Alabama at Arkansas: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
Truth be told, this is the kind of game that most University of Alabama football players really like to play, especially on the defensive side.
For once, the opposing offense isn’t all about the spread, deception or tempo. Arkansas, under the direction of head coach Bret Bielema, means one thing in particular, a physical game.
“Me personally, I’m ecstatic about it because you finally play a team that’s more traditional rather than all this spread stuff, so we get to go in, hit with people and be physical,” junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.
“We’ve got to eat our Wheaties this weekend.”
Facing an opponent who also prefers smashmouth football automatically brings a level of respect from the Crimson Tide, who two years ago were fortunate to escape from Fayetteville with a 14-13 victory.
So does the Razorbacks’ size, like having starting offensive tackles who are listed as 6’10”, 319 pounds, and 6’6”, 335 pounds.
While Alabama has been ranked No. 1 since the preseason polls were first released, Arkansas (4-1) has gone from being unranked to No. 16. It won a tough double-overtime game against TCU, 41-38 on Sept. 10 but lost its annual neutral-site showdown with Texas A&M, 45-24.
This will be the Razorbacks’ SEC home opener.
“We have to just go out, make sure we're ready and just be ready to bump heads the whole game, the whole 60 minutes,” Crimson Tide senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said.
Date: Saturday, October 8
Time: 6 p.m. CT
Place: Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium
Spread: Alabama is a 14-point favorite, according to Odds Shark.
Arkansas’ Keys to Victory
Be balanced offensively
Although Arkansas is known for its running game, it’s right behind Alabama (484.4 yards) in total offense (443.0). The Razorbacks are averaging 246.4 passing yards and 197.0 on the ground per game.
“They have one of the best balanced teams we're going to play,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I don't think they're one-dimensional at all.
“I think they're a very physical team and they're going to run the ball and they're going to run it downhill and they've got good backs and a good offensive line to do that. But I think their quarterback is playing extremely well. They've got great play-action passes that go with their running game.”
Running back Rawleigh Williams III has topped 100 rushing yards in three of the last four games and is second in the Southeastern Conference with 559 rushing yards.
Consequently, Arkansas is one of just two SEC teams whose quarterback and top running back rank in the top five in passing and rushing yards. The more balanced they are on offense, the tougher the Razorbacks are to stop.
Don’t lose the turnover battle
Arkansas has only had two passes intercepted, but already lost five fumbles, which is something Alabama will definitely try and exploit.
Not turning the ball over is obviously important in any game, but Alabama leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, which is one more score than it has allowed to opposing offenses this season (three by Ole Miss, one by Western Kentucky against the reserves).
Alabama’s seven non-offensive scores in just five games are already tied for third most of any Saban-coached team at Alabama, trailing just 2015 (10) and 2008 (nine).
Don’t get down defensively
Even though Arkansas had a huge advantage in time of possession against Texas A&M two weeks ago, 39:45 to 20:15, the Razorbacks defense appeared to wear down in the second half when the Aggies outscored them 28-7.
Some of that may have been from chasing the Aggies on some explosive plays, like the 92-yard pass to a wide receiver and two touchdown runs of 40-plus yards by the quarterback (more on that later).
Arkansas is No. 52 nationally in total defense and No. 47 in scoring D. It can’t afford to give up 572 yards, like it did against TCU, or 591 versus Texas A&M and expect to beat a team like Alabama.
Alabama’s Keys to Victory
Alabama’s versatility on offense makes it extremely difficult to defend, which helps explain why the Crimson Tide lead the SEC in scoring and are 13th nationally, averaging 44.0 points per game.
The Crimson Tide don't necessarily need to have an edge in time of possession to win, but Arkansas probably does, so just being close could mean Alabama has the upper hand. The Razorbacks are averaging 34 minutes per game, which is 15th in the nation, but this will by far be their toughest test yet as Alabama is third in rushing D (68.4 yards)
Moreover, according to Alabama's game notes, its defense has forced three-and-outs in 35 of 68 chances, or 51.5 of all opposing possessions. That’s second in the nation behind Houston’s 52.2, while only seven teams nationally are averaging better than 40 percent.
Win in the trenches
Alabama showed its potential in the running game during the second quarter against Kentucky last week when offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin called for seven straight attempts to the left side behind tackle Cam Robinson. The result was the Crimson Tide’s first touchdown and set the tone for the rest of the game.
“I thought Cam was a little more aggressive in the game and certainly played physical,” Saban said. “We think Cam has played well all year long, but I think sometimes when you have an outstanding player like that you always have high expectations for what he does. He certainly did a good job of sort of fulfilling those expectations in this last game.
“We were able to get some movement on the line of scrimmage and have the kind of balance that we want to have on offense, as well.”
It was Robinson’s best showing of the young season, grading out at 88 percent. He was credited with a pair of knockdown blocks while not allowing a sack or making a penalty. Through the previous four games of the season, true freshman Jonah Williams had graded out best among the offensive linemen.
Alabama has four players who have already hit 100 rushing yards this season, to go with four players with more than 1,000 career receiving yards. It also rotates players defensively in order to try and keep them fresh. For example, linebacker Rashaan Evans, who had the forced fumble that led to a defensive touchdown last week, doesn’t start.
While Kiffin is known for calling a player’s number until the opposition figures out a way to stop him, he has a lot more options than sophomore Damien Harris in the running game and sophomore Calvin Ridley in the passing game.
Don’t be surprised if Arkansas tries to shorten the game and keep churning out short gains in the running game to try and minimize Alabama’s obvious advantage in this area.
Arkansas Players to Watch
Quarterback Austin Allen
The first-year starter leads the SEC in passer efficiency with a 167.69 rating, thanks in part to having just two interceptions.
“He’s a very good athlete,” Saban said. “I’ve been very, very impressed with his decision-making, his judgment and his ability to make—he’s got a really good arm—and he’s made a lot of throws to the field, throws down the field. Executes their offense extremely well. Does a good job of faking their play-action passes.”
Allen also has some good receivers with Jared Cornelius, Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan, while tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has 10 career touchdown receptions. They’ll more than test the Crimson Tide secondary.
However, Allen took a pounding two weeks ago against Texas A&M and at one point was in obvious pain—an injury that was described as a bruised chest. Showing remarkable toughness, he was 28-of-42 for 371 yards and two touchdowns. The thing is, Alabama’s pass rush might be even better than Texas A&M’s and has more sacks (17 to 15).
Fullback Hayden Johnson
The freshman was arrested for public intoxication, “and some other stuff” over the weekend according to Bielema during his Monday press conference.
“Had a conversation with him yesterday,” the coach said. “Obviously the good news was he wasn’t driving, he wasn’t causing any harm, just harm to himself. It’s gonna be a learning experience for him.”
Johnson is not listed on the Arkansas depth chart this week. Bielema said that sophomore Kendrick Jackson will start, with redshirt freshman Austin Cantrell serving as his backup, but Johnson will play.
The offensive line
Keep an eye on 6’10” left tackle Dan Skipper who has blocked seven kicks during his career, while Alabama’s pass-rushers will try and get under his blocks and use his height against him. It won’t be easy, and the Razorbacks have given up just seven sacks so far.
Sadly, Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow is dealing with the death of his father, who died of a heart attack after last week’s game against Alcorn State. Accompanied by Bielema and his wife, Ragnow immediately flew home to Minnesota to be with his family.
Bielema got home at about 1:45 a.m. and then received the call about Johnson roughly four hours later.
Ragnow has started all five games this season, four at center and one at right guard, and is listed as the starting center on this week’s depth chart ahead of sophomore Zach Rogers. Junior Jake Raulerson is also an option, but Bielema said he’d like to keep him at right guard if possible.
Alabama Players to Watch
Quarterback Jalen Hurts
Alabama’s passing game remains a work in progress, especially attacking downfield, but in addition to passing for 197.8 yards per game, with seven touchdowns and just one interception, Hurts is also second in team rushing with 276 yards.
Arkansas has already had some problems with quarterbacks running with the ball, but defensive coordinator Robb Smith hinted at some new wrinkles this week. Kentucky aggressively went after Hurts last Saturday, but he still passed for 262 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Alabama has scored its fewest points in the first quarter, with 37, so getting off to a better start has been a point of emphasis.
“We are starting to learn better,” sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. “Jalen is starting to set up the offense as far as who is where and how things are going to be, so that’s helped us a lot.”
Defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne
Apparently the sophomore is making sure everyone on the Crimson Tide knows that he scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery at Ole Miss.
“I’m tired of hearing Da’Ron Payne,” Hamilton said. “He scored a two-inch touchdown. He’s thinking that he ran 100 yards or something.
“He thinks he’s some kind of world-class athlete when I’m sure that Coach Saban probably could have picked up the fumble and walked [in]. Took one step and scored a touchdown.”
Regardless, Payne’s ability to clog up the running lanes could have a major impact, setting up linebackers like Hamilton to come swarming in on the ball-carrier.
All receivers not named Calvin Ridley
Alabama hopes to get wide receiver ArDarius Stewart back after missing two games with a knee injury. Despite that he’s still second on the team in both catches (13) and receiving yards (205) and is the unit’s best blocker.
“He was definitely itching,” Ridley said about Stewart being on the sideline. “He wanted to play last week, but he’s got to get to 100 percent so we can go out there and win some games.
“It’s going to mean a lot, I mean, to get the receiving corps back together, go out there and make plays.”
A total of 16 Alabama players have caught a reception so far this season, but this is the kind of game in which someone like senior tight end O.J. Howard or senior wide receiver Gehrig Dieter might have a big day due to the matchups.
What They’re Saying
Saban on Arkansas: “The quarterback is playing great for them. They're very well-coached. Got some really good skill players, wide receivers, a couple of good running backs. They've got eight starters back on defense and they're playing really well on defense. The punter's done a great job for them all year long. This is a really strong opponent that’s only lost one game this year and certainly has shown an ability to finish games and win close games.”
Alabama center Bradley Bozeman on facing ranked opponents the next three Saturdays before getting a bye: “For sure, the next three weeks are going to be a grind. We have Arkansas this week, then Tennessee and Texas A&M. We have to take it game-by-game and bring our best every week.”
Bielema, during his Monday press conference, on facing No. 1 Alabama: “Obviously, being Alabama, and the team that they are, there’s going to be a certain focus on them, but I did urge those guys, and I said it Saturday in the postgame locker room, and I said it again [Sunday], the thing I’ve learned most from being in these games, and it took me a while at my previous job, too, when we were going against a team of their caliber, too, you really don’t need an extra-ordinary, out-of-the-body experience. You just need to do your job. The more you press, the more you try and make something more than it needs to be, you probably end up misfiring.”
Bielema on Alabama’s offense: “It’s kind of one of those games you have to prepare, and get ready to see a little bit of everything.”
Bielema on Alabama’s defense having given up fewer than 10 explosive runs so far: “That’s an unbelievable statistic."
Alabama has actually gotten a little thinner on defense in order to play faster this season, but it probably won’t be a negative factor for the Crimson Tide in this matchup. Besides, the Razorbacks’ offensive line hasn't quite looked the same this season, a good example being the goal-line stand by Texas A&M that changed the momentum of that game.
Since the teams last played a year ago in Tuscaloosa, Arkansas has knocked off three of the four ranked opponents it faced, but this is a little different. The Razorbacks haven’t defeated a No. 1-ranked team in Fayetteville since 1981 (against Texas).
Bielema would love nothing more than to finally get a win against Saban, only Alabama has won nine straight games in the series, by an average score of 36.8-13.3.
This game should be closer than that, yet with the same outcome, as Alabama just has too much talent.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Arkansas 17
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats courtesy Pro Football Focus.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.