The Arkansas Razorbacks’ “November to Remember” is off to a rousing start. Wins over a ranked Mississippi State squad who has been playing very well and maybe one of the best sub .500 teams ever in LSU. At night. In Tiger Stadium. Pittman is racking up cash bonuses left and right and the Hogs find themselves bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.
The Razorbacks have rebounded well after a tough 0-3 stretch in early October against three very formidable opponents in No. 1 Georgia, No. 10 Ole Miss and an up-and-down Auburn team that was hot at the time. Teams of recent Razorback past would have folded up like a cheap suitcase and closed 2021 with a whimper. But not this version of Hogs football. The players are competing their tails off every weekend and the coaching staff has found a way to get it done in a multitude of ways.
Sometimes it’s defense, sometimes it’s offense, sometimes it’s special teams. Different guys have stepped up in big moments to win ball games. That’s the sign of a good football team. That’s a testament to everyone in the Arkansas football program. True progress.
So much progress, in fact, that with regular season games left the 7-3 Hogs are ranked in November with a legit shot at an 8-win regular season and a solid bowl game. That’s truly remarkable given how far the program slid late in the Bret Bielema era and the debacle that was Chad Morris. But notice I didn’t say 9 wins.
Arkansas vs Alabama Looms Large
That’s because the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide are on the schedule this weekend. The Hogs travel to Tuscaloosa for the widely watched 2:30 kickoff on CBS. Nick Saban’s crew is coming off a 59-3 shellacking of lowly New Mexico State last weekend. A scrimmage with Bama’s 1s vs 2s may have been more productive than that game. Alabama was focused enough that the uncommon 11 AM kickoff didn’t faze their performance.
Despite hints by the media or fans with Hog-colored glasses on that Alabama is down, make no mistake, this Alabama football team is still very, very good. They have the Heisman front runner running the offense in Bryce Young. Also linebacker Will Anderson is a finalist for college football’s defensive player of the year. They still have first rounders all over the field on both sides of the ball. And they have the greatest college football coach of all time roaming the sidelines.
Vegas thinks enough of Alabama to put them as a three-touchdown favorite for this weekend’s tilt.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the Tide’s Texas A&M game was a fluke. That was likely Alabama’s one and only slip up of the season. Odds they lay that kind of egg again, at home against Arkansas with their national championship football playoff on the line…slim to none.
Consider that Nick Saban will have lit a fire under his players to come and improve on the relatively paltry 3.76 yards per carry in conference games that the Alabama football team has been averaging in SEC games. He knows they must improve that to have any hope of beating teams like Georgia and Ohio State. And “the Razorbacks are a good team to try to get right against,” CBS’ Barrett Sallee points out. “They’re giving up 4.66 yards per rush and are 11th in the conference in tackles for loss allowed at 64. That’s a far cry from late September when defensive coordinator Barry Odom was being lauded as one of the best in the business.”
Keys to Arkansas vs Alabama
Is there a way the Razorbacks can win this game? Sure. Upsets happen every weekend in every sport since forever. But one of sound mind would think about how the Hogs can cover the point spread and be competitive against mighty Alabama as opposed to winning outright. As Arkansas rebuilds its football program with plans to be a consistent, upper tier SEC team, this is a game the Razorbacks should be OK with ending up as one of those “played them close” moral victories.
To be clear, the Arkansas coaches and players are saying all the right things about planning to win and I am certain they are preparing to go to Tuscaloosa and attempt to put on a good show. No different when they went to Athens and faced Georgia. But then the ball is snapped and sometimes the guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage are just better. On paper anyway.
If certain things happen then, yes, Arkansas can have a chance in the 4th quarter to win this thing. How can Arkansas stay within three touchdowns of Alabama in their stadium?
Here are a few ways to make that happen.
The keys to being competitive are pretty obvious. Don’t give up big special teams plays, win the turnover battle, pressure the opponent’s quarterback (and keep Bama pass rushers off KJ more than what was allowed vs LSU). That’s winning football and preached by every coach in the country all the way down to Pee Wee football.
The Georgia game back in early October got out of hand when the Bulldogs blocked a punt for a touchdown, plus Cam Little missed a very makeable field goal. Bama went wild on special teams last year in their 52-3 win in Fayetteville including an early punt return by 2020 Heisman winner DeVonta Smith. Arkansas special teams have been playing much better lately after a shaky start this season. A special teams score beyond a field goal may be necessary to pull off a huge upset this weekend.
A big gap in the Hogs’ favor with the turnover margin statistics is crucial. The only way Arkansas beat LSU was the red zone fumble by the Tigers running back and two “I completed these in high school all the time” throws by freshman QB Garrett Nussmeier. Last year in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks turned it over four times which made things way too easy on an already remarkable Alabama football team.
Arkansas, as much as they would like to DNA-wise, cannot line up and out physical an Alabama football team under Saban. Still, Arkansas will have to successfully run the football to stand a chance. If they can’t run or fall behind big early and are forced to pass, the Crimson Tide pass rush will feast on a one-dimensional offense. The run game must be creative and the play calling unpredictable. Everyone knows offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has a long list of trick plays on his call sheet. Picking the right times to try some, and then actually executing most to all of them, will be key to hanging around.
“Contain” Bryce Young
Rest assured, Alabama will try to line up just like Georgia did and run until Arkansas shows they can stop it. But keep in mind that Alabama football quarterback Bryce Young is gunning for the Heisman and can’t have a mundane day this late in the season against an opponent Bama should handle easily. Hopefully, he won’t be able to pad his stats like he did against New Mexico State. If Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom can dial up some blitz packages and different looks to make Young uncomfortable, the Razorbacks may be able to hold Alabama under their 44.6 points per game average (3rd in the nation).
Mix Up That Razorback Defense
The trick will be can Arkansas eliminate busted coverages and get tacklers in the right spot while playing something besides their base defense, which is to drop eight defenders to confuse pass heavy offenses and then be awesome on third down. Against Auburn, the Razorbacks changed alignments to handle the more balanced offense the Tigers use and often looked confused and out of place pre-snap. That can’t happen this weekend or you will see Crimson Tide receivers running free in the secondary too often and Young solidifying his Heisman campaign.
Alabama will do just what Georgia did if the Hogs go with their standard drop 8 alignment wire to wire. Odom is smarter than that and Hog fans should expect to see some exotic defenses mixed in to try and hold Bama. LSU saw exponentially more blitzing by Odom’s defense but that almost certainly due to LSU’s young, inexperienced QB and a makeshift offensive line with two starters out with injuries.
Besides making every effort to win the game, it’s key for the Razorbacks to not get anyone hurt. Especially a key player. As physical as the LSU game was, this one should be even more so unless it gets out of hand. The Razorbacks cannot afford a dinged-up star player to be unavailable for the final game against Missouri. The talent level isn’t that deep where the Razorbacks can go “next man up” and get the same level of play.
Don’t Cheapen Moral Victories involving Alabama Football
Arkansas is playing with the proverbial house money this weekend. Alabama is supposed to win. And win easily. If they do, there shouldn’t be much consternation amongst the coaches, players and especially the fans. The Crimson Tide is good and have a lot to play for, including a Heisman front-runner trying not to slip up and a last home game this season that includes a senior day and saying farewell to all the underclassmen who will be 2022 NFL Draft picks.
Will the Hogs catch Bama looking past the Razorbacks with the Iron Bowl the following weekend? Probably not.
If all the stars aligned just right and the Razorbacks somehow won, mark Sam Pittman down as SEC and National Coach of the Year. This would go down as a more significant win than any that the Razorbacks have achieved in the 21st century, as it would keep the Razorbacks mathematically alive for a share of the SEC West title, put them in strong contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl, likely cause a boost in recruiting and solidify the program as a direct challenger for outright SEC West crowns in future seasons.
First things first. If Arkansas hangs around and is within striking distance late in the game, coaches, players and fans should take a lot of pride in the moral victory. That’s how far the program has come.
But the Razorbacks have to do something with that potential moral victory. Florida had one earlier this season against the Tide and have been a big disappointment since. Tennessee also hung around until the fourth quarter before getting gapped but went out the next weekend and beat a then-ranked Kentucky team in Lexington.
I played baseball at the University of Arkansas. At that level, moral victories are pretty non-existent. We had plenty of smaller or lesser baseball schools play us in tight ball games and that has happened plenty of times since. Most college baseball fans understand how midweek games work. Teams save their front-line pitching for the conference weekend series and throw younger or little used guys in the midweek.
Given baseball doesn’t run the same starting lineup out there each game, mainly the pitcher, anything can happen. Football and basketball don’t really work that way unless there is an injury. So “moral victories” were never something we or anyone in baseball really puts much stock in but I do believe for Arkansas Razorback football in 2021, there is some value.
Arkansas vs Missouri
Regardless of how close the Hogs play Bama, the game next weekend in Fayetteville is a must win. Not in terms of what bowl or where they will finish in conference. More along the lines of beating Missouri because it’s been a minute. The Tigers have won 7 of the last 8 including the last five. Losing again to Missouri is not a formula to climb to the upper tier of the SEC. Especially in a year they are down.
The Razorbacks need to come out of this Bama game healthy with their chin up. Win, lose or moral victory, Bama needs to go in the rear view quickly as a big game versus Missouri looms a day earlier than normal. A home loss to a team the Hogs should beat would put a huge damper on the season and may cause a hangover all the way into the bowl game.
No, Alabama isn’t as good as Georgia. But they are still at different level than any other team the Razorbacks have played. The Hogs will have their hands full come Saturday. Play well, be relevant in the fourth quarter and please stay healthy, Razorbacks. That should allow the realistic best chance to end the regular season on a high note and finally beat those Missouri Tigers.