The start of Alabama's SEC schedule is upon us.
This week the Crimson Tide face the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. This will be the first of many tests Alabama must pass in order to reach the SEC Championship Game and you can bet Arkansas would love nothing more than to play the role of spoiler right out of the gate.
Let's take a look at how these two teams match up.
The Tide offense has been outstanding, averaging just over 245 yards passing and 267 yards rushing per game. That, Alabama fans, is what's called balance.
The total of 512 yards per game is good enough for ninth best in the nation.
The Crimson Tide also average 42 points per game. Having only really played one quality opponent, it is difficult to gauge just how good this offense is, but what Alabama has shown so far has been quite impressive.
The defense, on the other hand, has been largely inconsistent, performing very well at times and lackluster at others. They have the best run defense in the SEC—second in the nation—allowing just 42 yards per game.
The pass defense has looked suspect due to a few big plays, but outside of those the coverage has been excellent, allowing around 143 yards per game.
In total Alabama's defense ranks third in the country, allowing a mere 185 yards each game.
Looking at the Arkansas offense, you can see that the Razorbacks also move the ball with authority, albeit almost entirely through the air. The Hogs have the second ranked passing offense in the nation, averaging nearly 428 yards per game.
They are pretty much a pass-oriented offense though, and don't rely heavily on the run, as evidenced by their lowly 110 yards per game rushing. That is dead last in the conference, folks.
While Arkansas scores about 45 points per game (third SEC, eighth nationally) its defense gives up 31 points per game (11th SEC, 99th in the nation).
The Hogs give up 118 yards on the ground and 249 yards through the air for a per-game average of 367 yards (11th SEC, 81st nationally). As you can see, Arkansas has just tried to outscore its opponents thus far without putting up much in the way of defense.
All of this shows that Alabama and Arkansas in no way resemble one another on either side of the ball. Where Alabama appears to try and beat an opponent into submission whether on offense or defense, Arkansas is content to throw and throw, score and score, and hope the defense makes a stop or two. Not the best formula for winning games, as evidenced by the Razorbacks' 1-1 record.
With all this said, let's get to the unit by unit matchups!
One of the big question marks for Alabama coming into the 2009 season was its offensive line.
Well, the Tide has answered that question, and then some. Punishing opposing defensive fronts to open gaping holes for the running backs has been a hallmark of Alabama football since the beginning of time, and the 2009 version is continuing that tradition with a vengeance.
The "Big Uglies" have also done a nice job protecting quarterback Greg McElroy, having only given up three sacks in 69 pass attempts. Keeping your leader upright is crucial to an effective passing game and Alabama's line has done a great job of given McElroy plenty of time to find open receivers.
The Hogs, too, have managed to keep their lumbering quarterback Ryan Mallet (6'7" 248 pounds) from being harried too much by opposing defenses. Two sacks in 61 pass attempts is evidence to this success.
However, Arkansas' run blocking leaves much to be desired. As mentioned, the Hogs rank dead last in the SEC in rushing yards per game. Some will say that this is simply because they have not had to run the ball with such a powerful air assault. I say if you can't run the ball, eventually your passing game will suffer against better quality defenses.
Alabama is a better quality defense.
As such, the nod here goes to the Alabama offensive line due to the fact that Tide running backs have had a field day running the ball thus far and haven't had to rely solely on the passing game.
Alabama is fifth in the nation in rushing offense for a reason. The offensive line has a lot to do with that, but so does the fact that Alabama has no less than four backs (Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, Trent Richardson, and Terry Grant) that would be starters at many programs across the nation.
Ingram has stepped in nicely where departed starter Glenn Coffee left off. Add to that the contributions from frosh phenom Richardson and former starter Grant since Upchurch went down and you have a very potent stable of running backs ready to "tote the rock."
Both Richardson and Ingram have cracked the 100-yard mark in a game this season and each has rushed for three touchdowns so far. Grant has also been productive, rushing for three scores of his own and adding 150 yards over really just two appearances.
The running game for Arkansas has only one back with more than 100 yards on the season and, as expected, that guy is Michael Smith with 102 total yards. He has pretty much split carries with Broderick Green (29 yards) and each of them has contributed a single score.
Suffice it to say that the Hogs do not rely heavily on the running game.
That is probably good because if they haven't been able to generate a rushing attack so far they won't just magically have one going up against the Alabama defense.
Obviously, the nod here goes to the Tide running backs.
With Julio Jones having been double-teamed by Virginia Tech in Week One and then injured and out of the lineup since the first quarter of the second game, the Alabama receiving corps has been position by committee.
Some of that has to do with Greg McElroy distributing the ball to as many receivers as possible, and it is also a testament to the players' ability to get open. In total, 13 different Tide receivers, backs, and tight ends have caught at least one pass this season.
Mike McCoy, Marquis Maze, and Darius Hanks—as well as Mark Ingram out of the backfield—have all stepped up since the loss of Julio Jones. With Julio coming back this week, this group just got a lot more potent.
Arkansas has also distributed the ball around quite a bit. Like the Tide, 12 different receivers have caught at least one pass for the Hogs. Hogs receivers have obviously not had a hard time getting open, either.
Jarious Wright, Greg Childs, and Joe Adams have a combined 26 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns—roughly half of the team's receiving stats on the season.
Someone told me that instead of washing out units that appear to be even, I should make a choice one way or the other for each matchup. As such, I will give the nod here to the Hogs receivers based solely on stats. With Julio Jones back for the Tide, however, there isn't much space between the two units.
Greg McElroy has been nothing short of stellar since halftime of the VaTech game. On the season, McElroy has thrown four touchdowns (two other sure TDs where dropped) to one pick while amassing 647 yards and completing 66.7 percent of his passes. He is the fourth highest rated passer in the SEC with a QB rating of 161.7.
Not bad for someone considered to be another huge question for the Tide offense.
McElroy is more than just a game manager, too. He has shown very good mobility and his accuracy is on par with the best signal callers in the nation. He owns the Alabama single-game record for consecutive completions by throwing 14 in a row. The sky is the limit for this talented, young quarterback.
Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett has been a great pickup for Petrino and his offense. All he has done since taking over as the starter for Arkansas is quickly become the most efficient passer in the SEC. Mallett has totaled 717 yards and six touchdown passes without throwing a single interception.
The only knock—if there is one—on Mallett is that at 6'7" and nearly 250 pounds, he is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. There's a reason he transferred from Michigan when Rich Rodriguez took his spread option offense to Ann Arbor.
All this said, I give the nod here once again to Arkansas. McElroy is a very, very close second here.
Okay, I will go through the motions of comparing these two teams' units.
The Alabama front seven has been nothing short of unbeatable. Allowing a mere 42 yards per game on the ground (first in the SEC, second nationally) as well as tallying 10 sacks and 24 TFL in three games, this unit is as dominant as they come and might just be the best in the nation.
Anchored by Terrence "Mount" Cody up front and followed quickly by stud linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Rolando McClain, the Alabama defensive front is just plain punishing the opposition. The addition of Marcel Dareus—stepping in for the injured Brandon Deadrick—on the line has just amplified this unit's effectiveness.
If there is a better defensive front seven in the nation, I haven't seen it.
Considering they finished last in the SEC in 2008 with over 170 yards per game given up, Arkansas has done a decent job this year against the run, allowing 118.5 yards per game (seventh in the SEC, 49th nationally) with four sacks and 15 TFL in two games. Not stellar, but not too bad.
Senior defensive lineman Malcolm Sheppard leads the conference with 1.75 tackles for a loss per game and has also tallied 1.5 sacks. He anchors the Hogs' front seven and is backed up by linebacker Freddy Burton, who has also added a sack and 2.5 TFL.
The nod here clearly goes to the Alabama front.
If there is a chink in the armor of the Alabama defense it is in the secondary.
While they are only giving up 143.33 yards per game (fourth in the SEC, 13th nationally), they haven't faced a very potent passing attack thus far. That isn't to say that they haven't done a good job, but all the "big" plays given up by the defense have occurred in the secondary.
Javier Arenas proves each game he is more than just a return man. Robby Green, Mark Barron, and Kareem Jackson are also making things difficult for opposing receivers. This entire group plays as physical and aggressive as they can - sometimes too much, which leads to penalties and blown coverages.
Stats don't lie, however, and all in all this unit has done a good job of slowing down the passing game of opponents so far this season.
Arkansas' pass defense has been just abysmal. Allowing 249 ypg (11th SEC, 90th nationally) and five touchdown passes against, this unit is just another example of why the Hogs appear to have an "outscore the opposition" mentality.
Once again, I give the nod here to Alabama.
Let me start off by saying that the return game for Alabama has been solid. Return man Javier Arenas leads the SEC in punt return yards and ranks fifth in the conference in kickoff return yards. This is due in no small part to how dominant the defense has been. If the other team doesn't score, there won't be many kickoffs and there will be lots of punts.
The Tide kickoff coverage, however, leaves much to be desired. Having already allowed two kick returns for a touchdown it is simply scary to see Alabama score knowing that a kickoff is soon to follow.
Kicker Leigh Tiffin has been solid in the kicking game, going eight for 10 in FG opportunities with a long of 49 yards. Then the Tide played North Texas and Tiffin decided to shank a couple PATs. What was once considered a strength has now become another special teams area that needs to be addressed and quickly. You just don't miss PATs. Period.
Arkansas return man Dennis Johnson has done a solid job this season—good enough to have the Hogs ranked third in the SEC in kick return yards but only 10th in punt returns. Chalk that last stat up to the defense just not forcing many punts.
Kicker Alex Tejada has been perfect all season, going four for four in FG attempts and 11 for 11 in PATs. He may only have a long of 24 yards but he hasn't missed a PAT. Maybe Tiffin should watch this guy in practice or something.
Field goals put points on the board, but the return game can swing field position and thus momentum for a team in a game. With that in mind, I give the nod here to Alabama. They just have to remember not to allow Arkansas any big returns when kicking the ball to them.
So there you have it. Alabama wins the unit by unit matchup by a final score of five to two. Considering that, my prediction is that the Tide wins this game—as if you didn't know that was going to be the case.
The Hogs' offense will move the ball through the air—they have too much talent at the quarterback and receiver spots not to. But because Alabama can basically pin its ears back and go after Mallett due to the lack of a real running threat from Arkansas, it is going to be a much less productive day for Petrino's Piggies.
As for Alabama, the Tide should be able to run and throw at will against a defense that just doesn't do much in the way of slowing down opposing teams' offenses.
Unless there is a huge breakdown in coverage for the Tide, I would expect the score to be lopsided by quite a bit. Alabama easily hit its season PPG average output—maybe more—while Arkansas might find touchdowns hard to come by with the improved 'Bama pass rush coming after the less-than-mobile Ryan Mallet. He will present a huge target for the Alabama defense and they will be teeing off on Mallett all game long.
Comments are, as always, welcome. Opposing views are also acceptable.
Thanks, and Roll Tide!