaDarrius Bishop for the year against Texas A&M, and his replacement, LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern, is himself a bit gimpy, as well as not having been able to step into a starting role as quickly as Arkansas had probably hoped. If McGlothern can’t right the ship, both health-wise and performance-wise this week, then the Razorbacks will be forced to start Malik Chavis next to Hudson Clark at cornerback, and would have to dip into walk-ons or as-yet untested freshmen in order to field a full complement. Simeon Blair and Georgia transfer Latavious Brini will start at the two high safety spots.
Alabama will start Terrion Arnold and Ga’Quincy McKinstry at cornerback, with Eli Ricks and Khyree Jackson likely playing as well. Brian Branch and Malachi Moore will start at Star and dime safety. DeMarcco Hellams will start at one of the high safety spots along with, presumably, Jordan Battle, who appeared to injure a hamstring late against Vanderbilt, but didn’t appear to be in much distress after the game.
If Battle can’t go, Moore will start in his spot, and when Alabama needs six DBs, it will either come from Moore going back to dime and Devonta Smith or Kristian Story coming in at free safety, or Jahquez Robinson playing dime. Either way, this is a big Bama edge. Advantage: Alabama
The miss against Texas A&M aside, Cam Little is considered one of the SEC’s best kickers, but he’s 2-for-4 on the year, missing both kicks he’s attempted from beyond 40 yards. Arkansas ranks only 123rd in net punting, with Max Fletcher struggling so far this year. Arkansas is 124th in kickoff return defense and 125th in punt return defense, but the Razorbacks return kicks well (18th in punt returns and 11th in kickoff returns). Still, these are shaky numbers overall and point to some potential boom/bust situations when a kicker is somewhere on the field.
Alabama’s Will Reichard continues to be superb on kickoffs and clutch on field goals. Punter James Burnip has been solid. Alabama’s real damage has come in the return game; Bama is 4th in punt returns and 12th in kickoff returns. Return defense has been top-half of FBS and getting better. Again, not a very close category. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Arkansas in two, but because of the injury to DE Byron Young, a 5-3 tally with the Razorbacks taking the DL category would raise no eyebrows. In fact, linebacker is fairly close as well. In regard to OL-DL cross-matchups, that’s where the real nitpicking starts and where this entire game might turn.
In those cross-matchups, when Alabama’s DL is on the field, the best-case scenario is going to be a push, especially without Young. What Alabama has to avoid there is getting tired late in the game from not having Young available in the rotation. Arkansas is simply too technically sound up front for Alabama to expect to have their way at the line of scrimmage. Flipping it, when Arkansas’ DL is on the field, it’s going to take a significantly better effort from Alabama than anything we’ve seen so far this year to even get to a push situation. We’re calling that matchup for the Razorbacks until proven otherwise.
That puts Alabama in the uncomfortable position of having to win a game away from the trenches. It puts things in the hands primarily of Alabama’s skill athletes on offense being able to take advantage of the Razorbacks’ weakness in the back end. The OL must give Bryce Young enough time to find matchups he likes, and the receivers have to execute at their highest level so far in 2022. Conversely, Alabama’s secondary needs to throw up roadblocks in the path of Arkansas’ wide receivers, not out of the question at all, but a scenario made more difficult by the size of the players Arkansas has.
Taken individually in this way, it would appear Arkansas is much closer to Alabama in quality than it might look on paper. That would be a simplistic take.
Even granting the fact that Arkansas made excellent use of the transfer portal, Alabama has much, much better depth overall. The chief concern for Arkansas, at every position on the field, is a lack of functional depth. If this comes down to a war of attrition on any level, Alabama will win it handily. It may not even need to get that far if Alabama is able to win enough matchups out of the gate, because Arkansas can’t bring a lot of quality off the bench to change the look of the game.
There is no doubt the Razorbacks are well-coached, and Sam Pittman and his staff have done more with less since taking over the program than most other coaches in the SEC have done with theirs. But in Alabama, the Razorbacks will be facing a defense every bit as tough as the one they faced when playing Texas A&M – except this time, they’ll also be facing an offense capable of putting on pressure in ways A&M could not.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN