Five Match-Ups to Watch Saturday
Tennessee and Auburn might be more important games in the grand scheme of Alabama football, but the Crimson Tide's annual battle with Arkansas usually proves to be the most interesting.
Alabama is 8-7 against Arkansas in the 15 years since the Razorbacks joined the Southeastern Conference. The home team has won seven of the last nine games, with 2002 and 2003 the lone exceptions.
The series has featured some crazy finishes, most going against Alabama. The Razorbacks won on the game's last play or in the final minute in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003 and last season.
It's not a stretch to say these two teams are evenly matched, almost eerily so. But before I get to the individual match-ups for this year's game, there are a few interesting statistical trends we need to deal with.
First, the result of the Arkansas game is almost always a good indicator of how Alabama's season will turn out. In years they have beaten the Razorbacks, the Crimson Tide's composite record is 81-20-1, a .799 winning percentage. In years they have lost to the Razorbacks, the Crimson Tide's composite record is 37-47, a .440 winning percentage.
Much has also been made of the fact that Arkansas is coming off a bye week, and is one of five teams on the Crimson Tide's schedule who will do so when they play each other this season.
Two stats more or less dispel any advantage Arkansas might have: first, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is just 8-7 when his team is coming off a bye week; second, and most impressively, Alabama coach Nick Saban is 11-3-1 in his college career against teams coming off a bye week.
With that, let's get to the key match-ups for Saturday's game:
Alabama LT Andre Smith vs. Arkansas DE Antwain Robinson
Both of these players scored a highlight-reel moment against the other in last season's game, and each has likely been counting the days until they can face off again. Smith flattened Robinson on a reverse in the second quarter last season, a play that put the then-freshman on the national map in a lot of ways.
Robinson came back later in the game to force a fumble against John Parker Wilson, which teammate Randy Kelly picked up and ran back 39 yards for a touchdown to get Arkansas back in the game.
Smith is off to a rousing start this year, leading the way as freshman running back Terry Grant has piled up 308 yards and five touchdowns through the Tide's first two games. Robinson is not technically a starter, but managed four tackles and a quarterback hurry in the Razorbacks' season-opening win over Troy.
Alabama WR D.J. Hall vs. Arkansas CB Materral Richardson
Alabama has been inconsistent throwing the ball so far this season, but will need to establish the passing game against the Razorbacks. Arkansas was vulnerable through the air last season, and gave up 214 yards to Troy two weeks ago.
Hall has made a career out of wrecking the Hogs, with nine catches, 198 yards and three scores the last two years. Included in that is a 78-yard scoring pass from John Parker Wilson last year, a play on which Hall split double coverage for Alabama's 10th longest touchdown pass ever.
Richardson was the target of Hall's big game last year, but is the Razorbacks' top returning cover man after the graduation of first-round NFL pick Chris Houston. Richardson has only one career interception, and must come up big this weekend if the Hogs hope to slow down Hall.
Alabama NT Lorenzo Washington vs. Arkansas C Jonathan Luigs
With receiver Marcus Monk and tight end Ben Cleveland likely sidelined for Saturday's game, the Razorbacks are almost certainly to rely on their running game, even more so than they usually do. The Hogs will almost certainly try to attack the Crimson Tide defense in the middle, where Alabama has the least experience.
Luigs (6-4, 315 pounds) is the team's best offensive linemen, and one of the best in the country. His 25 career starts rank fifth in the Southeastern Conference.
Conversely, Washington (6-4, 283) will mak juset his third career start on Saturday. He played well at Vanderbilt last week, but will have to ratchet his game up a notch to handle the beefy Luigs.
Alabama LB Rolando McClain vs. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden
The Razorbacks feature the best running game in the conference, if not in the country. Alabama's run defense looked like it would be a team weakness this season, but has been surprisingly stingy through two games.
McFadden is the engine that drives the Arkansas offense, whether rushing, throwing or returning kicks. He's an uncommon combination of size (6-2, 215) and speed, and perhaps the best running back in the SEC since Shaun Alexander and Jamal Lewis were running all over opponents in the late 1990s, if not since Bo Jackson was ripping things up at Auburn in the mid 1980s.
McClain has proven to be a hard hitter and a sure tackler in his first two games as a collegian. The freshman must get to McFadden before he accelerates, and he must wrap up when he does so.
Alabama PK Leigh Tiffin vs. himself
This one is not meant in a flippant, facetious or mean-spirited way, because it's pretty clear that Tiffin's failings against Arkansas last year were more psychological than anything. Not that that makes Tiffin any different than any other kicker.
He's also been far from consistent this year, going just 4-for-8 on field goals this season. Two of those misses were on attempts from 45-yards-plus last week against Vanderbilt --- and there was a bad snap on at least one --- but Tiffin also missed a couple of chip-shot attempts against Western Carolina in the season opener.
The Alabama-Arkansas game is almost always a close one, which means Tiffin will almost certainly have to make a clutch kick at some point for the Crimson Tide to win on Saturday. He must be in the right frame of mind.
Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for several print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at email@example.com
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