Arkansas travels to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to play its first SEC West game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. What will the Razorbacks have to do to upset Alabama's Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium?
First, let's establish one thing; it's a winnable game for the Hogs, even though the Tide is a solid 10-point favorite. One of the best things the Hogs have going for them is a knowledge that they have played well at Bryant-Denny in the past, and have won several times. They know they can win at Alabama.
Second, the teams are similar. They both feature great defenses, or at least adequate defenses. And, they both are less than solid on offense, with less than great play at quarterback.
The main difference in the two teams might be in the offensive line. While Alabama's line is not great, it is better than Arkansas' line. Thought to be a strength in preseason since three seniors were returning starters, the Hogs have been dreadful in the area of run blocking.
So, the first key for the Hogs will to show some improvement in the offensive line. They must take some pressure off the passing game by knocking some holes for the tailbacks.
Along those lines, watch what develops up front when the Hogs have the ball. Can the Hogs establish their blocking across the line of scrimmage in their zone blocking scheme, or will have to try to cut off defenders as they penetrate the backfield as has been the case in the season's first two games.
The Hogs will try to establish their run blocking with a new lineup. True freshman Shawn Andrews will likely get his first start at right tackle. He's been with the first team for most of the practices over the last two weeks. He's the most dominant blocker when he locks on in the running game. He isn't as sound as others in the passing game, but he has the best chance at pancaking Alabama defenders. He's a 6-6, 335-pounder with quick feet and he must be on the field. How well he plays in his first real test is a huge key for the Hogs.
Elsewhere on the offensive front, the Hogs will move Mark Bokermann to right guard after starting the first two games at right tackle. Kenny Sandlin, a three-year starter at right guard, will replace Josh Melton at center. Sandlin is excited about the move and it could be a spark that ignites the Arkansas running game.
The Hogs have spent the last two weeks in physical, tough, grinding practices, especially for the offensive line. They should play better, but they couldn't play any worse. They were last among Division I teams in rushing offense. If they can't show some improvement in that area, it will be a long day against 'Bama's solid, quick defense.
Of course, quarterback play will be another key for the Hogs. Ryan Sorahan has been decent in his limited action, a few series against UNLV and every snap against Tennessee. He wasn't given but a small portion of the offense against Tennessee. The Hogs will surely open up more of the playbook against 'Bama. Can Sorahan handle it without committing turnovers? That will be a big key.
Will the Hogs find a hot tailback? That's the third key for the Hogs' offense. Will it be Fred Talley, the likely starter? Can Talley's rebuilt knee hold up in his first crack at extended playing time. Also, is Cedric Cobbs ready to fight back against the team which knocked him out for the season last season with a bad shoulder? The Hogs have good talent at tailback. Will this be the week we see some a solid running game? If the Hogs are to give the defense some help, they must find a running game.
Defensively, the Hogs must stop Alabama's option running. And, they must keep an eye out for trick plays with wide receiver Freddie Milons. He is a true gamebreaker, perhaps the only one in Saturday's game. If the Hogs are to win, Milons must not have a big day. The Hogs have some speed on defense to contend with Milons, but must not bust any assignments.
Another key will be how well the Hogs play on the road. They have a lot of youth and this is a true hostile environment. Will they fold under the pressure of playing in front of a packed Alabama crowd? Will Ryan Sorahan function with crowd noise? That will be a key. Arkansas has not been a good road team over the last two years, and must improve if it is to win at Alabama.
Can the defense score to help a struggling offense? It might be the day's biggest key. Because Arkansas' offense is in such a struggle to move the ball, the opposition has been conservative in the first two games, perhaps thinking it didn't need many points to beat the Hogs. Tennessee didn't try anything complex two weeks ago, and Arkansas had a hard time forcing turnovers. The Hogs must force some turnovers and possibly score with its defense. That's a huge key.
Arkansas must find a way to develop some confidence. Whether it comes from a big play in special teams, or from the defense or a surprising big play from the offense, the Hogs must do something big early in the game to inspire a team that seemed to play without offensive confidence in the season's first two games. They have worked hard the last two weeks to improve the blocking and the offense in general. If something good happens early, they may believe they've improved in dramatic fashion and play above their heads. That is the last of my keys to victory over Alabama.