Alabama was picked at or near the top of the SEC West in preseason predictions. Arkansas was tabbed for at or near the bottom. That's not in just one or two preseason polls, but all of them. Rarely was there a poll where there positions were reversed.
So, why should Arkansas be listed as a slight favorite ... from four to five points ... in most betting lines and both teams are yet to play an SEC ball game? What's happened in the last few months to change those thoughts about the two teams? Surely, playing in a jammed packed Reynolds Razorback Stadium would not be enough to make the Hogs the favorite?
Well, that doesn't hurt the Hogs' chances, that's a certainty. So we'll start there as one of the keys to victory. It should help that the Hogs are playing at home, and the Arkansas crowd promises to be one of its best and loudest with over 10,000 students promising to attend.
But, that's not going to be the determining factor. No, what happens up front on both sides of the ball for Arkansas will be the key to this game. It is my belief that Arkansas has solid talent in both backfields. In fact, the backs that Arkansas has recruited in the last three years may be the best in the SEC, or at least equal to the best. It's the lines that aren't quite the equal to the SEC's best. And, SEC may have the best linemen in the SEC, especially on defense.
Hence, the Hogs must play at their best against Alabama to move the ball on the ground on offense and stop the run on defense. To me, this is the key to the game. Who wins the battles up front will be the victor in the running game, and that may well be the difference in the game. I think Arkansas is better in this regard than most suspect and it's the reason I think it will defeat Alabama.
First, let's go back to the original question, why is Arkansas suddenly viewed as better than Alabama. I think it starts at quarterback. With Matt Jones and Tarvaris Jackson, I think Arkansas is better than Alabama with a gimpy Tyler Watts (or even a healthy Tyler Watts) and Brodie Croyle. Jones has been spectacular in the season's first two weeks. It's obvious that he is a much different and better quarterback than he was at season's end when he'd played quarterback in college for just seven games. Jones is the difference maker, and he will be the key to a Razorback victory. If he can avoid turnovers, the Hogs should win. He should be able to produce some big plays. It's the bad plays that he needs to avoid.
So, if Arkansas has an advantage it is there, at quarterback. And, if there is one place on the field that I want to own the advantage, it is at quarterback. No one really knows outside the immediate Alabama camp if Watts is healthy enough to make an impact in the game. He couldn't finish the Southern Miss game last week and the Alabama coaches don't release injuries or allow writers to watch practice. So Watts is an unknown to some degree.
Alabama is advertised as a strong, and powerful defense. The Bama defensive front is talented and experienced. There will be some key matchups up front when the Hogs have the ball. Two of them pit experienced Bama stars against unheralded Arkansas newcomers. Can Arkansas left tackle Bo Lacy neutralize Bama's Kendall Morehead? Can walkon center Dan Doughty play Bama star nose tackle Kenny King to a stalemate? That would seem to be all Arkansas needs in these two battles, because the Hogs should have some advantages elsewhere up front with Shawn Andrews and Jason Peters.
Defensively, Arkansas' linebackers must play well. Alabama's ability to hold up front will probably neutralize the Arkansas defensive linemen. Alabama locks up with its hands up front, and doesn't ever let go. It will be hard for the Hogs to play off blocks as far as their defensive linemen. So, a big key will be whether or not Jeb Huckeba, Caleb Miller and Tony Bua can make plays without a lot of help from their buddies up front. I think they can. I think the UA linebackers are a team strength. I worried about their light size in preseason, but that does not seem to be a problem.
However, the Hogs must stop the Alabama ground game. And, while doing that, they can't be so focused on stopping the run that they are duped on the play fakes. Bama's offense is centered around establishing the run so its play-action passing game is effective. Alabama is not a dropback team. It makes hay by faking the run, and throwing short crossing routes to its backs and tight ends. And, the Bama offense also features a nice mix of counters and mis-direction plays, that might give the fast, quick blitzing Hog defense trouble. How the UA linebackers react to these mis-direction plays and option runs will be a big key to the game.
Of course, the Arkansas passing game must be enough of a threat to back off the Alabama linebackers. That was not the case last year. And, while the Hogs did find some running room behind Shawn Andrews in his first start, they were not effective enough with the pass in the second half to hang with Bama when two turnovers gave the Tide two cheap touchdowns.
The turnover differential and the kicking game are the two unknowns in this game. Arkansas has been good about protecting the ball under Houston Nutt, especially at home. Rarely have the Hogs lost this battle in any home games under Nutt. So that is a key. And, the kicking game has been a Bama ally this year, especially in regard to trick plays. The Tide has gambled in the kicking game with an onside kick, fake field goal and might do that again this week. The Hogs must play well in the kicking game.
There are plusses for Alabama in several areas, but I predict an Arkansas victory because of plusses at quarterback, running back, linebacker and defensive back. These appear to me as the strengths of this Arkansas team, and improved depth. I also think Arkansas might be a little fresher after an open date and that it is staying home.
If there is a concern for the Hogs it is that they have had two relatively easy victories and have not had to play a full game with its light defense. How it will hold up under 60 minutes of pressure against a good SEC team is an unknown, too. Alabama has played more games, and with Oklahoma, has at least one tough test this year that the Hogs haven't had. They may be better prepared because of that schedule. That's another unknown.