TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No. 1 Alabama travels to No. 16 Arkansas for its second SEC road test on Saturday. Kickoff from Razorback Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. (ET) on ESPN.
Here are five things to watch:
5. Key playmakers should be healthy
Alabama should have Damien Harris (ankle) and ArDarius Stewart (knee) healthy this week. Harris played a little in the Kentucky game last week, but he should be a full-go Saturday in Arkansas. Harris and freshman Joshua Jacobs should give Alabama’s backfield a nice one-two punch. Jacobs rushed for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns in the two games (Kent State, Kentucky) that Harris was banged up.
Stewart should help open up Alabama’s passing game. Stewart missed the last two games with a sprained knee, but he participated in practice this week so he should be a full go.
Stewart’s return will help take some of the pressure off Calvin Ridley.
4. Alabama’s defense vs. “regular people”
Whether it be three- or four-receiver sets, most of the teams Alabama has faced to this point of the season ran some variation of a spread offense.
Arkansas presents a unique challenge as it runs a traditional offense with more two tight end sets, or what Nick Saban likes to call “regular people.”
This will require Alabama to rotate more defensive linemen, particular on the interior of the defensive line.
“We’re working hard with those guys. Josh (Frazier) has done a good job of playing nose guard,” Saban said. “We haven’t played a lot of regular people where the nose guard plays a lot but he has played some in nickel and improved. Worked hard and got his weight down and moves a little better, the pass rush is a little better. I think in a game like this, he’s going to get a lot of opportunity to be in there. This is his kind of game. He’s done a really good job. Johnny Dwight, we’re trying to work with and develop him. Raekwon (Davis) is still developing. I think Dakota Ball has done a good job all year long. We just have to keep working with these guys so that they can be more consistent in how they play, technique-wise as well as understanding assignments and being able to execute them on a consistent basis.”
3. Will Hurts run much?
Blake Barnett leaving Alabama left many to question how the Crimson Tide would manage the designed runs with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Hurts ran a good bit in Alabama’s win at Ole Miss. Hurts’ runs came mostly on scrambles last week in Alabama’s first game without Barnett.
Saban said Alabama is going to continue to take full advantage of Hurts’ skill set, including his legs.
“We have confidence in Cooper Bateman. He’s been a backup quarterback for us in the past and has some experience and has a similar skill set,” Saban said. “We certainly don’t want to do anything that would get our quarterback injured in any way, shape or form. But I think his skill set is what it is and we have to use the things that he can do effectively in our offense. We continue to try to make improvements in the passing game. I think one of Jalen’s great assets as a player is that he can make plays with his feet and I don’t think we can totally inhibit him from doing that. I guess if he gets injured doing it, then it’ll my fault.
“I guess if he gets injured by sitting in the pocket throwing a pass, then it’s OK. (It’s) football. I don’t worry about guys getting hurt. We’re going to do what we have to do to try to give ourselves the best chance to be successful and give him the best chance to be successful.”
2. Will we see improvement in the passing game?
Having ArDarius Stewart back from injury should help the passing game. But Hurts also must show improvement with his accuracy.
Hurts has been late on a few throws in the last couple of games. Hurts has a strong arm, but he needs to put a little more touch on some of his deep throws so the receivers can run under the ball.
Hurts still is a true freshman so expectations have to be realistic for him. Heading into the midpoint of the season, it’s time for Hurts to show growth on deep throws. He took a big step in the second half vs. Kentucky when he found Calvin Ridley on a few long passes.
Saban provided insight into how Alabama is managing Hurts during his Wednesday news conference.
“What we’re talking about, basically, is you have a play call, you have a pattern that develops, and the guy has to read, sometimes whether the middle of the field open, whether the middle of the field is closed, as to which side he’s going to throw the ball to,” Saban said. “So that’s one of the things that we think about. Other times you’re just trying to limit the side of the field he’s going to throw the ball to, he’s reading some kind of a high-low, which is a little bit easier for him to do. He’s a very bright guy, I think he get it.
“He just needs turns so that he can get the kind of experience to feel comfortable and confident in doing this, sort of that same old over and over and over and over thing. Everyone thinks that you practice something to get it right. You really practice it until you can’t get it wrong. There’s a difference in that.”
1. Will the non-offensive touchdown streak continue?
One of the interesting side shows to Alabama’s season has been the number of non-offensive touchdowns the Crimson Tide has scored.
Alabama has scored a non-offensive touchdown in seven straight games dating back to the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal vs. Michigan State.
Alabama leads the nation with 7 non-offensive touchdowns. Two have come on punt returns (Eddie Jackson, Xavian Marks).
Further, Alabama has scored 5 defensive touchdowns this season, which also is the best in the country.
Alabama’s defense has scored the same amount of touchdowns it has allowed. Four of those touchdowns came against Ole Miss in the Tide’s 48-43 victory, and the other came vs. Western Kentucky. That means three of the Tide’s opponents have failed to score touchdowns.