The No. 16 Arkansas has a chance to upset No. 1 Alabama on Saturday when the Razorbacks host the Crimson Tide at 6 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but it is a slim chance.
It would take a perfect storm of Bret Bielema’s Hogs playing nearly perfect football, and Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide playing not only flat but also mistake-ridden football.
Hog fans in their mid- to late 40s and older, no doubt, have some memory of just such a perfect storm when the unranked Hogs of 1981 ran the No. 1 Texas Longhorns out of the stadium to the tune of 42-6. That Texas team stumbled and bumbled their way through the ballgame, and Lou Holtz’ Hogs made them pay for nearly every mistake in a route of epic proportions.
That Razorback team was filled with fine players like Billy Ray Smith, Gary Anderson, Danny Walters, Steve Korte, Jessie Clark, Richard “Donut” Richardson, Jay Bequette, Keith Burns, Tom Jones, David Bazzel, and Bert Zinamon among others, but it wasn’t a great football team going 8-4, with regular-season losses to TCU, Houston and SMU and then a postseason loss to North Carolina in the Gator Bowl.
We know Bielema and his staff are up to coaxing top-tier performances out of the Razorbacks. The past two seasons, the Hogs reached that magic level on a couple occasions. The back-to-back victories over Ole Miss and LSU the past two seasons leap to mind.
And as fine a coaching job as Saban and his staff do, there have been times when his Crimson Tide have stumbled because of a rash of turnovers. Alabama’s losses in 2014 and 2015 to Ole Miss are the most recent cases in point.
The Crimson Tide even left the door open for the Razorbacks to upset them the last time they visited Fayetteville in 2014. Bama escaped with at 14-13 victory when a missed extra point and a missed field goal left the Hogs heartbroken after a strong effort.
So an upset is possible on Saturday, but it’s not likely.
The Razorbacks could play their best game of the season, and it still might not be enough against the Crimson Tide. Alabama’s overall talent and depth is that much better than the Razorbacks. Even if the Razorbacks make a game of it, popular thought is that Alabama’s talent will likely wear the Hogs down.
We saw an example of that last season. The Razorbacks played well, and held their own with Alabama through the early portion of the third quarter, leading 7-3. However, Bama wore the Razorbacks down and probably could have tacked on another touchdown to the 27-14 final score if Saban had wanted. As the cliché goes, the cream rises to the top.
Much has been made about offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin adding some spread wrinkles to Alabama’s offense since he was hired in 2014. That is true, but it’s mostly window dressing. Saban still adheres to his base philosophy of not beating himself with mental mistakes and turnovers, running the football, and playing great defense.
What Saban’s Alabama teams have done the best over the years is make teams pay for their mistakes. That’s still their modus operandi.
It doesn’t matter which phase of the game the mistake is made either. The Tide has scored touchdowns off five turnovers this season and has scored two special teams touchdowns, which are usually the result of missed tackles by the opponent.
After watching the tape of the Texas A&M game, Alabama will set their defense to snuff out the Hogs’ running game. Arkansas’ running game has been sporadic at best this season, and the Aggies two goal-line stands spoke loud and clear.
When the Hogs resort to passing, Bama will pin their ears back and come after Razorback quarterback Austin Allen. While the Aggies may have a better pass rush than Bama when all hands are on deck, Alabama’s linebackers and secondary are superior. They are excellent at disguising their coverages and goading quarterbacks into ill-advised throws.
The way the game shapes up on paper, Allen will either be a hero or a goat in the game. He will have to play a monster game for the Razorbacks to win, but if the Razorbacks become one-dimensional throwing the ball, it’s only a matter of time before Alabama’s back end will crack the game open.
Opponents have plundered the middle of Arkansas’ 4-2-5 defense this season, and if defensive coordinator Robb Smith and his staff have not made successful adjustments, Alabama will peck away at the Hogs to find the chink and then openly exploit it. If the Razorbacks can’t at least limit Alabama’s running game to a degree, they game could get out of hand quickly.
I expect the Razorbacks to play hard Saturday. That’s in their nature. A big key to game is if the Hogs’ can answer when they get punched in the mouth, whether it’s early or late. I also expect Alabama’s talent to eventually take over. Las Vegas has the Crimson Tide as a two touchdown favorite. I hope I’m very wrong, but I’m not sure it will be that close.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Arkansas 17