The Top 10 list is a Friday staple during football season. What are the top 10 things to watch as Arkansas heads into action. Sometimes I've got carried away and included almost 10 items in a single point in the top 10. Hence, we've stretched it to a baker's dozen.
That's what I'm feeling today as I sit down to analyze the Arkansas-Alabama game Saturday in Tuscaloosa. It's set for 2:30 p.m. on CBS. It's a dandy, the first of several key SEC West matchups this season. Alabama is No. 2, Arkansas No. 14.
This is like the Texas game used to be for Arkansas in the old SWC. Yes, there were some conference matchups before the Hogs got to UT. TCU was usually first. Baylor most times was next. But it was Texas that provided the clues as to where Arkansas fit in the SWC race. And in the 60s, it was the key game for the national race, too.
This Alabama game is like that. If you are going to be in the discussions when the first BCS ratings come out soon, you want a victory in this game. There are more big games, but this one is first so it likely ranks as the biggest in September around the SEC.
We'll jump into it quickly. The first is the most important because of those BCS implications.
1. Defense I
First, something general. I was taught from an early age that you when championships with defense. Whether you are talking about football, basketball or about any other sport, if the other team doesn't score, it's hard to lose. I brought that up to Bobby Petrino after last season. He didn't dodge the question, but he didn't exactly say that defense was the only way to win a title. He pointed to Auburn's 2011 run. He said Auburn won with an offense and turnovers. He's got a point. Then, he said, "You have to outscore the other team and you can do it in different ways. You can do it with a combination of offense, defense and special teams." But Petrino said from the get go that this was a better Arkansas defense. They've shown to be improved in some ways defensively, but weren't lights out against the pass last week against Troy. But if this is a better Arkansas defense, this would be the week to prove it.
2. Defense II
Really, what we need to watch is the Arkansas defensive front. Can those inside tackles -- and the Hogs may start them all -- hold their ground against a wonderful Alabama offensive front like they did in the first three weeks. I didn't see any plays that Byran Jones, Dede Jones and Robert Thomas had to take a step back to gain leverage. Most plays, they whipped the man in front of them and usually required double team blocking. That makes it easier for the outside linebackers to scrape and take gaps in the running game. Alonzo Highsmith and Jerry Franklin were usually kept clean. They were what you hope your quarterback looks like in pass protection, no one touching them. They were able to go make plays because of those inside tackles. The Hogs are likely to play some 5-2 in the defensive front to utilize these defensive tackles, most likely on first down. If the Hogs can stop the run on first down with that group, then it will really help the pass rush. The Hogs didn't get in enough third and longs the first three weeks. Can they against Alabama and make it tough on AJ McCarron, the Alabama quarterback?
3. Defense III
Obviously, Alabama has one of the best defensive units in the country. The key is if Arkansas has caught up any in this area. Can Arkansas make plays at linebacker and the secondary like this Alabama defense? I'll get into specifics later, but it's a game Arkansas has to control some with the defense because it's just going to be that kind of day. I don't see either offense scoring a lot of touchdowns. Including, my final score reads only 20-19. That's less than three TDs for both teams.
4. Quarterbacks I
I almost listed this one Defense IV. Because I think the defenses are going to play some games with the minds of both Tyler Wilson and the Alabama signal caller, McCarron. There will be checks both ways. By that I mean, the QBs are going to have to make checks after they see the defensive checks. Arkansas may even use some no huddle so that Wilson can check with the coach for some of the checks. There may be some situations where the QBs make checks and move blockers (tight ends, wideouts and backs), just to influence Alabama's checks. And Alabama will be making defensive checks like no one else in college football tries. Yep, it's a chess match between quarterbacks and coaches. Can the QBs win the game before the snap? That's what they'll be trying to do, eliminate bad plays with checks. The team that has the fewest bad plays against the checks of the other team's QBs will likely be the one standing at the front of the SEC West race afterwards.
5. Quarterbacks II
Turnovers are going to be huge in this game. Can the QBs limit the number of huge mistakes they make against two good defenses. Arkansas lost in large part last year because Ryan Mallett made one more big mistake than Greg McElroy. The Hogs actually got after McElroy pretty good for three quarters. Then Nick Saban took the game out of McElroy's hands. That might be what the Alabama coach does again with a young QB. Which quarterback can be more aggressive without making mistakes is a huge part of this one.
Both teams enter with good confidence. There is a swagger on both sidelines. I believe Petrino has spent a good deal of energy over the last two years to build his team's confidence both with expectations and good results. The Arkansas players know they are going to get outstanding coaching from their sideline. They have been made to believe in their system, their coaches and they believe they are going to be put in good situations by all of those combinations. But, what you need more than anything to galvanize those beliefs is a victory over Alabama. It's the last piece to the puzzle. Winning puts you over the top in the confidence category. And the Hogs need some early success. They've scored on their first possession of every game this year. If they do that this week, that might be a huge key.
7. Four quarters
As much as an early start will help these Hogs, the key is to play four quarters. They haven't finished well against Alabama and they had the lead in every regular season game last year in the fourth quarter. They need to play well in the fourth quarter this week. There are probably going to be situations where each team lands a big blow, kinda like a heavyweight fight. The Hogs just need to keep playing to the finish.
8. Hit the QB
This comes back to defense again. At some point, the Hogs have to find some pass rush and hit the other quarterback. They didn't do that much in the first three weeks. They have to put doubt in McCarron's mind. He was like a deer in headlights in the fourth quarter last year when Auburn rattled him with some nice pass rush. The Hogs have to find their pass rush this week. Yes, it's always about stopping the run. But after you do that, there needs to be the finishing touch. Hit the quarterback.
9. Pass protection
If it's important to hit McCarron, it's just as important to keep Wilson clean. Alabama hasn't recorded many sacks. Just four. That's only one more than the Hogs through three games. The best way the Hogs can assure that Wilson gets pass protection, as silly as it might sound, is to run the ball. The Hogs don't have to roll up 250 yards on the ground. But they need to establish the threat of the run. That might be Wilson checking to runs when Alabama tries to load up in blitzes early. You hit a blitz with a great run call, that gets a defense into base quicker than Jarius Wright to the post.
10. Yards after catch
This could be yards after contact, if you want to stretch to cover both sides of the ball. And it might boil down to safety play. Can Arkansas safeties Tramain Thomas, Eric Bennett, Elton Ford and Jerico Nelson (yes, I think all four will play safety in this game) get Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy on the ground. The safeties are going to have to finish the run stops. The way to get Richardson down is to get plenty of hats to the ball. The safeties have to keep coming and know when to play pass in the potent Alabama play-action game. Conversely, the Arkansas wideouts have to confound superb Alabama safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester. They have to get some yards after catch. They have to outrun the Tide's safeties in those crossing routes. And, to do that, the Hogs have to hit some runs to make the play-action game effective.
11. Silence the crowd
The best way to combat a 100,000 crowd, make plays. That can be offense, defense or special teams. When you make plays on the road, silence is golden. There is nothing sweeter than to hear 3,000 Arkies going crazy and 97,000 folks with houndstooth caps sitting on their hands. I've heard that sweet sound before. Arkansas has done it before. But they haven't done it against a Saban Alabama team. That's the goal. That's what these Razorbacks have focused on for the last few months. They've been shooting for Alabama. They know the stakes. To win the SEC West, the first mission is to silence the state of Alabama. The Hogs went 0-2 against Alabama teams last year. They'll get a chance at three this year. They got Troy last week. It's the Tide this week. Auburn in two weeks.
There may be a few the Hogs have in store for Alabama. Perhaps this is the week Robert Thomas steps up. He's played solid in the first three weeks, but most of the action has gone the other way. He'll be one of the most talented athletes on the field. Kiero Small might have a big package. The stout fullback will have a say in the outcome. He's blocked well, but he can do more this week. What's new this week for Joe Adams? The Hogs have added a trick or two for No. 3 every week. He can be a difference maker on this stage. And the Hogs have to be ready for the reverse pass, the Wildcat and the other tricks that Alabama has shown in past seasons but kept under wraps so far in 2011.
13. Prediction Time
The Hogs had it in their grasps last season and didn't close the deal. A talented and experienced senior class is excited for this chance. The Hogs have maintained all week that this was the focus in the offseason, getting to Alabama week. The Tide is the heavy favorite. But it has weaknesses. There has been a lack of a pass rush for Alabama through three games. The Tide hasn't played a stout run defense. There is inexperience at quarterback. Alabama plays a team built to play Alabama. It's Arkansas, 20-19. Silence is golden.
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