Right down the middle. That’s what I always say.
Arkansas fans might tell you the Razorbacks have an advantage at a few positions against Alabama. Alabama folks would tell you the Crimson Tide hold those same advantages. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, Arkansas is better in some spots. The question is whether that will be enough for it to beat Alabama for the first time in 10 years.
Here are the matchups between the Razorbacks and their visitors, Alabama:
Jalen Hurts has been everything Alabama could have hoped in his freshman season. He leads the SEC in yards rushing by a quarterback and he has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the league, too. Hurts’ running brings another dimension. Of course, he’s still a freshman, and more than a couple national writers have said at some point this season, Alabama will be had because of all the first-year players. One would think Hurts will make his first significant mistake at some point.
The Razorbacks’ Austin Allen is heading into his fifth career game as a starter and he’s already been called the second-best quarterback in the SEC. He’s in the top four in the league in every major statistical category and leads the league in the most telling stat — passer rating. Allen showed a couple weeks ago he can put up ridiculous numbers (more than 350 yards passing against Texas A&M), but Arkansas isn’t to the point Allen can do it alone. His first test against a big-league defense will bear watching.
Joshua Jacobs has grabbed the No. 1 running back job, running for 197 yards the last two games. He’s supplanted Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and B.J. Emmons for the primary duties. Still, Alabama has a back-by-committee approach as all four likely will see action. The Crimson Tide are fourth in the SEC in rushing, despite the team’s rushing leader being only 12th in the league. Alabama still runs first.
Arkansas’ rushing totals the past two years against Alabama were 44 and 89 yards. Those were with Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Rawleigh Williams III is not quite to the level those two were yet. He’s close, though. RWIII is second in the SEC when it comes to yards rushing and he’s put up three 100-yard games this season. Devwah Whaley appears to be establishing himself as the No. 2 after getting 29 carries the last three games versus four in the first two. After that, Kody Walker might see a carry or two in short-yardage situations, but it’s become the Williams and Whaley show.
Alabama has the best wide receiver in the SEC, Calvin Ridley. His 31 catches are second in the conference and his 398 yards are fourth. At 6-foot-1 and 188 pounds, he’s average-sized, but he’s fast and strong and abused these same Hogs defensive backs (minus one current one) last year with 9 receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown. Throw in a healthy ArDarius Stewart on the other side and the Crimson Tide have a legit 1-2 punch. Their X-factor is O.J. Howard, who is largely considered the best NFL prospect at tight end in college. Thing is, he’s not been utilized like that. If he can get to the outside, drawing linebackers and safeties, Arkansas might be in trouble.
Keon Hatcher is the playmaker. Drew Morgan is the possession guy. Jared Cornelius is a bit of both. The Arkansas threesome can be as good as any in the SEC if only they could play together healthy. We might see it finally Saturday as Hatcher should be back from a leg injury Cornelius has consecutive 100-yard games, Hatcher is in the top six in the SEC in yards per game and Morgan is fourth in catches. Arkansas has NFL prospect in tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, who provides a big red-zone target.
Cam Robinson is the best offensive lineman in the SEC. Almost no one will object to that. The Alabama left tackle has first-round NFL talent, though off-field issues might impact his draft stock. The Crimson Tide have had some trouble giving up sacks (10 through five games), putting them in the middle of the SEC pack. But they have bruisers, who, if they can get to the second level and beyond, will swallow Arkansas linebackers and secondary.
The struggle here continues for the Razorbacks. Frank Ragnow’s status is yet to be determined after the death of his father last Saturday. He is back in Fayetteville after flying home to Minnesota earlier in the week, but no decision has been made on whether he will play. Coach Bret Bielema said it’s up to Ragnow. He is expected to play, though, and Arkansas needs him. Dan Skipper has been OK at left tackle, but the other spots have been hit and miss, especially the right side of the line with two new starters in Jake Raulerson and Brian Wallace. Against this defensive front, it could be scary.
Alabama’s Jonathan Allen is perhaps the best defensive lineman in the SEC. He has four sacks and can require double teams off the edge. Teammate Dalvin Tomlinson has been better than expected on the front four, as well. One surprise player might be Joshua Frazier, an Arkansas native whom coach Nick Saban specifically mentioned as the sort of guy who can make a difference in a game like this. A nose guard, Frazier is a standard back-up, but could be counted on against Arkansas’ more traditional offense (as opposed to the spread).
Arkansas rolls lineman after lineman, at least seven competent ones. There are two stars, too, as Deatrich Wise Jr. could contend with Allen for top honors among linemen in the league. He has three sacks and might find himself up against Robinson often. Jeremiah Ledbetter is a playmaker in the middle, too, though he’s been a little more up and down as of late. Guys like Randy Ramsey (end) and McTelvin Agim (tackle) rotate in with aplomb.
This is where Alabama shines. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson might be the two best linebackers in the league and they’re on the same team. Both can get to the quarterback. Both can cover receivers. Both can stop the run. They don’t seem to have the flash of Alabama linebackers of the past (maybe that’s because their names are so ordinary), but they’re awfully good. For good measure, there’s Reuben Foster, who actually leads all Alabama linebackers in tackles. It’s the best linebacking corps in the SEC.
Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw counter as Arkansas’ 1-2 punch and against most other teams’ top two, they’d be superior. Both are tackling machines. Ellis is smart but a tad slow. Greenlaw is learning but extremely athletic. De’Jon Harris checks in as the top reserve, but he’s a freshman who has only seen significant time in one game and that was against Alcorn State last week. After that, things look grim for Arkansas.
Alabama is second in the SEC in pass defense. Minkah Fitzpatrick, only a sophomore, is a future star, if not one already. Eddie Jackson is largely considered one of the two best safeties in the SEC, maybe the country. The Crimson Tide can play six or seven defensive backs and be better than just OK.
That isn’t the case at Arkansas. Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez and De’Andre Coley are the safeties. Jared Collins, Ryan Pulley and Henre’ Toliver are the cornerbacks. Former starter DJ Dean sits on the bench and has struggled in limited duty. If those six aren’t up to the task, there is going to be trouble. Collins, Pulley and Toliver have been good, sometimes great, but the safety play has seen more than a few missteps. Those have to be minimized, especially in the middle of the field, for Arkansas to have a chance.
Alabama is sending more than half its kickoffs back for touchbacks. Jackson and Xavian Marks both have punt returns for touchdowns this season. Adam Griffith is 8 of 11 on field goals. Alabama isn’t just good at special teams, it’s rock solid. If close games really do come down to special teams, don’t expect another Leigh Tiffin-like meltdown by the Crimson Tide.
Arkansas has Toby Baker, the best punter in the SEC. Everywhere else, a whole bunch of meh. The Razorbacks are last in the SEC in kickoff returns, middle of the pack in punt returns and have only eight touchbacks on 30 kickoffs. Cole Hedlund, the kicker, hasn’t made a field goal of much significance in his career. Better is needed if it’s tight.