Arkansas Razorbacks vs. Alabama Crimson Tide: Complete Game Preview
The Arkansas Razorbacks were riding smoothly up until game four at Rutgers. Since then, the road has been filled with speed bumps and pot holes.
All head coach Bret Bielema and fans could do on homecoming last Saturday was sit there and watch as the Hogs were completely dismantled at home, 52-7, by South Carolina. If that wasn't bad enough, Arkansas players have to put it out of their minds fast because this weekend, they travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama was No. 1 for the eighth straight week when the Top 25 poll was released Sunday at noon. The Crimson Tide won easily, 48-7, on the road over Kentucky last weekend.
The chances of the Razorbacks upsetting Alabama on their home turf are slim to none. However, crazier things have happened, which is why they play the game.
Here's a complete breakdown of everything you need to know, from keys to victory and players to watch, to what's being said about the matchup, and a final prediction.
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Place: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, AL
Radio: Arkansas Razorbacks Radio Network and Crimson Tide Sports Network
Spread: Alabama by 28 according to VegasInsider.com
Arkansas Keys to Victory
Disrupt AJ McCarron
AJ McCarron has consistently been one of the best signal callers in the country. He's not the most athletic guy, nor does he have the strongest arm or an elite skill set. But, he is a winner and consistently leads Alabama to wins in big-time games.
The Razorbacks need to put pressure on McCarron or he'll sit back in the pocket and pick apart the secondary. He's on pace to have the best season of his career, completing 68.9 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and three picks.
If the Hogs allow him to get in a rhythm, things could get ugly quick. McCarron has a plethora of options, with six receivers over 100 yards, that could give the Arkansas secondary lots of problems.
Find a Way to Move the Ball
It's been a struggle to score points for the Razorbacks lately. The offense has put up just 17 points in the last two games against Florida and South Carolina, two very good SEC defenses.
The Crimson Tide have the eighth ranked defense in the country and have completely shutdown the Hogs in the last two meetings, outscoring Arkansas 90-14. Quarterback Brandon Allen and the offense have to find ways to move the ball and put points on the board.
The Razorbacks have a great running game, but the ineffectiveness of the passing attack has slowed it down considerably. The Alabama rush defense is seventh in the FBS (87.2 YPG allowed) and will be another huge test for the Hogs. The pass defense hasn't been as good as usual, but is still in the upper echelon, ranking 21st (191.0 YPG).
Allen has to make some plays with his arm to allow the run game to get going and get some points on the board.
Slow Down Alabama's Rushing Attack
This is the most important key for Arkansas. The Crimson Tide offense hasn't been bad, but also hasn't been great (448.5 YPG, 43rd in FBS).
The ground game is 50th nationally (188.3 YPG); however, Alabama possesses a slew of guys who can run the ball, which will keep the the backs fresh and make Arkansas adjust to each guy's style. The main two backs are T.J. Yeldon (88 carries, 569 yards and six touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (41 rushes, 298 yards and five touchdowns). Both are capable of taking it to the house whenever they touch it.
The Razorbacks' best unit on defense is the D-line. Games against South Carolina and Texas A&M inflated its YPG allowed, but the unit has been very good in its other five games. The Hogs aren't going to shut down the Crimson Tide's run game completely, but slowing it down would help an ailing secondary considerably.
McCarron is a great quarterback, and the secondary will need all the help it can get. Slowing down the Tide's rushing attack would allow defensive coordinator Chris Ash to drop more guys back in coverage.
Alabama Keys to Victory
Slow Down Arkansas' Run Game
Just like the Hogs need to keep Alabama's run game in check, the Crimson Tide have to contain the Razorbacks' duo of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The two have combined for 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns with a 6.2 YPC average.
Slowing down Collins and Williams could possibly shut down the whole offense. The passing game has been inept, and Allen's accuracy has been abysmal at 48.1 percent on the year. Florida and South Carolina laid out the blueprint, showing if you stop Arkansas' ground game, you can bring its offense to a halt.
Attack the Razorbacks Secondary
After starting off in the top 15 in the country in YPG allowed, the Arkansas secondary has fallen to No. 52 in the country (221.4 YPG). It's been sliced up in the last four games and gave up 240 yards to Florida's Tyler Murphy, a junior who had never completed a pass until Jeff Driskel went out a few weeks ago.
The Alabama pass offense ranks 46th in the country, averaging 260.2 YPG. That's not elite, but when you have McCarron passing for a ton of yards, doesn't really matter.
His football IQ is off the charts and he places the ball exactly where it needs to be. He makes plays when his team needs it, plain and simple. McCarron has a chance to expose the Razorbacks secondary with a solid receiving corps led by DeAndrew White and Christion Jones.
Build Early Lead
If Alabama builds an early lead, you can go ahead and put this one in the books. Arkansas has shown in the last two games that once it's down, the offense isn't powerful enough to come back.
It'll be especially important with the game being in Tuscaloosa. If Alabama lets Arkansas hang around, the Hogs will gain confidence and could shock the world, though that's highly unlikely.
However, if the Tide go up by two touchdowns, it could be over by halftime. The crowd should also play a huge role.
Arkansas Players to Watch
Chris Smith, DE
Chris Smith leads the team with 6.0 sacks and is second on the team with 8.0 tackles for loss. He'll be a big part of the Razorbacks rush defense and pursuit on McCarron.
He is 16th in the country in sacks per game. Getting to McCarron and disrupting his rhythm will be big, and Smith is the Hogs' top pass rusher. He has great size and is quick off the ball. Arkansas will need him to have a great game and get into the backfield.
Brandon Allen, QB
It's widely known the struggles Allen has endured thus far in 2013. He started the season off well, but has since been inaccurate and ineffective. The passing offense is 113th in the FBS, gaining just 154.6 YPG.
If Allen can't make some quick improvements and figure this thing out, the offense is in big trouble Saturday. Because he hasn't done much of anything the past few weeks, the run game has suffered due to opponents stacking the box.
Allen's arm strength isn't the question—it's his accuracy. He has to show improvement at Alabama.
Alex Collins, RB
If the Hogs are to have any sort of shot at winning this game, Collins will have to put up some big numbers. He's more than capable, but against one of the best defenses in the country, Collins will have to be quick and precise when hitting holes.
He has elite ball-carrying vision for a freshman and has been one of the best in college football with 720 yards on 123 carries. How well he does will also have a lot to do with Allen—and if he can be a threat at all.
Alabama Players to Watch
AJ McCarron, QB
Obviously, you'll want to keep an eye on McCarron. Even if your friends consider you one of the biggest 'Bama haters in the world, you have to respect what he's done in college.
All he has done in his career is win, and with two national titles, there isn't a stat line that matters. He's a big-time player who makes big-time plays.
T.J. Yeldon, RB
Yeldon is the latest in a line of great running backs for the Crimson Tide. He's tied for 26th in the country with 569 rushing yards on the year.
Yeldon has big-play ability, averaging 6.5 YPC. Last week against Kentucky, he averaged 7.8 YPC with 124 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns. The Arkansas rush defense is much better than the Wildcats', but it has given up a lot of yards in several games. Yeldon should be a huge factor for the Crimson Tide.
A'Shawn Robinson, DE
A'Shawn Robinson has been stellar on the D-line this year for Alabama. The freshman leads the team with 4.0 sacks and 5.0 TFL.
He has great size for a rush end at 6'4", 320 pounds, though he will need to lose some more weight. He's been the biggest threat for opposing quarterbacks on the team and figures to have a big impact on Saturday.
What They're Saying
No one is expecting Arkansas to win at Alabama, but defensive end Trey Flowers told Trey Biddy of HawgSports.com (subscription required) that's not their mindset going in.
"We're not going there to play them, we're going there to beat them," Flowers said. "We're not going to make it bigger than it really is because it's really just football. We're just going back home."
Defensive back Carroll Washington also chimed in: "That's the first thing is believing. I don't believe anything happens without believing. It's definitely a good opportunity. It's the No. 1 football team in America. They earned that respect. Nobody expects us to come out there and just play these guys and beat them."
I've been asked too many times already about last year's game, last week's game. Our game, their game; doesn't have anything to do with this game. Does not have any effect on the outcome of this game. It's going to be about how we play when we play on Saturday. That's what our players need to understand. ...
If you don't do a really good job of executing offensively, they're going to take advantage of it. We're concerned about the identity and the improvement that our team makes and we certainly respect every opponent that we play and certainly have a lot of respect for Arkansas, because we've had a lot of really tough games.
TideSports.com columnist Cecil Hurts (subscription required) wrote that even though the Hogs have had a good run game, the lack of passing has created issues:
There have been some successes offensively for Arkansas, particularly in running the football. The Razorbacks are fifth in the SEC and 24th in the NCAA in rushing at 216.3 yards per game. Freshman Alex Collins, who made national headlines last February when his mother absconded with his National Letter of Intent to prevent him from signing with Arkansas (she eventually relented), has put that controversy behind him and is the No. 4 rusher in the SEC at nearly 103 yards per game. However, there is little complementary passing game, and depth seems to be issue, especially at the line of scrimmage.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney spoke to HawgSports.com about what Allen is dealing with:
It's difficult at the quarterback position at times when things aren't going your way. It's such a polarizing position. When you're winning everybody tells you how good you are and it's all because of you. When you're losing they tell you how bad you are and it's all because of you. And young guys that haven't been in that spotlight before, they struggle with those emotions. And hopefully he's getting out of that thing right now. I know he felt bad about the way he played, but he'll bounce right back. He's a young, resilient, confident kid that wants to do good.
This game could get really ugly, really fast if the Arkansas offense can't put up points or move the ball, or if the secondary continues to allow big plays.
The Razorbacks are coming off a game at home in which they were beaten soundly by 45 points. The passing game has been non-existent, and against a very good Crimson Tide defense, the chances of Allen having a big game are very slim.
It's going to have a negative impact on the run game, as Collins and Williams won't have any holes to run through.
At this point, the Razorbacks just don't have the talent level to compete on the road against the nation's best team. The matchup should be a game that will tell Bielema and his team a lot about themselves and possibly help them going forward.
Alabama 45, Arkansas 17