No. 21 HOGS at No. 2 Bama preview
FAYETTEVILLE - Other than losing one game and dropping to No. 2 in national polls, it's business as usual for Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide, which has beaten Arkansas 14 years running.
Coach Sam Pittman’s No. 21 Razorbacks (7-3, 3-3 in the SEC), off successive SEC wins over Mississippi State and LSU, and the Tide (9-1, 5-1) clash at 2:30 Saturday afternoon at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. CBS plans to televise the SEC West game.
As usual, the Tide rolls a wave of national awards candidates. Leading Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Young, linebacker Will Anderson (Bronko Nagurski Award finalist), receiver Jameis Williams (Biletnikoff Award semifinalist) and left offensive tackle Evan Neal (Outland Trophy semifinalist) are among Alabama’s renown with five- and four-star backups next in line.
Even if he did not initially recruit players out of high school, Saban still gets the best transfers like linebacker Henry To’oTo’o (13 tackles vs. Mississippi State) from Tennessee.
So the Tide Pittman watched on video when he was the offensive line coach at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, he sees again as Arkansas’ second-year head coach.
“I mean, they’re Alabama,” Pittman said. “When you turn on the film, they’re what you expect to see.”
Last year, Arkansas saw a 52-3 season-ending whipping that belied the strides Pittman made in his first season at Arkansas.
Arkansas lost 19 consecutive SEC games from Bret Bielema’s final three SEC games of 2017 through the 2018 and 2019 Chad Morris years.
So, Pittman’s 3-7 record in 2020 for an entirely SEC schedule was deemed outstanding, even if it ended with a Bama blowout.
The Tide could flood Arkansas again with the usual pieces, starting with Young and Anderson. Young, a sophomore, ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency and second in the SEC behind Georgia senior Stetson Bennett. Alabama boasts the No. 10 total offense (485 YPG) in the nation and third-ranked scoring offense (44.6 ppg).
“Man, he (Young) has got a really smooth release and has a way to throw the ball at all kinds of different angles," Pittman said. "Throws a great long ball. Obviously he’s got (John) Metchie and (Jameson) Williams out there that … he’s got guys to throw it to. And he’s an elusive runner.”
Anderson lives on the edge. That’s not good for an Arkansas team that lost the edge last week trying to block LSU’s perimeter defense, even while ultimately winning 16-13 in overtime. LSU recorded three sacks and a QB hurry. Arkansas sophomore QB K.J. Jefferson ran 15 times for a net of 41 yards after 22 yards in losses.
“Defensively, Will Anderson is as good a player as anybody has,” Pittman said. “The No. 1 thing you try to do is not let a difference-maker make a difference. In his case, it’s very, very difficult.”
Anderson, a 6-4, 243-pound sophomore, leads the nation in tackles for loss with 23.
All the oddsmakers generally tab Alabama a 20-point favorite against Arkansas, the most favorable Arkansas outlook vs. Alabama in years.
Arkansas knows Alabama struggled as much to beat LSU 20-14 in Tuscaloosa, as Arkansas did in Baton Rouge. The Razorbacks even beat Texas A&M 20-10 at a neutral site, and the Aggies upset Alabama 41-38.
And other than at No. 1 Georgia, the Hogs have won or been ultra-competitive in every 2021 game. They don’t appear beaten before kickoff this week as has been the case against Alabama.
“We have a chance,” Pittman said. “The No. 1 thing you have to do to go beat a team is believe you can do it. If you’ve got a whole plane full of guys who are thinking, ‘Man, when’s this game over?,’ then you don’t have a chance.”
These Razorbacks assert they do.
"We’ve seen what we can do.” Arkansas senior linebacker Grant Morgan said. “We can win games. We beat LSU at LSU. We played a really good Texas A&M team really well at a neutral site. So, we know what we can do.”
Saban knows it, too. He has watched Arkansas’ stars like Jefferson and receiver Treylon Burks (#16 in Craven Whitlow photo TOP) shine with a bigger, better offensive line. He’s seen an Arkansas defense led by linebackers Morgan, Bumper Pool (No. 11 in FBS for total tackles) and Hayden Henry and cornerback Montaric Brown wreak havoc. And if it comes down to a field goal, Arkansas freshman kicker Cam Little can be a devastating difference.
“I think they play with great intangibles,” Saban said. "They play with great effort. They’ve got great toughness and discipline in terms of how they execute what they do. And their players have all improved.”