Pregame analysis of Alabama's home game against Arkansas:
What: Alabama Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (2-5, 0-4)
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. Central time
Rankings: Alabama is No. 1 in the Associated Press and coaches rankings, while Arkansas is unranked.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821), Tuscaloosa
Line: Alabama by 31½
TV/radio: TV: ESPN; radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961)
Three things Alabama must do
1. Establish Najee Harris and the run game early.
One of the best ways to help any quarterback is to get the ball out of his hands and into those of his playmakers. And at Alabama, that includes dynamic former five-star running back Najee Harris, who has posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time in his career.
In fact, Harris is averaging exactly 100 rushing yards over his last four straight games and more than 6 yards a carry in his last six games after a somewhat slow start to his season. Through seven games, Harris ranks sixth in the SEC with 586 rushing yards and has just three rushing touchdowns on the season. But, of course, he has the potential to do so much more, including taking over a game on the ground. Harris just needs the opportunities, as evidenced by the back-to-back 100-yard games when tallying 20-or-more carries.
Part of that improvement has coincided with the return of 340-pound right guard Deonte Brown to the starting lineup, as the redshirt junior has paired with 360-pound true freshman left guard Evan Neal to create a powerful guard tandem on either side of new junior center Landon Dickerson.
Although the Crimson Tide hasn’t quite taken the traditional ground-and-pound approach to offense this season, a return to the old ways could certainly be beneficial Saturday, especially against a Razorbacks run defense that ranks 13th in the SEC allowing 193 rushing yards per game this season.
2. Utilize even more short, timing routes in the passing game.
While Tua Tagovailoa may have gotten a bit frustrated by all the talk about Alabama’s love of slant and underneath routes, they will be Mac Jones’ best friend in his first start Saturday.
Before last weekend, only about 20 percent of Tagovailoa’s completions actually came via slants or crossing patterns, a figure that should go up with Jones behind center.
When Jones entered last Saturday’s game in place of Tagovailoa against Tennessee, his first pass was a screen that Jaylen Waddle took for a 13-yard gain. Those sorts of passes allow Jones to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible, and into the hands of the more experienced playmakers on offense.
As Nick Saban pointed out, while Jones was just 6-of-11 for 72 yards last Saturday, two of his incompletions were drops by the receivers. Some of that could be attributed to a new passer being thrust into the equation, but after a week of practice leading up to this game, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem Saturday.
3. Keep the defense guessing with some tricks of the trade.
Alabama doesn’t traditionally need tricks to get the job done, but whenever it has veered off script, it seems to work.
The Crimson Tide has utilized the Wildcat formation a handful of times this season, with redshirt freshman receiver Slade Bolden, a former high school quarterback, taking snaps. Although the first few times Bolden went behind center this season resulted in runs, first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian unveiled a new wrinkle when Bolden threw out of it Saturday, completing a pop-pass to wide-open tight end Miller Forristall for a 6-yard touchdown for the offense’s only second-half score.
Without overdoing it, a couple more Wildcat opportunities for Bolden could help take some pressure off Jones to do everything, and, at the same time, infuse some fun into the mix Saturday.
As evident by the celebrations after Bolden’s touchdown, Alabama’s players enjoyed seeing Bolden get in some action, but none more than Jones, who was split out wide at receiver on the play and started jumping for joy the moment the ball was snapped. Those sorts of plays create a bit of manufactured levity into what will undoubtedly be a stressful day for Jones. So why not add in some opportunity for fun.
Let’s be real here: even with Jones at quarterback, Alabama will still be far and away the more talented team on the field Saturday against an Arkansas team still in the midst of a rebuild in the second season under Chad Morris.
Look for the Crimson Tide to try to make things as easy as possible for Mac Jones, which could lead to a somewhat slow start offensively, but don’t expect that to last long with as many playmakers as Alabama has on offense.
Meanwhile, the Razorbacks can’t seem to figure out their own quarterback situation with both Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks splitting reps fairly evenly through the first five games before Hicks took every snap at quarterback in a 51-10 loss to Auburn last week. Hicks appears to be the starter, but he’s been dealing with a shoulder issue this week, which could open the door for Starkel to show he deserves another opportunity.
Whoever is behind center for Arkansas, Alabama’s defense will have its sight set on making things difficult for him.
So, while it might not be the prettiest offensive display Saturday with Tagovailoa on the sideline, Alabama still has more than enough firepower on either side of the ball to remain undefeated heading into its last bye week ahead of a potential Top-2 showdown against LSU in two weeks.
Alabama 35, Arkansas 3