The focus on analysis all week has been offensive styles. It's the Texas Tech spread with a starting lineup that could feature four wide receivers versus the Arkansas power with more tight ends and jumbo sets.
No one ever mentions defense, but that's where I'll start in the weekly top 10 keys to watch for the Hogs' trip to Lubbock for a 2:30 start at Jones AT&T Stadium. ABC will have the TV coverage.
Arkansas and Tech have not played top level defense of late. And, it doesn't take much to figure out why. It's been musical chairs more at defensive coordinator at both schools.
Arkansas has had Willy Robinson, Paul Haynes, Chris Ash and now Robb Smith as its defensive coordinator over the last four seasons. Tech had Ruffin McNeil as DC in 2007-2009, then changed four straight years. It was James Willis, then Chad Glasgow and Art Kaufman before Kingsbury brought in Matt Wallerstedt for the last two seasons.
To me, it's more about who can get their defense established Saturday in Lubbock. Neither appears particularly good at stopping what the other team does best. Smith is trying to rebuild the secondary that was gashed at Auburn two weeks ago both in the run and the pass. The Hogs gave up 25 TD passes last year to rank 13th in the SEC.
Kingsbury's spread may not be quite as potent as Auburn because of the lack of a running quarterback, but it's not like the Red Raiders can't make yards on the ground with solid running backs. They can and Kingsbury does like to take advantage of mismatches in space if you go with too many light cornerbacks.
And that brings up the most interesting dynamic to the Arkansas secondary this week. Can Tevin Mitchel, perhaps the best corner early in camp, play well after missing almost one month of practice? His time at Arkansas is marked by injuries and big missed tackles on the perimeter in the passing game.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has maintained all week that Mitchel will play against the Raiders. I think he may play a lot, if he's effective at the outset. If there was anyone Smith raved about over the summer, it was Mitchel. But he's rarely been on the field in consistent stretches after an offseason shoulder surgery and then a hamstring tear. How will both those injuries hold up in Lubbock in his first action of the season?
If Mitchel can go, that means Smith might move boundary corner Carroll Washington inside to play on a slot receiver in an expanded nickel package. Washington's forte is disrupting passes. He likes to play with his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage. That may be just what the doctor ordered for this Arkansas defense.
What can Wallerstedt come up with to slow down Bret Bielema's pounding style with extra tight ends and a rotation of perhaps seven brutish offensive linemen? Tech's depth chart shows a light set of starting defensive tackles in a 3-4 that might not be the best way to go at the UA offense. I'm guessing Wallerstedt plays with an eight-man front and utilizes backup tackles Rika Levi (367) and Keland McElrath (312), both junior college transfers.
The schematic chess game will be designed to find the best one-on-one matchups for both sides. Tech will likely go with man coverage on the UA receivers – and that could lead to a big day for the likes of Hunter Henry, A.J. Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle – because of what they'll need against the running game. Conversely, the Hogs are going to be man-to-man against running back DeAndre Washington. Can Brooks Ellis or Martrell Spaight stay with Washington on short passes or handoffs? They may not get much help.
The quarterbacks have had turnover issues in the past. It always comes down to quarterback play, doesn't it?
For Arkansas, Brandon Allen gave up a pick six because of faulty protection against Auburn. Wallerstedt is a blitzer. He's going to move his fronts to confuse the big Arkansas line and try to get someone loose on Allen. Can the junior quarterback make the right checks and dump the ball when required? He'll likely get someone free down the field since Tech likes to play safeties tight – if he can get enough time. Will his receivers make the catch? They didn't at Auburn.
For Tech, Davis Webb seems to fit what Kingsbury wants, an effective short game passer who can get the ball spread. His favorite is Bradley Marquez, who at 203, is the only Raider wideout over 200 pounds. It's a lot different look on the outside than what Auburn presented with Sammie Coats and Duke Williams.
That's the highlights, now we'll get into the real top 10 keys. I'll start with some interesting matchups.
Top 10 Keys
1. The Taiwan Effect – Arkansas has the X-factor inside with 255-pound Taiwan Johnson, the surprise through two games with 3.5 sacks and one other quarterback tackle for lost yardage that could have been judged a sack. He's gone against two big centers so far and they've not been able to contain the former defensive end. Tech counters with a lighter center, 285-pound Jared Kaster. Will Kaster need help and if he does, will that turn loose Darius Philon, the other inside tackle for the Hogs? This is a speedier Arkansas front. Can Johnson, Philon and Trey Flowers get some pressure on Webb?
2. Two Centers – Can Arkansas play both Mitch Smothers and Frank Ragnow at center? If you are watching Johnson disrupt things for Kaster on one side, you will want to check out what Smother and Ragnow can do against Tech's nose tackle rotation of Jackson Richards (268) and the massive Levi. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman indicated he'll play both his centers. Ragnow can be a blur and would be a threat on outside pulls like Travis Swanson last year. Is he ready for a full dose at Tech?
3. Bells and Whistles – Tech fans have some noise makers.They'll ring bells and make things loud for the opposing team in Jones Stadium. They have a special student cheering section that camps out ahead of games called Raiderville. They'll be amped up Saturday, although the Hogs caught a break with an afternoon start. It's tougher at night in Lubbock. But what I really want to know, are the Hogs about to trot out some bells and whistles of their offense? Bielema indicated that they had some new wrinkles they were saving for Lubbock. No one has seen any sets with the three top running backs on the field together. Is this the week for Alex Collins or Korliss Marshall to be out there together?
4. SEC vs. Big 12 – There is always that interesting aspect when power conferences square off in the early season. Who is stronger? Tech was picked sixth out of 10 Big 12 teams in the preseason media poll. Conversely, the Hogs were last among the seven teams in the SEC West. The winner will provide some talking points for the national media. Arkansas leads the Tech series, 28-7, and won 28 of the first 33. Tech is just 48-82-3 overall record against the SEC. What are the mindsets of the players in this regard? Is there some SEC jealousy that brings out the beast in Tech? It's a talking point among fans. Is it for players? The Hogs were conference foes and they did leave the Raiders in their dust in 1992. Do any of these players hold that against them?
5. Clean Machine – Bielema prides himself on operating a clean ship. Penalties and limiting mistakes – especially turnovers – have been his rallying cry throughout his coaching career. The Hogs aren't heavily penalized. Tech has been. The Raiders have had 25 penalties in their first two games, as big a reason as any that they struggled to slip past UCA and UTEP. Who is clean Saturday afternoon in Lubbock? Can the UA receivers catch everything thrown to them? That's part of playing clean.
6. The Wind Always Blows – The saying is that when you get off the plane in Lubbock, the breeze will knock you down. And, if the wind doesn't get you, a tumbleweed might. But that's not what it looks like for this Arkansas trip. At mid-day Friday, it was 53 in Lubbock, extremely cool for September in the panhandle. It's supposed to be only slightly warmer Saturday at kickoff with a high of 69. Certainly, this is a better scenario than Auburn when the Hogs flew into a sauna and may have melted in the second half. And, the wind may not be a factor. The forecast calls for an east wind of 5 to 10 mph for the afternoon, with cloudy skies. That might be a good break for the Hogs, who had mild weather in the Ozarks all summer and early in camp.
7. Physicality – Some think the Hogs are the bigger, more physical team. They do look bigger on paper. But will they play big and nasty in real life. Can they be a beast from the SEC West? No one has feared the Hogs of late. And, the Raiders have a motto of Fearless that's on all of their releases, game notes, etc. No one should fear the Hogs after they lost 10 straight (before the rout of Nicholls) and it's doubtful that the Raiders back away. Who has the swagger? Who has the physical presence and does it hold up for four quarters for the Hogs?
8. The Best Player – I've always wanted to figure out who the best player on the field was in any particular game. Against Auburn, it was wideout Duke Williams. The Hogs didn't have a big-play answer. For Tech, it's likely Bradley Marquez. I think the Hogs may have it in running back Alex Collins. Is this the week Collins is the best player on the field? I think perhaps it happens.
9. The Real Tech – Expectations were not high for Tech after a stumbling finish last year after a 7-0 start. But there was the 37-23 victory over No. 16 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl when Davis Webb through for 403 yards and four touchdowns. That was what Webb was expected to do against UCA and UTEP, but there weren't that many highlights except that the Raiders gutted out two close games. Are the Red Raiders going to be more like the team that routed Arizona State when they play the Hogs, or like they were with 25 penalties in the first two games? Is the real Tech about to step up?
10. Big Plays – The Hogs have played two games where big plays were the key. They gave them up against Auburn – a slew of them – then had five one-play TD drives (if there is such a thing) against outmanned Nicholls. Tech has had touchdown plays of 70 and 75 in its first two games. Arkansas has played with a deep safety most of the time in the first two games. Tech has moved their safeties up to stop the run. That might lead to big plays against the Raiders. It may come down to tackling. The Hogs tackled poorly against Auburn with coaches citing errors in fundamentals, going for the strip instead of the wrap after emphasizing turnover drills in spring and camp. They got back to fundamentals the last two weeks in practice, but is it a matter of struggling against better backs? It's as big a key as any in this game and might prove to be the essence of what this game is all about.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Tech)
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