ESPN's College Gameday may be in Boise for the Boise State-Oregon State game, but everyone knows the biggest game of this Saturday is in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The No.1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide will square off against No. 10 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, in a meeting that will shake up the SEC title race early.
The Hogs were blown out in last year's showdown with the Tide, but this year will be much different. Arkansas is coming off a huge win over the Georgia Bulldogs in Sanford, and they are much improved on the defensive side of the ball this season as opposed to last year. Can the Hogs pull off what would be the biggest win for any Football Bowl Subdivision team this season? Here are five keys to the Razorbacks knocking off the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.
Having Fresh Legs on the Field At All Times
One of the first things fans will notice when they watch the Tide play is that they are a physical team on both sides of the ball. Alabama's offense has athletic monsters up front on the offensive line, and it doesn't matter if it is Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram, or Eddie Lacy running the ball, all three will hit you in the mouth as well as blow right by you.
Alabama is also extremely physical on the defensive side of the ball. Marcel Dareus, Donta' Hightower, Mark Barron, among others can lay the wood on any of Arkansas's running backs and receivers. Expect them to play physical to counter the finesse play of Arkansas's spread attack.
What this means for the Razorbacks is that they need fresh players rotating in and out on both sides of the ball constantly to avoid injury. This is good to rest starters so that they can play at a high level for the whole game because fatigue will certainly be a factor in this game for both teams.
Fantastic Special Teams Play
Any football fan knows that special teams in many cases can either win or lose a game for their team. It is of utmost importance that the special teams units for the Hogs be solid in this game.
The Hogs's return units should be solid with Joe Adams leading the charge. For Arkansas's special teams units, this game will come down to the play of true freshman kicker Zach Hocker and sophomore punter Dylan Breeding.
Hocker has not had the chance to make a pressure kick in his career yet, so if the game comes down to a kick Nick Saban will try to ice him as much as possible. It is up to long snapper Rhett Richardson and holder Justin Tucker to get a good snap and hold so that all Hocker has to worry about is making the kick. Hocker also needs to make all his field goal tries as points will be precious against the Tide defense.
Breeding also must have a solid game. He needs to get good leg and hang time on his punts so that Alabama's offense will be in bad field position. He can not afford to shank punts against this offense to give them a short field to work with or have one blocked, as this could let the game slip away early.
Arkansas may not get too many three-and-outs against Alabama for this game, so it is up to the defense to force the Tide offense to turn the ball over. For that to happen, the Hog defensive line must get pressure on Greg McElroy. This did not happen last year, and Arkansas subsequently lost because of it.
Jake Bequette needs to win some of his battles against James Carpenter and dominate D.J. Fluker if he shifts to that side. The interior line of the Hogs needs to get consistent push against William Vlachos, Chance Warmack, and Barret Jones to make it easier for Bequette and Damario Ambrose to collapse the pocket. I would also expect defensive coordinator Willy Robinson to use standard blitzes and even some exotic ones, to confuse Greg McElroy into making a mistake. All in all, forcing turnovers will be essential in this game as Alabama is not likely to give Arkansas any giveaways.
Controlling the Clock
This is the total opposite of what Arkansas' offensive philosophy is. That being said, this is vital to a Razorback victory. Arkansas has to win the time of possession battle in this game, so that vaunted Alabama offense can be off the field as much as possible. The Hogs might go no-huddle in their first offensive drive to throw the Tide defense off balance plus wear them out.
After that, they need to establish the run. Ronnie Wingo, Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis, and Broderick Green need to fight for as many extra yards as they can. The Hogs do not need to completely abandon the passing game, I would just throw short passes to tight end D.J. Williams and the backfield, and use screens and short routes with the wide receivers. If the Hogs can consistently gain yards on run plays, then that should be enough to control the clock.
A Spectacular Game by Ryan Mallett
Ryan Mallett's play will be the No.1 factor in determining the outcome of this game. However, he does not exactly need a Heisman-worthy performance to win this game. For him to have a great game from my perspective, he needs to show that he is the leader of this team.
He must have the offense ready to go every possession, encourage the players around him to play well and play the best football of his life when the game is on the line. In a sense, he needs to become a Tom Brady clone for this game. It will not matter if he throws for 300 yards if the scoreboard shows Alabama winning.
Those are the keys to a Hog upset of the Alabama Crimson Tide. If the Razorbacks execute all of those keys, then it will be very difficult for Alabama to walk out of Fayetteville with a victory. Here's to hoping they don't and to Arkansas making an SEC title run for the first time since 2006.