With the calendar flipping to October, the race to win college football's conferences officially starts to heat up, and that's certainly true in the SEC with Alabama hitting the road to play Arkansas on Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide have struggled on the road since 2021 but are nearly a three-touchdown favorite in Fayetteville. In addition to playing spoiler to Alabama's perfect 4-0 mark in '22, the Razorbacks hope to rebound after a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M. If Arkansas wants to push for a spot in the SEC title game, a win on Saturday is a must to avoid a 0-2 start in league play.
Alabama was the preseason team to beat in college football for 2022, and although Nick Saban's team has shown a few more blemishes than maybe some anticipated, the Tide are still 4-0 going into Week 5. Three of Alabama's four victories have come by 50-plus points, including a 55-3 rout of Vanderbilt last week. The defense has allowed 29 points all season, and the offense still has plenty of firepower behind reigning Heisman winner and quarterback Bryce Young. Although Alabama is favored by around 17 points, playing on the road has not been an easy spot for this program over the last two years, including a one-point victory versus Texas in Week 2.
Arkansas started its 2022 season with three consecutive victories, including solid wins over Cincinnati (31-24) and South Carolina (44-30). However, the Razorbacks had a sluggish outing against FCS Missouri State (38-27) in Week 3 and suffered a tough loss to Texas A&M (23-21) in Arlington. Although last Saturday's defeat to the Aggies was a setback, a win over Alabama would certainly erase some of that disappointment and put Arkansas in a spot to contend for the SEC West title.
Alabama has won 15 in a row over Arkansas. The last victory for the Razorbacks over the Crimson Tide took place in '06 in Fayetteville. Last year's game was a seven-point victory for Alabama. However, the previous four wins came by 32 or more points for the Crimson Tide.
No. 2 Alabama at No. 20 Arkansas
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama's offense isn't quite firing on all levels through four weeks. However, this unit is still averaging 7.6 yards per play and 48.3 points a game. And the scary part for the rest of the SEC: This unit should be able to improve as the season goes along considering some of the young players seeing time at receiver and the need to develop the offensive line. However, the offense hasn't been the same away from Tuscaloosa in recent matchups. The Crimson Tide posted less than 25 points (Texas and Auburn) in their last two road trips.
After an uneven performance on the road at Texas (5.9 yards per play), will a different Alabama offense show up in Fayetteville? Quarterback Bryce Young is the catalyst for this attack and continues to deliver every time the Crimson Tide need an answer on the scoreboard. The junior is off to a strong start once again (1,029 yards and 13 TDs) in '22. But after connecting on 18 throws of 40-plus yards last year, Young has just one this fall. The loss of John Metchie III and Jameson Williams is primarily to blame, as Alabama is still trying to find the right mix at receiver. The good news for coordinator Bill O'Brien: Options are plentiful but more consistent play is needed.
Traeshon Holden (15), Ja'Corey Brooks (10), Jermaine Burton (12), and Kobe Prentice (12) have settled in as the top targets for Young, with running back Jahmyr Gibbs (17) leading the team in catches. If Young has time to throw, the big plays and yards could come on Saturday. Arkansas has surrendered more than 300 passing yards in three out of its first four games in '22 and allowed 8.3 yards per attempt.
Winning up front could be the best path for Arkansas to slow down Alabama's offense. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in sacks (20) and tackles for a loss (31), which alleviates some of the concern about giving up 5.9 yards per snap and 26 points a game through the first four matchups. The Crimson Tide struggled with consistency up front last year, and the line is a work in progress through four weeks. Young was sacked four times in the '21 matchup, and getting Alabama into long-distance downs is a must for coordinator Barry Odom.
In addition to the pass rush, Odom needs his front to stuff the run to get the Crimson Tide behind the sticks. The Razorbacks are giving up only 3.2 yards per rush, but Texas A&M found success (192) last week. Gibbs (172 rushing yards) and Jase McClellan (245) will handle the bulk of the carries for Alabama on Saturday. Gibbs' all-purpose ability is a tough matchup for the Arkansas defense, as he could be a valuable safety valve.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Coordinator Kendal Briles will have to get creative on Saturday to move the ball against Alabama's defense. The Crimson Tide enter Week 5 atop the SEC in rush and pass efficiency defense and lead the conference in fewest yards per play allowed (3.33). Also, this defense has surrendered just two touchdowns all year. In last year's game, the Razorbacks averaged 6.4 yards per play and tallied 468 overall yards. The Arkansas ground game (110 yards) was largely held in check, but quarterback KJ Jefferson connected on 22 passes for 326 yards. If Briles has any trick plays or anything new to unveil, this would be the game to do it.
If the Razorbacks are going to pull off the upset, the formula starts with Jefferson leading the way. The Mississippi native is averaging just over 300 total yards a game and, through four games, is on pace to post a higher completion percentage (69.1) than in '21 (67.3). The 6-foot-3, 245-pound quarterback can spread the ball around to a group of receivers that isn't quite as dynamic as the '21 unit that featured Treylon Burks but is still plenty productive. In last year's game, eight of Jefferson's completions went to Burks, who accumulated 179 yards on those catches. Matt Landers (15), Jadon Haselwood (18), Warren Thompson (eight), and tight end Trey Knox (11) are Jefferson's top go-to targets on the outside.
Jefferson and his receivers will try to do what no one else has been able to do this year: Find passing opportunities against this defense. Alabama has yet to allow a passing score, and opposing passers are completing just 52.8 percent of their throws. The counter: Jefferson is the best quarterback the Crimson Tide have faced this year.
Running against an Alabama defense led by standout edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. has been impossible so far in 2022. The Crimson Tide are giving up only 1.8 yards per rush, and no team has topped 79 yards in a game. Although running room against this unit has been non-existent, Arkansas averages 50 rush attempts a game and has topped 200 or more yards on the ground in all four contests this fall. The Razorbacks can generate a push behind a line that ranks among the best in the SEC, with running back Rocket Sanders (508 yards) also averaging just over six yards (6.1) per carry.
Alabama is the better overall team, but the road struggles for this program since 2021 add intrigue to Saturday's game. Although the Crimson Tide are 4-1 in their last five road treks, three of those wins came by two points or less — including a 20-19 win at Texas earlier this year. Does Alabama finally flex its muscles and show why it was a consensus No. 1 team this preseason? Or are the road performances, plus concerns up front and at receiver, simply where this team is right now? The Razorbacks are going to need a few big plays from Jefferson through the air, a couple of turnovers and plenty of wins up front on defense to prevent Young from having too much time to pick apart the secondary. As long as Arkansas doesn't have a hangover from last week's crushing loss, keeping this one closer than the oddsmakers believe should be within reach for Sam Pittman's team. However, the Crimson Tide are simply too much in the end.
Prediction: Alabama 38, Arkansas 24
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