Alabama puts its No. 1 ranking and spot atop the SEC West on the line Saturday night, as Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide hits the road for a trip to Fayetteville and a matchup against Arkansas. The Razorbacks are looking for a marquee win under coach Bret Bielema and hope the hostile crowd at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium can help to derail Alabama’s perfect record in 2016.
While Saturday night’s game represents a chance for Arkansas to score a huge victory under coach Bret Bielema, this program has made significant strides under his watch. The Razorbacks are 22-21 under Bielema and have increased their win total each year after a 3-9 debut in 2013. Arkansas is off to a good start in 2016 at 4-1 overall. The Razorbacks lost their only SEC game so far (45-24 against Texas A&M) but still rank among the nation’s top 25 teams. Arkansas gave Alabama all it could handle in 2013 in Fayetteville, (14-13 Crimson Tide victory) and a win on Saturday night would keep Bielema’s team in contention for the SEC West title.
Saturday night’s game in Fayetteville begins a brutal four-game stretch for Alabama. The Crimson Tide play at Arkansas, followed by a road trip to Tennessee, a home date against Texas A&M and a matchup at LSU (after a bye week). Saban’s team easily dispatched USC in the opener and rallied after an early deficit to beat Ole Miss 48-43 on Sept. 17. As usual, Alabama is one of the top teams in the nation on defense. The Crimson Tide are limiting opponents to 4.2 yards per play and just 13 points a game. The offense is starting to find its rhythm behind true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama has scored at least 34 points in every game this year and ranks fifth in the SEC in yards per play (6.41).
Alabama leads the all-time series over Arkansas 19-7. The Crimson Tide have won nine in a row against the Razorbacks and have not lost at Arkansas since 2004. Three out of the last four meetings in this series were decided by 13 points or more, including back-to-back 52-0 shutouts by Alabama in 2012-13.
Alabama at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -14
Three Things to Watch
1. The Battle in the Trenches
Two of the SEC’s best defensive lines will be on display in this matchup. Alabama’s front is led by senior end Jonathan Allen (four sacks) and is supported by a standout linebacking corps, featuring dynamic edge rusher Tim Williams (2.5 sacks). The Crimson Tide have been a brick wall against opposing ground attacks this season, as teams are only managing 2.3 yards per rush and 68.4 yards per game. Additionally, this front wreaks plenty of havoc around the line of scrimmage (17 sacks) and is a big reason why Alabama has allowed more than 10 points only once in 2016. Needless to say, this unit is going to be a handful for an Arkansas offensive line that’s allowed seven sacks through five games but struggled to protect quarterback Austin Allen against Texas A&M. Can the Razorbacks keep rushers away from Allen long enough to attack downfield? Or will Alabama’s stout defensive front own the line of scrimmage?
A similar theme is set to unfold on the other side of the ball. Arkansas’ defensive line didn’t enter the season with as much fanfare as the Alabama unit, but the Razorbacks have plenty of talent and depth up front. This group ranks fifth in the SEC with 13 sacks generated so far in 2016, with senior end Deatrich Wise (three sacks) and tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter working as the anchors for coordinator Robb Smith. The Razorbacks have been more vulnerable (163.4 ypg) against the run than the Crimson Tide but a majority of that yardage came against Texas A&M (366). Alabama’s offensive line entered the season as a question mark and is starting to jell through the first five games. This unit has allowed 10 sacks in 2016 but has paved the way for rushers to record at least 240 yards in three contests. Can Arkansas create pressure on quarterback Jalen Hurts and contain a potent ground attack?
2. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts and the Crimson Tide WR Corps
For the third consecutive season, Alabama entered a year with uncertainty at quarterback. And for the third straight year, it looks like coordinator Lane Kiffin has found the right starter and is pushing all of the right buttons for this offense. Blake Barnett started the opener against USC but was passed by true freshman Jalen Hurts for the second contest. Hurts has been solid as a passer and brings more mobility to the position than Alabama’s recent starters. The true freshman has passed for 989 yards and seven scores, while adding 276 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Starting as a true freshman is no easy task, but Hurts has plenty of help. Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs have emerged at running back, with sophomore Calvin Ridley (31 catches) leading a deep group of receivers. Stopping this offense is going to be a tough assignment for Arkansas. The Razorbacks are surrendering six yards per play on defense and rank ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Most of the damage on the stat sheet for Arkansas’ defense came against TCU and Texas A&M. However, those matchups raise concern for the Razorbacks in trying to stop Alabama. Mobility of quarterbacks has been a problem for Arkansas, as Kenny Hill (TCU) rushed for 93 yards and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight accounted for 157. Considering the trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see Hurts utilize his legs on 10-15 carries. In addition to containing Hurts on the ground, Arkansas’ secondary will be tested by the deep Alabama receiving corps. The Razorbacks have surrendered four plays of 40 yards or more so far in 2016.
3. Arkansas QB Austin Allen
Needless to say, beating Alabama on Saturday night is going to require a perfect effort for the Razorbacks. However, one team – Ole Miss – provided a blueprint for how Arkansas can attack Alabama’s defense. The Rebels threw for 421 yards and averaged a healthy 16.2 yards per completion on Sept. 17 behind senior quarterback Chad Kelly. Arkansas junior quarterback Austin Allen has already emerged as one of the SEC’s top signal-callers in his first year under center. Allen has completed 94 of 139 throws for 1,232 yards and 12 scores and ranks second among SEC quarterbacks by completing 67.6 percent of his throws. Attacking the Alabama secondary requires a variety of targets to stretch the field, and the Razorbacks certainly have the skill talent. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (15 catches) is one of the best in the nation, while Drew Morgan (28 catches), Keon Hatcher (20.1 ypc) and Jared Cornelius (14 catches) provide solid weapons for Allen at receiver. Alabama ranks fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only four scores through the air. While there are opportunities to test this secondary, a stout front seven is going to limit Allen’s time to stand in the pocket and throw downfield. However, if Allen has time to throw, there should be opportunities to connect with a standout group of receivers.
The point spread (14 points) seems a tad high, but it’s not out of the question for Alabama to cover that mark. Arkansas should be able to utilize the home crowd and momentum to keep this one close. The Razorbacks need to spread the field and allow quarterback Austin Allen to connect with a deep group of skill players to keep the chains moving. It’s unlikely the ground game will be able to generate a consistent push, so Allen may have to throw 40 times on Saturday night. And when Arkansas is on defense, its front seven has to keep Jalen Hurts in the pocket and eliminate some of the big plays this unit has allowed (nine of 40 yards or more). If the Razorbacks win the turnover battle, keep Hurts contained in the pocket and provide solid protection for Allen, Bielema’s team will have a chance to win this in the fourth quarter. However, Alabama simply has too much talent on both sides of the ball and provides too many matchup challenges to expect the upset.