Posted by Jerry Hinnen
In which we break down the SEC's biggest games. This week: Tide and Razorbacks.
AT STAKE: Oh, not much, just a continued place in the national championship discussion and a seat alongside LSU as one of the conference's two true favorites. And maybe even more for Arkansas, who despite their Sugar Bowl appearance from a year ago still aren't popularly recognized as a true heavy-hitter on the national stage. Beat Alabama at Alabama, and no one will deny Bobby Petrino's team their place at the "potential crystal-ball hoisters" table any longer.
WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST: protect Tyler Wilson. Alabama's secondary is one of the most feared in the nation -- and rightly so -- but they have a dirty little secret: they can be beaten deep. Downfield threats like South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, the Razorbacks' Jarius Wright, and Auburn's array of pump-and-go targets all found plenty of success against the Tide defensive backs last season, due somewhat in part to the inexperience in the unit but also to a pass rush that got to Stephen Garcia just one and Ryan Mallett twice.
All the Tide defensive backs from a year ago return, but then again, so do all the Hog wideouts (Wright included). If Wilson is given the same amount of time Mallett (at least in the first half) and Garcia were in 2010, he and Petrino will find the space to hit a handful of potentially game-deciding big plays down the field.
The key for the Tide will be making sure Wilson doesn't have the time in the pocket necessary to make those kinds of long-developing throws. And Nick Saban has to love their matchup at weakside tackle*, where true freshman Mitch Smothers will be making his first SEC start opposite none other than Courtney Upshaw, the Tide's most explosive pass rusher. If Smothers can hold his ground against Upshaw and the rest of the Hog line can pick up Saban's tricky, terrifying blitz packages, Wilson and the receivers should be able to do their bombing-run thing.
If not? If there are no big plays in the passing game? And the Hogs are required to instead methodically drive down the field, without Knile Davis, via precise execution and careful mistake-free football, against that Tide defense? Forget it.
WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST: Not. Turn. The. Ball. Over.
Not much has gone wrong for the Tide so far this season. The offensive line has had some hiccups, but nothing that can't be fixed; Trent Richardson's slow start isn't an issue with Eddie Lacy running rampant, and may be behind him after the North Texas bludgeoning anyway; aside from one early drive against Penn State, the defense has been as flawless as expected; and maybe most importantly, AJ McCarron-to-Marquis Maze has given the passing game something to hang its hat on. But there is one fly in the ointment, and that's the Tide's seven giveaways, a number that puts them among the nation's bottom 20 teams in that department.
Maybe even more worrying than the number itself is that it hasn't been one issue. McCarron and backup Phillip Sims have thrown two interceptions apiece. McCarron has also lost a fumble. Receiver DeAndrew White put the ball on the ground twice against Kent State. And though he hasn't lost a fumble yet this season, Lacy's ball security has reportedly been an issue limiting his playing time in the past. Solving the problem may not be as easy as just telling McCarron to not throw picks.
Still, the Tide's offensive job is simple: hang onto the ball, and eventually Richardson, Lacy and the line should eventually be able to bulldoze their way past the Jake Bequette-less Hog front seven. Turn it over -- especially in the Tide's own half, negating the Tide's ability to force the visitors into attempting home-run balls, as above -- and the Tide could find themselves in the kind of hole McCarron and the non-Maze receivers aren't yet ready to pass them out of.
WHAT ALABAMA CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: Punt returner Joe Adams. Adams already has two highlight-reel punt returns for touchdown this season and the Tide have had some minor struggles in coverage, only allowing three returns but allowing those three to average nearly 10 yards. (Kick returns could be interesting, too; they've been a sore spot in the past for 'Bama, and Hog freshman Marquel Wade already has a touchdown this season, too.)
WHAT ARKANSAS CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: The brilliance of Richardson (left) and Lacy. The last time Arkansas came to Tuscaloosa, the Hogs had gotten off to a steady start until Richardson turned what should have been a three-yard loss into a twisting, shifting, tackle-breaking 52-yard touchdown run. Final result: 35-7, Tide. If Richardson and his (equally?) capable backup can provide similar fireworks in this meeting -- and they looked primed to do just that against UNT -- there won't be anything Arkansas can do.
AND IN THE END: Arkansas gets two first-half touchdowns and carries a slim lead into the fourth quarter, but a slim lead against the Tide ground game isn't lead enough. Alabama 23, Arkansas 20.
*Arkansas is one of the few teams that doesn't have "left" and "right" tackles, preferring instead to employ weakside and strongside tackles that flip back-and-forth depending on the play and formation.