This weekend’s game against Arkansas may be Nick Saban’s toughest challenge of the season. No, the opponent isn’t Bama’s toughest challenge – that’s not what makes this one so interesting. No, this game may be the toughest because it wasn’t supposed to be tough. This one is interesting because it wasn’t supposed to be interesting. Arkansas wasn’t supposed to be this good and Alabama certainly wasn’t supposed to have this many question marks. Somehow Nick Saban has to find a way to motivate and inspire this group to play their best football on a weekend that they weren’t supposed to have to gear up for. But maybe most interestingly, this week we’ll find out if Alabama’s football team can be a team that AJ McCarron can be proud of. Note to AJ – from what I hear from inside the locker room, there is actually more leadership on this year’s team. Hopefully that will shine thru on Saturday…
Last year’s game against Arkansas saw the bacon getting sizzled quickly. Hog balls, anyone? The Tide’s running game looked like the running of the pachyderms and these little piggies cried all the way home before the first half even ended. It was a rout. However, this year’s Bama team doesn’t appear to have the same thunderous punch in the running game and with the loss of Ryan Kelly and injuries to Arie Kouandjio and Blake Sims, moving the football will certainly be more of a challenge this year.
Defensively, Alabama and Nick Saban get to return to that classic good ole American version of smash mouth football. Where is Dave Neal for this “Big man on big man” tilt? Arkansas boasts the largest offensive line in the country – in college or the NFL – and they have two outstanding backs who can tote the rock. Also, Brandon Allen is healthy this season and is more of a weapon in the passing game than he was last year. So, as you can tell, this ain’t last year’s matchup.
As for the W2W4, know this: it’s not about Arkansas this week. No, this week it’s all about Alabama. If the Tide does what it should, then it should handle business and return to the Capstone as a more confident and resilient bunch. That’s what should happen….here’s what to watch for….
Alabama on Offense
Alabama’s approach against Ole Miss was extremely conservative but I continue to believe that is because Blake Sims isn’t 100% healthy. I also believe that Ole Miss’ secondary and defense against the passing game is exceptional, so Bama truly attacked them in the best way they thought possible – by hammering at them on the ground. Were it not for a ridiculous amount of penalties, drops and negative plays, Alabama could have stayed on schedule and been far more productive against the Rebels but, alas, that didn’t happen. This season, Alabama has continuted to hold it’s own feet at gunpoint, pulling the trigger time and shooting themselves in the foot and time again. This week, that has to stop. The Tide offense needs to begin to turn the corner where penalties and blocking assignments are concerned and get back to the mistake free football that is the hallmark of a Nick Saban coached team.
Oops I Did It Again: You may as well line up Brittany Spears on the offensive line because if she’d just lay there and take it then she’d save us at least five yards a pop. False starts. Snap infractions. Holding penalties. It’s been a ridiculous array of ineptitude and now that Arky fans think they have a chance to pull the upset, it’s going to be yet another hyped road environment for Blake Sims and the line. Time to get it together boys.
All Over You: Thankfully, the Arky front seven isn’t nearly as quick and aggressive as the Ole Miss front seven is and they don’t appear to be overly athletic. In particular, the Hog linebackers typically are easily blocked so even our overhauled Bama line should be able to complete their assignments and open up some holes on Saturday.
Twilight Zone: Perhaps it’s because the Hog linebackers don’t have the ability to play man but the Razorbacks appear to play a lot of zone coverage – similar to Ole Miss. Now, granted, I only watched Arkansas against A&M in preparation for this W2W4 so they could have just been playing a ton of zone due to the Aggie passing attack. Regardless, the Aggies roasted these little piggies deep numerous times so look for Amari Cooper to get loose a few times behind the secondary. I’d also like for DeAndrew White to remind folks that he’s still on the team, as well. Also, there’s a ton of room behind the linebackers on the deep in or dig routes – Auburn exposed this flaw repeatedly when they faced off earlier this season.
*Note: I continue to be more and more impressed with Chris Black and would like to see him out there more often.
Swing Dancin: The corners for Arkansas like to drop pretty deep so the deep slot between them and the deep safeties is a really tight squeeze (they nearly picked the Aggies three different times on this particular throw). However, because the corners drop so deep, swing passes to the running backs in the flats should be wide open. It’s too bad Tyren Jones appears to be injured as he could excel in this type of open space.
Back to Life, Back to Reality: When you watch Ole Miss’ defense on tape, their speed and tenacity really pops off the screen. When you watch Arkansas’ defense, nothing really stands out except for missed tackles. Darius Philon, a former member of a Bama recruiting class until he was told that instead of having a scholarship offer he’d have to greyshirt, did show up several times against the A&M center so Bradley Bozeman may have a tough assignment on Saturday. However, I thought Bozeman (a greyshirt recruit, himself) acquitted himself very well as a blocker and only needs to elevate his shotgun snaps in order to get a passing grade.
O.J. Can You See?: No one had a worse game against the Rebs than OJ Howard so I’m really curious to see how the staff rewards him with playing time. His blocking was atrocious and you know they are sick and tired of his costly holding penalties. We’ll see how much time he gets on the field on Saturday
Bleed it Out(side): A&M got out wide on a reverse and on a couple of sweeps and that seemed to expose the lack of team speed of the Hog defenders. Last year these types of running plays made the Hogs squeal so look for several running plays to go outside the tackles.
If Alabama can’t get back to being a competent offensive team against the Hogs then we will be in big trouble the rest of this season. This is not a good defensive team and they seem more than content with sitting in zones and hoping for other teams to make mistakes. Prior to the beginning of the season, Nick Saban said he wanted to get back that physical ass kickin’ style of football that he originally brought to the Capstone so after a miserable failing at this in the Grove, this Saturday will be the perfect opportunity to practice a little “make his ass quit.”
Alabama on Defense
Here comes the boom! Here comes the boom! The Razorback offensive line is the biggest one in all of football and they are not just big – they are talented. They have produced gaping holes throughout the season against smaller, inferior defensive linemen who were probably better suited to stop today’s spread attacks than today’s road graders. However, Nick Saban is Bret Bielema’s huckleberry as he has the beefy, girthy, physical defensive line that is the kryptonite to this attack. The Hogs will call for several play action passes that could produce some open receivers but, by and large, they do not possess the type of talented skill players at receiver that the rest of the conference seems to enjoy. It will be a man’s game in the trenches and the thought here is that the Tide defense is geared to stop this kind of attack, so long as they can man up on Saturday. Given the team’s mood coming out of Oxford, this shouldn’t be a problem.
DRAW!: Arkansas’ favorite play is the lead draw. The tackles appear to pass set, inviting the defensive ends to come up the field to rush the passer. They then shove the ends up the field and the fullback or Hback comes downhill and wipes out the linebacker assigned to that gap. The rest of the line is typically able to engage and hold their blocks so this creates a pretty sizable hole for the backs to run thru. A&M adjusted to this in their game by not sending their ends flying up the field. Once they did this, they seemingly began to win the line of scrimmage more times than not as the game wore on.
Where’s the Beef: Arkansas isn’t subtle. They like to put 8 or 9 guys up around the line of scrimmage, employing two tight ends and a fullback in a 100% run look. They want you to know they are coming right at you and they don’t care that you know it’s coming. Grab your lunch pail boys, you’re going to work.
Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle: The two Arkansas running backs are outstanding. Alex Collins is a former five star running back but, to me, Jonathan Williams looks to be the better of the two. He has size and decent speed but his patience and strength are next level attributes. However, what sets him apart is his ability to shake and bake. He’s more than a handful in one on one situations so if you meet him in the open field, you might wanna phone a friend.
She’s So Tight: Hunter Henry, the Arky tight end, is their main threat in the passing game and they love to spring him loose on play action passes. The Razorbacks are deadly good in short yardage situations so Bielema likes to sometimes take a deep shot to a tight end off of play action in a 2nd and short or 3rd and short situation. I think he knows that if they miss the pass, they’ll just pick it up on fourth down.
The Thunder Rolls: Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland will be in their element on Saturday and it will be up to them to avoid the blocks of the center and the backs in order to make plays. They have been woeful in pass coverage but should excel at these fist fights in a phone booth.
Funky Bunch: Arkansas loves to run the toss sweep out of a bunch formation. They actually run a couple of different plays out of this look but they primarily like to bunch their receiver and tight ends next to the tackle and then use them to crack down on the defense so that their backs can get the edge. Look for this funky bunch formation quite a bit.
Breakdown: Similar to Alabama, Arkansas can ill afford to get behind the chains as they are not equipped to convert third and longs. As good as their O-line is, they were caught for tripping, holding and false starts against the Aggies. If they get behind the chains, there’s a better chance that Katy Perry is sober than there is for Arkansas to convert a first down.
I don’t mean to minimize the Hogs’ ability to threaten the Bama defense but it just so happens that Saban’s behemoths were born to stop this style of attack. A’shawn Robinson (where has he been?), Jarren Reed, Dalvin Tomlinson, DJ Pettway and Brandon Ivory should all be right at home knocking heads against these big pigs. Even DePriest and Ragland should be in their element on Saturday. With Ryan Anderson and Xzavier Dickson on the edges, the Tide shouldn’t give up much outside the tackles so it will take the Arkansas fans quite a while to call these hogs into the end zone. The one big fear that I have is that they will find a way to isolate our linebackers and safeties on play action, as that will likely lead to some big plays down the field.
As bad as the offense was (scoring 10 points) last week and as bad as the defense was last week (giving up three touchdowns in a little more than a quarter), the goat in the Grove was the Bama special teams. Other than JK “Great” Scott, special teams were a complete disaster. We will need to see some renewed venom on kick coverage (Arkansas is 2nd in the conference in return average) and we will likely see a new kick returner this week, as well. As for Adam Griffith, I still think he’s a talented kicker and I actually gave him some props for coming back and hitting a critical field goal against Ole Miss after missing badly on his first two attempts.
On the other side of the ledger, the Hogs’ place kicker is just 2 of 4 this season with one gigantic miss against Texas A&M that essentially lost them the game. Arkansas is ranked 6th in punting average at 43.2 (Bama is first at 48.5!) and they give up over six yards per return so this could be an opportunity to break one.
Alabama is the far more talented team on both sides of the ball – all those #1 recruiting classes should show up quite well this week. Arkansas’ strengths happen to be our strengths so there should be very few advantages for the Hogs going into this game. If Alabama can find a way to stop shooting themselves in the foot then you should see an improved offense. I also think that you’ll see Alabama open up the offense a bit in this game in order to take advantage of their numerous four and five star athletes. They’ll open it up not because of AJ McCarron’s comments but because the staff won’t be as scared of committing a turnover in this game. I think the Tide wins comfortably Saturday. If they don’t, well, there won’t be many other opportunities on the schedule for this ailing offense to get well.
Final Score: Alabama 31 Arkansas 14