Despite the turbulent offseason for the Arkansas program, the Razorbacks and interim head coach John L. Smith have a great opportunity facing them when they welcome Alabama to Fayetteville on Sept. 15.
College football may not have a preseason, but Arkansas will use the first two contests against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to work out the kinks before Alabama comes calling on Sept. 15.
The Razorbacks—who begin the season ranked No. 10—had quite an offseason with turnover on their roster and the saga surrounding Bobby Petrino that ended with his messy exit from Fayetteville and the arrival of interim head coach John L. Smith.
With so many questions at positions like wide receiver on offense and finding difference-makers on defense to replace the likes of departed stars defensive end Jake Bequette and safety Tramain Thomas, the Hogs will get two games to try and gel together before welcoming the defending national champions in week three.
Still with weapons like quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, the Razorbacks have a tremendous opportunity to knock off one of the SEC’s titans and take a giant step towards getting a leg up in the race for the Western division.
Can the Hogs knock off the Crimson Tide for the first time since 2006?
Here are seven keys to winning the Alabama game.
The last time the two teams met in Fayetteville resulted in a narrow 24-20 loss for the Hogs.
The Razorbacks have lost three of the last four meetings by 24 points or more, with the lone exception being the narrow 24-20 defeat suffered the last time the two teams squared off in Fayetteville in 2010.
Coincidentally, that meeting was also the only one in which Arkansas was able to get off to a quick start and score first.
With Alabama bringing its youngest team in recent memory for its first real road test in the SEC, the Razorbacks would be best served to seize the early momentum jumpstart a crowd that would turn into a frenzy if they were able to secure an early lead.
LB Alonzo Highsmith and the Hogs defense has to find a way to slow down a punishing Tide ground attack.
Facing perhaps the best offensive line in the nation, the Razorbacks cannot expect to let Alabama’s punishing ground game control the tempo and dominate the line of scrimmage.
In the last four meetings between these two teams, Alabama has out-rushed Arkansas by an average of more than 160 yards per contest.
Davis and fellow Hogs rushers Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo could provide a boost by finding some room to run against a formidable veteran Tide defensive line.
Conversely on other side of the ball, their defensive line cannot let Alabama chew up the clock and methodically wear down its defense.
If defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and his troops can the toughest of tasks in finding a way to stem the Tide’s ground game enough, it could help them pull the upset.
The Hogs opportunistic defense has to find a way coerce Tide QB AJ McCarron into making mistakes.
Alabama is a team that rarely makes backbreaking mistakes that lead to its own demise—as evidenced by the fact that they finished second in the SEC (23rd nationally) in turnover margin last season.
However, the Razorbacks defense has been opportunistic in creating timely turnovers—with only Alabama (77) and LSU (80) racking up more turnovers than Arkansas’ 76 forced miscues in the last three seasons.
The team that ends up on the favorable side of the turnover margin in this contest will likely emerge victorious.
Breeding led the SEC in punting last season, and his leg could help Arkansas gain valuable field position.
In Alabama’s lone loss to LSU last season, the special teams unit for the Tigers may have been the biggest difference that led to the only blemish on Alabama’s 2011 season.
With a pair of veteran kicking specialists that are among the upper echelon in the SEC, the Razorbacks may prove to have a similar advantage over the Crimson Tide.
Punter Dylan Breeding led the SEC in averaging more than 45 yards per punt while placekicker Zach Hocker converted on 21-of-27 field goal attempts last season.
The duo—like LSU’s Brad Wing and Drew Alleman—are capable of impacting a close game.
Davis and the rest of the Hogs talented group of RBs could find room to operate against Alabama in the passing game.
Alabama’s defense has finished no lower than 10th nationally in rush defense over the last four seasons—including leading the nation in that category last season.
Given their history of stuffing the Hogs ground attack (as noted earlier) and the dynamic receiving ability of Davis, Wingo and Johnson—Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino may be best served in getting his talented tailbacks the ball in space.
Attacking the flats and the edges with the backs can also help loosen things up for receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg.
Hamilton will provide Alabama's new-look secondary with its toughest test early in the season.
If there is one weakness that jumps out in looking at Alabama’s defense, it is its lack of experienced corners other than junior Dee Milliner.
In fact, none of the other projected contributors have had any starts on the college level and none were able to earn significant playing time at corner last season.
With a strong-armed quarterback like Wilson, Arkansas must find a way to test the Tide’s newcomers in the secondary.
Given how teams like South Carolina, LSU and Auburn were able to exploit a young Crimson Tide defensive backfield in 2010, the Razorbacks are hoping to follow a similar blueprint to earn a victory over Alabama.
Similar to what Ryan Mallett was able to do against 'Bama two years ago, Wilson could have a huge day against the Tide if the OL keeps him upright.
Wilson—a potential Heisman Trophy candidate—is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and a preseason first-team All-SEC selection.
Alabama was able to fluster him in last season’s 38-14 romp over the Razorbacks—sacking him once and returning an interception for a touchdown that essentially broke the game open in the Tide’s favor.
If Arkansas expects a different result on Sept. 15, the offensive line will have to protect its leader against perhaps the toughest defense it may face all season.
Assuming the line can provide ample protection, Wilson is capable of making enough plays to carry his team to what would be a landmark victory for the Razorbacks' program.