The Crimson Tide Peek: Arkansas Razorbacks Edition

The Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in a matchup of Top 20 teams. The last time the Crimson Tide traveled to Arkansas, it escaped with a narrow 1-point victory.

The Alabama-Arkansas game used to be one that old-school football fans could look forward to every year. Both teams would tend to line up in big, jumbo sets with the I-formation and try to pound the ball.

Those days, largely, are gone.

Saturday’s game (7 pm ET, ESPN) should have a little bit more offensive flair than years past. There is going to be a lot more spread shotgun — from both teams.

Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks still want to run. But they’re not afraid to air it out with Austin Allen at quarterback.

Alabama has had a much more balanced offense under coordinator Lane Kiffin in 2016 than in years past — something that endlessly irked the “run the ball” Alabama fans. This despite the fact that Alabama has had unprecedented success on offense under Kiffin.

Even so, both teams know they can still get in a phone booth and play with almost anyone in the country. Old school and new school fans alike should each get what they want in this game.

The Alabama Crimson Tide will put their nine-game winning streak against the Razorbacks on the line this Saturday night. Bret Bielema is now in his fourth year in Arkansas and would love nothing more than to show his program is not able to play with, and beat, the big boys of the SEC West.

Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema knows he needs to avoid another 0-2 start in SEC West play. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Arkansas had its first winning season in SEC play by going 5-3. However, the Hogs once again failed to get off to a good start — going 1-2 in their first three SEC games.

If Bielema wants to convince the Arkansas faithful that his system is working, he needs to win Saturday and avoid another 0-2 start in conference play.

Of course, this game is very important for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Alabama is contending for a fifth national title in eight seasons. A loss at Arkansas would significantly hurt their chances. A win keeps Alabama in the driver’s seat in the SEC West.

Here is how Alabama and Arkansas will square off this weekend.

When Alabama is on offense

The Crimson Tide offense will certainly be looking for a faster start in this game — having not scored a touchdown in the first quarter against a Power 5 team so far this season. Getting off to a fast start will certainly help take a rowdy home crowd out of the game a bit. It will also allow the young backfield to settle into the game.

This will be true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts’ second start in an SEC road game. Six games into the season, it’s difficult to consider Hurts a true freshman anymore. Also, he should be feeling significantly less jitters after already playing a highly touted Ole Miss defense in what was a highly publicized matchup in Oxford.

As for Arkansas, their defense runs a 4-2-5. Every down. All the time. The two inside linebackers do not leave the field. They claim to run a 4-3 but haven’t appeared to do so in a game this season.

Honestly, it hasn’t been working out for Arkansas — as the Hogs currently rank 52nd in total defense giving up 374 yards per game.

Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Trevor Knight (8) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Razorback’s primary linebackers (WLB Dre Greenlaw and MLB Brooks Ellis) have been out of position on a lot on running plays. Arkansas is allowing an average of 163 yards rushing per game. A large factor in that has been quarterback runs. TCU’s Kenny Hill went for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight ran for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.

Because Arkansas only rides with those two linebackers, it opens up a lot of space in the middle of the field when opposing teams go to the spread. By having four receivers out wide, one of the linebackers shifts out to cover. If the offense goes empty, it essentially leads the middle of the field empty.

Trevor Knight was able to take advantage of this on one of his TD runs. A&M went four-wide to start the formation and shifted the RB out pre-snap. This left no one in the middle of the field and a designed QB draw went for a 50-plus-yard TD run.

While the rush defense has looked pretty porous, the Razorbacks’ pass defense appears to have improved. At least since last year. Arkansas’ pass defense is currently 55th in the nation. Last year it finished the year 109th.

However, this trend likely isn’t is because of anything Arkansas is doing. It likely has more to do with the fact Arkansas hasn’t seen a decent passing quarterback yet this season. (Sorry Aggie fans, Trevor Knight just doesn’t have an elite arm.)

Hurts should have a relatively easy go of it in the passing game this Saturday. First, Arkansas rarely, if ever, blitzes. They just can’t afford to because they run with those two linebackers on every down. Also, they play a lot of quarters coverage — which prevents exotic blitzes from the defensive backs.

By not showing Arkansas a whole lot pre-snap, Tide center Bradley Bozeman should be able to get his fellow offensive linemen set up. Just as important, Hurts will be able to make a good number of pre-snap reads.

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) will have opportunities to run on the Arkansas Razorbacks defense. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Lane Kiffin is going to love the matchup with this defense. It sets up perfectly for the jet-sweep motion and a running quarterback. Alabama is going to line up consistently in a spread formation and get those linebackers following motion. With clear understanding of gap assignments from the O-line, there should be pretty of running room for Hurts, Harris, and Jacobs.

Additionally, Alabama has enough talent at the receiver position to create significant mismatches. As mentioned, the Hogs defense loves to play primarily quarters coverage on the back end.

There are plenty of ways to beat such a matchup. Offenses can dink and dunk to continue setting up short-yardage situations, run play-action to get safeties out of space, and get their best athlete on a linebacker or safety and beat him one-on-one.

There are positive mismatches all over the field for Alabama. Lane Kiffin will set up OJ Howard and Calvin Ridley in the formation to get a linebacker and safety on them in single coverage. Arkansas doesn’t have an athlete at either spot good enough to handle that much size and speed combination.

For Alabama fans with good memories, it was a long touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley that gave Alabama the lead late in the fourth quarter a year ago. Ridley was matched up alone on a safety and never looked back.

Looking back to that Arkansas-Texas A&M game again, Trevor Knight was able to hit Josh Reynolds for a 90-plus-yard TD. The Aggies took advantage of one-one-one coverage against DJ Dean (starting corner Jared Collins was on the sideline).

Alabama will ask Hurts to take some shots. The question is whether Hurts can connect enough to really hurt the Hogs.

If the Alabama offense executes, there isn’t much that the Arkansas defense can do to slow the Tide down.

When Alabama is on defense

As mentioned, Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos has made it his mission to make the Razorbacks more balanced since arriving last season. They don’t mind going double tight-end, but they certainly run a lot more spread shotgun now than a traditional Bret Bielema team.

This means that everyone on the Alabama defense needs to be ready to see the field at any time. The Crimson Tide will have a chance to use their 3-4 formation as well as their nickel and dime packages.

This Hog offensive line is still very big. Left Tackle Dan Skipper weighs in at 326 pounds, and the guards and center weigh in the 310’s.

Arkansas Razorbacks tackle Dan Skipper (70) is a big man. Can Alabama’s Tim Williams win his matchups with him Saturday and cause chaos in the backfield? Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Despite their size, however, there is a lot to be desired from this unit. There has been some mixing and matching on the right side of the offensive line. Colton Jackson began the season at right tackle but that spot is now manned by Brian Wallace.

As a unit, They have been impressively bad on third-and-3 or shorter situations. They ran the ball on six plays from inside the 3 against Texas A&M and could not punch it in.

Being weak in run blocking, especially in short yardage, is not a good recipe to beat Alabama. The Crimson Tide is only giving up 68.4 rush yards per game.

Alabama will still need to have good gap discipline in this game. The Razorbacks have a solid 1-2 punch with their running backs.

Rawleigh Williams has shown what he can do when he gets a crease. He has good explosion and you don’t want to rely on safeties to tackle him. Williams already has 559 yards this season, and Devwah Whaley is averaging 6.7 yards a carry.

Surprisingly, the most dangerous part of this Arkansas offense is their passing game. They have moved from using the run to set up the pass to doing the exact opposite.

New starting quarterback Austin Allen is off to a good start this season. He has a 167.7 passer rating and is completing just under 68 percent of his passes. Alabama will need to create pressure on Allen and not let him set his feet.

Allen is surrounded by a pretty good group of receivers. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is a threat to catch the ball in traffic; especially inside the 20s. Sprinkle also benefits by being a good run blocker, so he is able to stay on the field for most of Arkansas’s snaps.

On the outside, Arkansas has a pretty good duo of Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan. Hatcher is clearly the Razorbacks’ big-play receiver as he’s averaging over 20 yards per catch. Morgan appears to be Allen’s Mr. Reliable and the go-to receiver when the Hogs need a first down.

This is a game where the Alabama secondary needs to reestablish themselves as one of the country’s best units. Playmakers like Marlon Humphrey, Anthony Averrett, and Ronnie Harrison were beaten on entirely too many plays against Ole Miss a few weeks ago.

This is another receiving group with a good amount of talent. However, they aren’t built the same as the receivers for the Rebels — like tight ends who play on the corners.

Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen is a good field general. Alabama will need to force him to dink and dunk and not hit the big play. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Also, Allen isn’t like Chad Kelly who just throws the ball up expecting his receiver to come down with it. Allen is going to take his shots downfield by design, but not so much with 50-50 balls.

The biggest questions here are how do Alabama’s outside linebackers and corners hold up in this game.

Tim Williams is an every-down linebacker now. Can he play the run on first and second down? Especially when the Hogs go with two tight ends? The same holds true for Ryan Anderson. Both will need to play their part when Alabama inevitably has to use their 3-4 front.

Again, can the Alabama corners of Humphrey and Averrett hold up in their own one-on-one matchups? If they can prevent the big play, it will force Arkansas to have to use long drives to score. With that suspect offensive line, I’m not so sure they can do it.

Game Prediction

There is no denying that Bret Bielema has significantly improved this Arkansas roster. The year before he arrived, and in his first season, Alabama defeated Arkansas 52-0. Since then, the Crimson Tide have won by a combined 14 points.

The Razorbacks know if they knock off Alabama, it would be a statement win. It would also bring their SEC record to 1-1 and they would be right back in the SEC West Division hunt.

Arkansas is going to play this game hard and there certainly won’t be any quit in them.

All of that said, I still believe the talent gap heavily favors Alabama. Arkansas will be in this contest for the majority of the game, but Alabama will pull away late.

Score Prediction: Alabama 27, Arkansas 13