Anatomy of an upset: Can the Hogs stem the Crimson Tide

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) throws a pass as Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper (45) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

What is the anatomy of a college football upset?

Is there a distinct recipe?

I would rather imagine it’s kind of like chili. Most folks use similar base ingredients, but how the dish ultimately tastes has a lot to do with the preparation, the conditions, how you combine ingredients, and then maybe something a little special thrown in the pot to put your stamp on the concoction.

Why do I ask?

If you’re reading this column, then you know as well as I do that the No. 20 Arkansas Razorbacks (3-1, 1-1 SEC) play host to the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) at 2:30 p.m Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Arkansas fans have been asked to wear red to participate in a Red Out. Since Alabama’s colors are crimson and white, their fans might be wearing red, too?

You’ve probably read or heard at some point this week that the Hogs haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006, the year before Nick Saban took over as head coach. Heck there haven’t been a lot of close games in that stretch.

Next up for the No. 20 Razorbacks

Opponent: Alabama
When:  2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Streaming: CBS

Remaining Schedule

Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

The 2007 game was close. The Hogs should have won — kind of like Arkansas should have beaten Texas A&M last week in Arlington, but the Razorbacks couldn’t rise above their own mistakes enough to eke out a win and were tagged with a 23-21 loss.

The No. 16 Razorbacks were in solid shape in the 2007 game until Darren McFadden, who ran for 195 yards and scored 2 touchdowns, went out of the game with a concussion, and the Razorback lead evaporated into a 41-38 Alabama victory at Tuscaloosa during Nick Saban’s first season as coach.

Bobby Petrino’s 2011 Hogs gave No. 1 Alabama a scare in Razorback Stadium, leading most of the game, but a 17-point rally by the Crimson Tide wore down the No. 12 Razorbacks for a 27-24 loss.

Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks held a 7-3 lead on No. 8 Alabama in 2015 at Fayetteville, but the Crimson Tide’s defense stiffened up and their offense struck for 17-consecutive points including an 81-yard bomb from Jake Coker to Calvin Ridley for a 27-14 loss that seemed closer than the final score.

Last year in Tuscaloosa, No. 21 Arkansas remained within striking distance the entire game until No. 2 Alabama recovered a late onside kick to seal a 42-35 victory.

Alabama held a 14-point lead much of the game, but the Hogs did have a chance at the end, despite freshman quarterback Bryce Young torching the Razorbacks for 559 yard pass and 5 touchdown passes. Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson had a fine day for the Hogs, as well, throwing for 362 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Both return for Saturday’s showdown. Young, last year’s Heisman winner as a freshman, is just as spicy of a player, but his receiving corps and offensive line aren’t quite what they were at that point a year ago. Even still, every other quarterback in the league save for perhaps Georgia would love to work with Young’s supporting cast.

Alabama’s defense is just as tenacious as ever, led by defensive end Will Anderson Jr., who will likely be taken as the first player in next spring’s NFL Draft. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday that Alabama’s defense has no weaknesses, and that they are sure tacklers who don’t miss.

Superlatives can be written about most of the Crimson Tide’s starters. When you consider that arguably Arkansas’ best defensive player at the moment is linebacker Drew Sanders, who transferred into the program from Alabama, it says a ton about the talent populating Saban’s roster.

The Crimson Tide are considered 16.5 point favorites because of that talent and the incredibly proficient, efficient powerhouse of a program Saban has constructed. The Hogs haven’t beaten Alabama in 15 years, and if we are honest with ourselves, there is nothing to point at that trend ending on Saturday.

And yet, there are upsets almost every week in college football that are just as inconceivable going into the game.

So what must happen for the Hogs to win Saturday?

Maybe something super-natural? Saturday is Oct. 1. That is the unofficial start of the spooky season of Halloween.

But short of an event of biblical proportions, what needs to happen?

First the Razorbacks need to play as clean a game as possible. No team truly plays mistake-free, but Arkansas’ margin of error is minuscule. A turnover-free ballgame by the Hogs guarantees nothing, but it would be a major help. Mental alertness is key. As few penalties as possible is a necessity.

Fundamentals are Arkansas’ friends from tackling, to blocking, to steps, hand placement, watching the ball into their hands, and a couple dozen other techniques that might seem mundane but are vital to playing sound football.

Playing at home is an asset. Razorback Stadium will be lit at kickoff, but Hog fans need to keep the powder keg exploding no matter what happens on the field. Alabama will grab the momentum, but the Razorbackers must stand and yell resolutely even if the game turns for a period of time.

Evidently Saban and his coaching staff talk about emptying stadiums early with their players. Arkansas fans have to resist such urges, and the Hogs themselves have to play sound enough throughout the game to give their fans reason enough to stick around.

Turnovers are key. The Razorbacks have not forced any in the last two games. That has to change for them to have a chance to win, whether it’s a fumble or an interception. Arkansas has to rein in their own bobbles. Two near-the-goal line fumbles changed momentum for the Hogs in the last two games. Sloppiness with the football can’t happen this week if the Hogs want to pull off an upset.

Simply put, the Razorbacks’ defense has to rise to the occasion. The Hogs are physical up front, and Sanders and fellow linebacker Bumper Pool are all-SEC type players. However, Arkansas’ back end has been decimated by injuries. They have to put that behind them and rise to the occasion this week. The play in the secondary was improved last week despite the loss to the Aggies, but it needs to be even better this week. Wiffing on tackles has to be reduced. South Carolina, Missouri State and A&M made some embarrassing plays against the Hogs the last three weeks. That sloppy tackling has to be cleaned up if the Razorbacks expect to have a chance.

Arkansas has to be sound in the kicking game. The Hogs can’t give up big plays with their special teams, but they sure could use a couple if they can squeeze them out. Cam Little needs to be ready at all times. Despite his miss last week against the Aggies, he may very well be the difference in this game if the Hogs can manifest an upset.

The best news is that the Razorbacks have big-play potential from players at every level on offense and defense.

Even though the Hogs’ defensive backfield has been spotty, Myles Slusher and Dwight “Nudie” McGlothern have proven to be playmakers. Pool and Sanders are studs at linebacker. Just about every defensive lineman in the Hogs’ two-deep chart has made a key play this season.

Offensively, Jefferson is hard to handle as a passer and a runner. The Hogs running-back room is as stacked as its been since the days of McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis. They aren’t that good, but they might be the best group of backs Arkansas has had since. Treylon Burks is gone, but overall Arkansas’ receiving corps is more talented than a year ago. Watch the ball into your hands, Hogs.

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff, but really, it’s just what the Hogs are asked to do each week by their coaching staff.

An upset might be too much to ask for from this Hog team against mighty Alabama, but if they play with heart, loyalty, and precision, maybe they will be in position to upend the Crimson Tide?

It sure would be great to see the Razorbacks drive a stake into the heart of that 15-year losing streak.

SEC West Standings

Texas A&M3-11-0
Ole Miss4-00-0
Miss. St.3-10-1

SEC East Standings

S. Carolina2-20-2

This week’s games (Oct. 1)

South Carolina-South Carolina State
No. 7 Kentucky at No. 14 Ole Miss
No. 2 Alabama at No 20 Arkansas
No. 17 Texas A&M at Miss. State
LSU at Auburn
No. 1 Georgia at Missouri
E. Washington at Florida