After a mild scare on the road in College Station last weekend, Alabama comes home on Saturday to face Arkansas. The Crimson Tide is a 30-point favorite, and ESPN’s FPI gives the Hogs a mere two percent chance of winning. The S&P+ system is a little more charitable, pinning the odds of an Arkansas win at eight percent.
Bama was also a huge favorite last week, though, and it didn’t end up covering against the Aggies. Is this another game where the Tide can name its score, or will it be a tighter contest? Here’s what to watch for when the teams square off.
Which Arkansas team will show up?
The Razorbacks have been terribly inconsistent this year. They’ve shown up for their two cupcake games, defeating FCS Florida A&M and New Mexico State by a combined 91-31. They also represented themselves well in Arlington, Texas in their overtime loss to Texas A&M.
However, they were completely uncompetitive in a 28-7 loss to TCU in Week 2. Last Saturday, they were down just 17-10 to South Carolina at the half, but a pick-six and a 73-yard fumble return in the third quarter broke the game open for the Gamecocks. The Razorbacks ended up falling 48-22, with three of the touchdowns against them being scored by Will Muschamp’s defense.
The 2-3 record and the fashion of the loss to the Gamecocks has Arkansas fans looking up Bret Bielema’s buyout. If the Boss Hog wants something other than contractual obligations to help him keep his job, showing up well against Alabama would be the thing to do. Even without a win, a close loss to the Tide can help a coach’s standing a little. Just ask Kevin Sumlin this week.
An opportunity for Alabama’s defensive front
Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart did the SEC West a favor when he took over at Georgia by poaching coveted offensive line coach Sam Pittman from Fayetteville. The results have been disastrous for the Razorbacks this year.
Arkansas has two primary running backs in Devwah Whaley and Vanderbilt graduate transfer David Williams. Whaley finished the South Carolina game with minus-3 net yards on six carries. The line gives Whaley and Williams the opportunity to gain at least five yards on only a third of their carries, which is not good.
The situation in passing is not better. In fact, it’s hard to watch an Arkansas game and not get sympathy pains in your ribs for Austin Allen. He’s been sacked on 9.3 percent of his dropbacks, and he gets hit too much of the time even when he gets the ball out of his hand. In passing situations — second down with at least eight yards to go and third or fourth down with at least five yards to go — the line is allowing sacks on 15 percent of dropbacks. That’s 122nd nationally.
There should be plenty of opportunities for the Tide’s front seven to get into the backfield and cause some havoc. The line held up well without Da’Shawn Hand last week against A&M with Isaiah Buggs picking up much of the slack. Look for another great game from them this week.
Punching it in from the red zone
One of Nick Saban’s concerns from preseason camp was his red-zone offense. The Tide sits at fourth in the conference by getting points on 90 percent of red-zone chances, but a quarter of their red-zone scores have been field goals. Their touchdown percentage in the red zone is only 68, which is sixth in the conference. From a national perspective, it’s good but not great.
The Arkansas defense began the year by being generous in the red zone. Five of six red-zone attempts in the Hogs’ first two games went for touchdowns. Since then, only six of 13 red zone attempts among Texas A&M, New Mexico State, and South Carolina have gotten into the end zone. This suggests the Razorback defense has settled into a bend-but-don’t-break regime.
A goal for the Crimson Tide offense on Saturday should be to break that defense. Alabama has superior capabilities that should be able to find paydirt in this matchup. Brian Daboll should be able to use Jalen Hurts’ dual-threat capabilities to get the ball in the end zone more often than other Arkansas opponents.