Todd at RBR was kind enough to give us an extremely thorough strategic breakdown of the Tide’s strength and weaknesses, as well as details on the second-best Bama coach ever (I’m sure you guessed Xen Scott), why the 2006 game made him want to throw his TV out the window, and much more.
Read on for his take on tomorrow’s game, and then be sure to head over to Roll Bama Roll to read our penetrating insights and trenchant analysis. Big thanks to Todd for taking the time to do this.
1. The conventional wisdom is that the Arkansas-Alabama game is usually a barometer for how the rest of the season will go for both teams. What will Saturday’s game say about the Tide’s season?
There’s a real sense of “meh” about this game this year, despite it having been a highly competitive series ever since the Hogs joined the SEC and, like you said, has always been a pretty good indicator of how each team was going to do that year. Typically Arkansas is either our first conference game of the year or our first conference and road game (at least in years that Vandy isn’t on the schedule) of the year, so it’s always one I look forward to with some anxiety.
Even though the perceived wisdom is that Arkansas is going to be down this year with the loss of talent and shift in coaching philosophy and that this should be a cakewalk for the Tide, there are a couple of factors that make me think this is still a game where we are going to learn a lot about our team and how they will handle the rest of the season.
First, Fayetteville is actually a pretty tough place to play despite not having the same reputation as, say, Death Valley or the Swamp. Some of the veteran players that have made the trip while at Alabama have shared a few anecdotes this week, and it’s just one of those places the Tide has always struggled in. We’re only 2-4 there with the last win coming in 2002, so the superstitious fan in me won’t really let me take anything for granted.
Second, this is the first true road test for a team that relies on a lot of true freshmen and first-time starters who haven’t had this experience before (yeah, yeah, Clemson was a “road game” since it wasn’t in Tuscaloosa, but the crowd was split 50/50 and the Clemson fans weren’t a factor after about five minutes), so this is our first opportunity to see how they handle the crowd and the pressure of a road conference game.
Also (fun fact), this will be Nick Saban’s first time to coach in Fayetteville, since his LSU teams always played in Little Rock.
2. Give us a quick Bama scouting report: what are your strengths and weaknesses? (we promise not to share any confidential information with the Razorbacks’ coaching staff, so be honest)
Strengths: The running game and the defensive line. The emphasis on offense has gone to being a more (brutally) efficient unit that can line up and dominate anyone in front of them, as opposed to the sort of spread passing attack that just didn’t click for most of last season that Major Applewhite ran.
That isn’t a knock on him, really, but the players just didn’t get it and really didn’t fit the scheme all that well, whereas this season it’s looking like we have the tools to be an efficient offense that can dink and dunk you to death and strangle the clock away before you realize what’s happened.
The biggest factor in all this is that fact that the running game has taken on a whole new significance (and effectiveness).
Last year’s line was decent at run blocking, but we didn’t have any consistent between the tackle backs and were relying on a scat-back type in Terry Grant who just isn’t a yards after contact kind of runner.
With both Glenn Coffee and Roy Upchurch both finally living up to their potential and the arrival of true freshman Mark Ingram, we finally have guys that can be counted on to both pound the ball and get the physical yards we weren’t able to last year, as well as play important roles in pass blocking and running routes out of the backfield.
That’s three guys who could be starters all on their lonesome that we can rotate, plus Terry Grant is still a pretty potent weapon out of the backfield when used correctly (against WKU he was the beneficiary of several outside toss sweeps and a screen that all went for solid yardage and a TD).
Add on to that that we now have a great run blocking line (former RT Mike Johnson is at LG now where he’s a more natural fit and has really shown a mean streak as a run blocker, while Antoine Caldwell at C, Marlon Davis at RG, and Drew Davis at RT have all proven very effective in getting a solid push and opening some great running lanes so far as well), and we’re pretty well going to run it down your throat every chance we get.
The defensive front has also shown vast improvement over last year’s unit despite a lot of concerns in the preseason over the depth and talent in the front seven. Key to all of that is The Legend of Terrence Cody, our massive NT (6-foot-5, 360-ish) who has finally given us the kind of size and push necessary to run the 3-4 that Saban employs.
Backing him up is Josh Chapman, who could almost be considered a co-starter since the line snaps are pretty evenly distributed among the first and second team, and he’s also been very effective in disrupting the pocket on passing downs.
Weaknesses: Youth, consistency, and not all that great at the downfield passing. As mentioned previously, we have a lot of freshmen (of both the true and redshirt varieties) expected to contribute all over the field, from running back to receiver to linebacker, and we’ve even seen a true freshman taking some significant snaps at the nickelback (”Star” is our terminology).
Considering they played like salty veterans against Clemson and then acted like the inexperienced group that they are against Tulane, we’re not sure which group is going to show up this weekend (God, please let it be the former). That also ties in with the consistency, one of the biggest problems Alabama has face for nearly a decade now.
We’ve always played the better teams really tough, but inevitably will find a way to sleepwalk our way through a nail biter (or, worse, loss) the next week. Saban had some harsh “I told you so’s” after the Tulane game, resulting in the WKU blowout, so hopefully the team has finally understood what they are preaching about respecting every opponent no matter what the punditry is saying about them (or, really, in Alabama’s case your own team) and playing every down as if it’s the most important down of the game.
As far as the downfield passing goes, that finally started clicking some last week against WKU, but how much of that was a function of Wilson being able to settle in and make some solid throws and how much of it was the Hilltopper defense playing way off the receivers to try and keep from getting beaten too deep is up for debate. I have a bad feeling it’s the latter.
Either way, unless Wilson has the protection and time to really set his feet and make a solid throw, he’s going to overthrow the receiver 99 percent of the time, and even when he does have time to set and throw he’s still likely to do it, so that aspect of our offense is very much a work in progress.
3. Which Tide player (or players) will Arkansas fans be cursing the most by the end of the game?