Alabama presents great challenge, great opportunity for Razorbacks

Photo: Walt Beazley /

Arkansas’ game with No. 8 Alabama on Saturday night is a perfect example of why Frank Broyles moved the Razorbacks out of a decaying Southwest Conference in 1991 and into the SEC.

The Hogs (2-3, 1-1 in SEC play) have tremendous opportunity at 6 p.m. Saturday in Tuscaloosa to turn their season around and make a splash on the national stage while doing it in front of a national ESPN audience.

Should the Razorbacks upset Alabama (4-1, 1-1) at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide boasts a 81.7 winning percentage, the Hogs would be the talk of the college football world for at least a week.

Certainly, there would be plenty of talk about “what’s wrong with Bama,” too, but the Razorbacks would still get a ton of credit for knocking off the traditional bullyboys of the college game.

In the olden days of the SWC, the Hogs could garner similar national credit for knocking off Texas. Despite the Longhorns recent battles with and now struggles for mediocrity, Texas once rivaled Alabama as the gold standard for college football in perception if not reality. However the Hogs played Texas but once a year. By moving the Razorbacks to the SEC, Broyles knew the Razorbacks would have multiple opportunities each year to prove its mettle on the national stage. That old lament of the Razorbacks playing too soft of a schedule hasn’t been heard in nearly a quarter of a century because of the strength of the SEC across the board.

While the Razorbacks will have other opportunities this season to face top-25 if not top-10 opponents, playing Alabama remains unique. Saban has enhanced the Crimson Tide’s power profile, rivaling the success of legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, a Fordyce native. Since 2008, Alabama has won three national titles and more games (88) than any other program in the nation. Boise State is next with 85, but of course, the Crimson Tide’s accomplishment came against SEC competition.

A Razorbacks victory Saturday night would rank among the biggest in the program’s history. It would truly be a monumental upset and an ostrich-sized feature in every Hog Hat.

With that being said, it may seem farfetched to even be considering an Arkansas victory. Yes, Alabama does already have a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss on its resume this season, but last week, the Crimson Tide appeared to be back in tip-top shape, stomping Georgia, 38-10, at Athens in a game that wasn’t really that close.

Other than one play when the Bulldogs’ stellar running back Nick Chubb broke lose for an 83-yard touchdown run, Alabama’s defense smothered Georgia, who prides itself on running the football within a balanced, attack much like Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks do. Going into the game, things don’t look promising for the Razorbacks.

Alabama’s defense is gifted up front with size, quickness and depth that no team in the nation can match. The Tide’s linebackers are powerful, rangy and quick. It’s a front seven that’s as close to the ideal as any defensive coordinator could imagine. And Bama’s secondary is improved over last year’s if only because their pass rush is so effective.

Offensively, the Crimson Tide stuck to their knitting and didn’t try to get cute, bowling over the Bulldogs with a power-running assault led by Derrick Henry’s 148-yard, 1-touchdown performance. Quarterback Jake Coker kept the offense between the lines, helping Alabama avoid the five-turnover nightmare that allowed Ole Miss to sneak away from Bryant-Denny Stadium with a victory on Sept. 19. Don’t expect Alabama to play as sloppy or haphazardly again this season.

Couple that with Arkansas taking the Tide to the limit last year in Fayetteville before succumbing, 14-13, and there is little to no chance that Alabama will take the Razorbacks lightly this year. If the Hogs are able to win, it won’t be because of a Crimson Tide letdown.

The Razorbacks’ chances of making the most of this opportunity and winning the game are slim. The margin of error may be practically nonexistent. Unfortunately, the Hogs have had trouble getting out of their own way the entire season, tripping themselves up with penalties, mental mistakes and breakdowns in communication. In their 24-20 victory over Tennessee last week, the Hogs played their cleanest game of the season, but still had issues. Some of them can be traced to the sloppy field conditions in the first half, but against Alabama any one of the kicking game mistakes suffered against Tennessee could take the Hogs out of contention.

The Razorbacks can’t have turnovers, period. Conversely, the Hogs would help themselves immensely by forcing a fumble or snaring an interception, but the defense has been out of position so much this season that opponents’ turnovers have truly been gifts in most cases, rather than takeaways.

But if Alabama is in the giving mood, the Razorbacks have to make them pay for every mistake. The Hogs have to be opportunistic in every way to have a shot.

The Razorbacks need to play ahead if at all possible. Should the Razorbacks fall behind by two touchdowns to start the game like they did a week ago against Tennessee, the rout would likely be on. The only way to make Alabama’s defense to play halfway honest is to keep the score within a touchdown.

It’s going to be very difficult for the Razorbacks to run on Alabama, but it would be a mistake for Arkansas to abandon the running game even if they fall behind. Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams have been more and more effective running the football as the season has gone along, and they need their chances even if the Alabama boggles them up early.

During the summer, Bielema and defensive coordinator Robb Smith both bragged on the depth and play of the defensive line. To date, we haven’t seen that type of play, but if there ever was a time for that group to come through, it’s this week. The Hogs lineman must occupy blockers to allow linebackers Brooks Ellis, Dre Greenlaw and the rest to flow to the football. In passing situations, a push up front would be great, too, but that’s something that has yet to materialize this season either.

Santos Ramirez at safety, Henri Tolliver at nickel back and Greenlaw at linebacker must play older than their actual experience. All three have excellent instincts and are willing hitters, but Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will no doubt target their inexperience in Alabama’s game plan. Their focus is key in this game, particularly if Arkansas can slow Bama’s running game. Alabama’s play-action passing has been deadly throughout Saban’s tenure.

Ultimately, though, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen must not only be a game manager against Bama, but he also must make plays. While they did not come in a late-game situation, the much-maligned senior from Fayetteville did make plays last week with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Reed and a 51-yard toss to Hunter Henry against Tennessee.

Allen must continue to play big for Arkansas because the Crimson Tide has the Razorbacks outmanned at nearly every other position. That does not mean, he has to try and take the game over, but Allen does need to take advantage of anything given by the Alabama defense whether early or late. He has to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he needs to be on target. Again, the game does not rest all on his shoulders, but an average night probably won’t get the job done.

Last week, the Razorbacks got their must-win victory over Tennessee to keep hope alive for the second half of the season. The Alabama game is all gravy. Nobody expects the Hogs, a 16.5-point underdog, to win. In some sense, this may be the least-pressurized game of the season. The challenge is great, but the opportunity is so tantalizing

Games like this are why Bielema left his comfortable post at Wisconsin, and it’s why every Razorback signed on the dotted line to be a Hog. It’s games like this why fans like us watch and hope.

Most likely Alabama will win, maybe by two or three touchdowns. But there is that off chance that the stars do align, and the Razorbacks do exceed their perceived potential. It’s happened before, and it could happen again Saturday night.