State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Alabama)

Arkansas plays host to No. 7 Alabama on Saturday. Here are the keys to victory for the Razorbacks, as written by HI.com Publisher Clay Henry. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. and set for ESPN.

Football is labeled as the ultimate team game, your 11 against their 11. Well, it hasn't been like that since before Arkansas won the 1964 National Championship.

It's been two platoon football the last 50 years, one of the keys in 1964 when the Hogs beat No. 1 Texas. The Longhorns didn't make the jump to two platoon like Frank Broyles did in the spring of 1964, going to specialization. Darrell Royal played most of his best players both ways.

But the evolution of the game is such that now both Arkansas and No. 7 Alabama list 12 starters on both sides of the ball in the depth charts released for Saturday's matchup of SEC West teams set for 5 p.m. at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. And, the depth, perhaps an issue for Arkansas as it struggled in the fourth quarter in an SEC losing streak, makes the quality of play through a 60-man roster the critical aspect of this game.

Offensively, Alabama lists starters at the skill position spots at running back, fullback, X wide receiver, Z wide receiver, tight end and H-back (a hybrid tight end/fullback). And, it's those combinations of possible backfield alignments with wingbacks and slotbacks that Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith will be charting and matching throughout the game.

Interestingly, Alabama has adopted some aspects of a hurry-up style with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. It's all designed to force the defense into a bad matchup against wide receiver Amari Cooper, leading the nation with 52 catches in five games and an average of 149.2 yards.

"What we have to do is make sure of their personnel and get lined up right,” Smith said. “They are constantly changing their groupings and make it hard on you. It's as close to what you see in the NFL as anyone you play. It reminds me of what we saw last year (at Tampa Bay) every week. They do it well.”

Arkansas has a similar approach and has a touch of hurry-up, but not between the whistle and the alignment for the next play. It's more of a quick snap after a jump from the huddle, all designed to do the same thing, catch a defense with improper alignment based on formation.

And, that alignment is different than Alabama's, but based on strengths. The Hogs list a starting lineup with two starting tight ends, Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby. There was a time when offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was not listing a starting fullback, but that has changed with the progress of both Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze. In this week's depth chart, Walker moved ahead of Arinze.

“We've gotten good play out of our fullback,” Chaney said. “There are certain things that one does better than the other, but both of them are giving us something. Patrick has done well of late in some blocking assignments.”

Of course, Walker is more of a running back playing the fullback spot. He's lined up as the lone back at some times, but he's more likely to get a snap or two at fullback against Alabama this week.

Defensively, there is so much spread offense in college football, that head coaches elect to release a depth chart with a nickel back and a strong side linebacker, although those are usually the players that rotate depending on formation.

That strong linebacker has rarely played for either Arkansas or Alabama this year because the base alignment hasn't been used. That should change for both teams this week since each will use fullbacks and tight ends in a tight formation more than anything close to a spread.

That could mean that true freshman Randy Ramsey, now listed as a co-starter with senior Braylon Mitchell, gets his first start, or at least his most significant minutes. Ramsey has battled ankle injuries, but should be healthy after the open date and play a lot against Alabama.

Head coach Bret Bielema indicated Thursday night on his radio show that the defense is likely to play another true freshman, Shreveport, La., product Santos Ramirez. The 6-1, 200-pounder has been slowed by an ankle injury after an early splash in camp.

Ramirez joins another true freshman, Henre' Toliver, in the cornerback rotation. True freshman Josh Liddell is the first sub at safety in a thin position that might be boosted by the return of redshirt freshman De'Andre Coley, bothered by an injury most of the fall.

Freshman are going to play for Alabama, too, and in an unusual place, the offensive line. Left tackle Cam Robinson has been locked in there all season and will be a great player in time. But he's still a youngster learning the ropes in the SEC.

It's at center where the Tide is suddenly reeling with inexperience. Junior Ryan Kelly, perhaps the best player in the front, was injured in last week's loss to Ole Miss. There are two freshmen behind him. Bradley Bozeman is the likely starter this week. There were issues there in the second half against the Rebels.

Alabama slipped out of the top spot in the national rankings with that loss, its third straight to ranked foes going back to the Auburn game to end the 2013 regular season and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The problem last week was two late turnovers and a continued problem with penalties.

Tide head coach Nick Saban has been disappointed with the false starts, illegal formation and holding penalties. Perhaps some of the lack of slickness comes from the fall battle at quarterback between Blake Sims, fifth-year senior, and transfer Jake Coker. Sims won that job and has been brilliant at time, relying on Cooper's big-play ability. But it's not always been smooth.

The statistics show two teams that love the ground game. Arkansas is the best at 316 yards per game, holding foes to just 139. Conversely, Alabama averages 240 on the ground, yielding just 64. Both love the play-action pass, but Sims is just as comfortable just throwing it up for Cooper. That's a big part of the reason the Tide averages 314 per game passing, while the Hogs get just 168 per game.

Alabama is more equipped to stop the Hogs' ground game than anyone they've played this year, boasting a deep cast of big linemen and linebackers. The Tide's starting linebackers are 254, 250 and 254, the biggest group the Hogs have faced.

Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said the Hogs will still do what they do, go right at the Tide. They'll try to block them better than they did the last two years when Alabama won both games, 52-0. Pittman called those embarrassing games.

“No one blocks them long,” Pittman said. “Against some teams, if you don't block them, they may not make the tackle. With Alabama's linebackers, if you don't block them, they always make the tackle. They just do.”

With that, I'll launch into our weekly top 10 keys to victory for the Hogs. They'll have to get a bunch of these right to end a 14-game SEC losing streak and seven straight to Alabama. The Tide leads the all-time series, 14-8.

Top 10 Keys

1, Turnovers – If you are going to score an upset, this is where you start. Ole Miss got some key takeaways late in last week's upset of Alabama. The Tide is minus three for the season, losing six fumbles. Arkansas is plus two with the big area of improvement coming from quarterback Brandon Allen, with just one interception on the season. The betting line is bounced between 10 and 8 points. That's the slimmest betting line in this game in several years. But the Hogs need some help from Alabama to score an upset and this might be the most likely place to get it.

2, Penalties – This is another area that shows Alabama's vulnerability. Nick Saban teams don't beat themselves, but they've committed 35 penalties in five games. The Hogs have not been heavily penalized with just 25 on the season, but that's where they probably gave the game away to Texas A&M two weeks ago. The Hogs erased two big plays with penalties, both by left tackle Dan Skipper. The last was a tripping call that perhaps kept them from going up three scores on A&M early in the fourth quarter. Arkansas had just two penalties against Texas Tech and three against Northern Illinois before they were penalized eight times for 76 yards. This is a statistic that pained head coach Bret Bielema. Like Saban, Bielema prides himself on not beating yourself and this is a stat that could be big in an Arkansas upset.

3, Physicality – A week after an intense and physical hitting match with Ole Miss, Alabama must lick its wounds and take on what may be the most physical team in the SEC. Under Bielema, the Hogs pride themselves in pad level, leverage and physical ability to pound the opposition. That's been what Saban teams have done through the years, too. There won't be any place for the meek when this game kickoffs. There's plenty of strategy involved on both sides as they each try to scheme an advantage, but as much as anything else, the ability to out slug the other side may be what this game is all about. Bielema said in August that he didn't worry about the physicality of this team. He said they've improved that much. But out hitting Alabama is a chore. Can the Hogs really match the Tide in the trenches? If they can, their SEC losing streak is probably over.

4, The Fourth Quarter – There just hasn't been much success in the fourth quarter the last three seasons for Arkansas. They have not scored in their two SEC games in the final quarter. In their last four SEC losses, the Hogs had the lead in the fourth quarter against both Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M. They were tied with Auburn at halftime in the fourth. But the Hogs did little right in the fourth quarter in those four games. There has been much planning as far as the mental side in the last two weeks as Bielema has tried to reverse that trend. They named some late-practice drills “The Perfect Fourth Quarter” during the open date, paying particular attention to a script. If there were any miscues, that entire script for that period was repeated until the Hogs completed it in perfection.

5, Improvisation – There will be breakdowns in any plan, on both sides. Neither team has accumulated many sacks. Arkansas has recorded just eight, Alabama has just nine. The Hogs have given up only one sack, with Brandon Allen relying on a play action passing game to keep the defensive front off balance. Alabama has given up just four. But there will be times when the pocket breaks down. Which quarterback, Allen or the Tide's Blake Sims, can make something happen with their feet? Sims is a more than adequate runner. There are going to be bootlegs and sprint outs called for both. The game may hinge on a big play by the quarterback's feet.

6, The Arkansas Linebackers – This has been a key area for the last several years as Arkansas has struggled at this position more than others. It was not a particular weak point last year when the Tide strolled to a lopsided victory. That was before Brooks Ellis stepped in at middle linebacker on a full-time basis and when Martrell Spaight was just learning in his first year out of junior college. Ellis and Spaight are much improved and rank one-two in tackles for the Hogs. They'll likely be joined by true freshman Randy Ramsey when the Hogs use their base defense. Can Ellis, Spaight and Ramsey contain the big Alabama backs? And, they can they cover play-action passes? Alabama will test them in both areas, early. It's one of the bigger keys in the game. Robb Smith calls it a “critical” area, but linebacker play always turns out to be critical. It will be Saturday night in crunch time.

7, Limit Big Plays – The Arkansas secondary couldn't tackle last year with the game on the line at Alabama. Can they make all the plays this time? They did for three quarters against Texas A&M, but then the Hogs came crashing down in a wave of big touchdown passes in the overtime loss. Big plays generally come when the safeties are out of position or miss a tackle. Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner have been up and down in that category. They will have to keep a handle on Amari Cooper this time, but the Tide has weapons in other areas, too. Robb Smith has had two weeks to devise a plan to get bracket coverage against Smith, but the safeties have to execute. There hasn't been a lot of signs of depth at the safety spot. Freshman Josh Liddell can provide a big boost if he can provide some rest for Gaines and Turner. It's a big key this week because of the pressure Cooper puts on a secondary.

8, Fresh Legs – Arkansas should have them after a week off. Bielema shortened practice this week after getting a jump on Alabama schemes in the bye week. The Hogs should be as healthy as they've been and Alabama is without several key players after injuries against Tide, most notably center Ryan Kelly and running back Kenyan Drake, the leader in rushing touchdowns with four. The Hogs have been struggling with nagging injuries at wide receiver where Demetrius Wilson and Drew Morgan have lost playing time. Both are back this week. Wilson gives the Hogs a much-needed threat down the field. Bielema said both appeared to have fresh legs this week.

9, Guard Play – This is the Hogs' strength. Surprisingly, it's not been the usual strength for Alabama. If the Hogs are going to win, this is an area where they must control the game. Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola give the advantage at guard, perhaps the first time that's been the case in several seasons against Alabama. Both are turning into great players. If the Hogs win, it might be because of what Kirkland and Tretola get done inside.

10, Intangibles – The home crowd should be worth something for the Hogs. They will likely be worked into a fever pitch with pre-game ceremonies to honor the Hogs' 1964 team, celebrating the 50-year anniversary to an 11-0 national championship. The Hogs have played only twice in their first five games in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. They are excited to be back there, where they've played antiseptic football in two non-conference victories. The Hogs are improved, but are they far enough along in Bielema's rebuilding program to knock off the Tide? They'll need a great day from the crowd and some good bounces. But there is a reason the Tide isn't a bigger favorite. There is a sense that this is an Alabama team with some flaws. Leadership has been called under question by former Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. Is this one of those intangibles that falls into the Arkansas column if you are looking to pick the underdog? Maybe, but it may be that the Hogs have just closed the gap as far as physical play of simple football. That's better than any intangibles.

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