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Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0) @ Arkansas Razorbacks (3-0)
Key SEC West Division matchup
TE D.J. Williams – Arkansas
QB Ryan Mallett Faces SEC Acid Test vs #1 Alabama
QB Ryan Mallett leads nation with 360 yards passing per game with 9 TDs to 2 interceptions on a 70% completion rate. McElroy again has the best passing efficiency in the nation in 2010. He has not lost a game since pre high school. Last year vs Arkansas, he went 17 of 24 passes for 291 yards and 0 interceptions. This kid just does not make mistakes and clearly outplayed Mallett in last year’s matchup. He manages a game flawlessly and allows his club to gain field position over the course of a game even when drives stall and they have to punt. McElroy also outplayed both Tim Tebow and Colts McCoy in SEC and national title games that were instrumental in the Tides national title last season. Arkansas has averaged just under 116 yards rushing vs 111 yards rushing allowed per game. They have scored 5 TDs rushing this year with 6 fumbles losing 3 in three games, a disturbing fact. While averaging 116 yards per game, their 5 rushing TDs came from 5 different runners.
Arkansas totaled only 63 yards rushing vs Alabama last season for less than 3 yards per carry. They got behind 14-0 into the 3rd Q that forced Arkansas to abandon the ground game and throw the ball 41 times. Mallett was only 12 of 35 passing for 160 yards and 1 interception and 1 TD in Bama lost last season. Last week, the Hogs rushed for only 53 yards on 23 carries in win over Georgia. Last year, Arkansas had only a 3-5 SEC record and overall scored 234 points while surrendered 233 points over the schedule.
Arkansas has been almost perfect in the Red Zone with TDs in 9 of 10 opportunities and a FG in other time. He has been sacked 4 times while the Arkansas defense has 12 sacks from 9 different defenders. They also have 26 TFL from 12 defenders, though only 1 FR and 3 FF this season.
QB Ryan Mallett is one of the premier passers in the nation and enters his second season as the Razorback starter. He is off to a fast start and showcases the premier passing arm in the collegiate game. He missed spring drills after breaking his foot last winter and had toe surgery. He returned 100% for summer camp and has had a hot hand over the first three games. He makes all the throws, the complete route tree, displaying a powerful arm with touch, accuracy and timing. He gets the ball into tight windows with fast improving decision-making. He shows fine pocket presence and has learned to go through his progressions better and the ability to locate secondary receivers quicker. He has shown progress in his initial reads and looking off the safety. He goes through his progressions quicker and better along with better decisions and few attempts to force the ball into heavy coverage. Last season, he forced the ball too much, attempting to do too much especially when the Hogs got behind.
After playing one season at Michigan, Mallett transferred to Arkansas with the arrival of HC Bobby Petrino. After sitting sat out the ’08 season, Mallett had a huge ’09 performance that included throwing for over 3400 yards, 29 TD passes and just 7 interceptions. They are very impressive statistics for a first year starter vs a very high level of competition. Unfortunately, he struggled vs the top SEC clubs, Alabama, LSU and Florida, failing to complete 50% of his passes in each of those key losses. In each of those losses, they were behind at halftime and their opponents rushed for at least 134 yards in those games. Mallett struggled in each of those defeats, facing a strong pass rush especially as the game progressed and the Hogs were down by more than two scores by mid game.
Nevertheless, Mallett is a big time player and capable of being a difference maker in this conference. He has a full array of weapons and will use them regularly, in what is an explosive high scoring attack and probably more balanced than most observers expect. This offense is in great hands, and the numbers should reflect his talented passing skills and well-rounded group of highly developed weapons. His big game performance has been questioned off a few subpar key ’09 games. This matchup with the defending champions can be a signature game for Mallett who has yet to beat a top ranked club over his short career. His maturation as a leader and passer will determine if he can take a good club to the next level on smarts, leadership and toughness that utilizes both his and teammates chip physical skills to the fullest.
The Tides QB Greg McElroy directs a potent offense that can beat a defense both on the ground and through the air. McElroy manages a game flawlessly and rarely forces the ball into difficult situations. He has fine accuracy and goes through his progressions quickly with sound decision making. His record is perfect over his HS and college career and his level of maturity is rare for a senior starting passer. He is very dangerous on the play action with most defenses loading the box to stop runners Ingram and Richardson regularly.
The Bama tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson is the best collegiate backfield duo since the Auburn pair of runners Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown almost a decade ago. Ingram is coming off a Heisman Trophy season. He played in his first game last week and produced a 48 yard run on his very first rushing attempt. He can pound a defense with the burst of speed to go the distance. He has shown good ball security and the toughness to carry the weekly load. Richardson is an awesome 1A compliment and more diversified as a runner and athlete than Ingram. He is a terrific kickoff returner and receiver with both power and speed. As a runner, he puts his foot in the ground and explodes to the second level with the speed to go the distance. He usually comes in after Ingram takes a break and has the speed to shock a defense with his change of pace talent. He also can pound with a compact frame that delivers a blow to tacklers. In that aspect, Richardson and Ingram are very similar – compact strong runners with low centers of gravity to be difficult to tackle and capable of finishing rushing attempts well. Richardson started last year’s rout with the first score on a 52 yard TD run.
The Hogs rely on sophomore runner Ronnie Wingo who has build on a solid ’09 season finish that included a fine performance vs rival LSU. He is a big hard-hitting workhorse type back with fine natural abilities including receiving skills. Wingo heads an unheralded trio that includes punishing tailback Broderick Green and fast compact runner Dennis Johnson. This young trio of backs may be one of the deeper sets of runners this season. They have slow to produce this season with the air game providing the catalyst for the Hogs undefeated season. This trio is capable of giving this offense the power to run inside and control games plus some big play ability to keep defenses honest and not focused on QB Mallett. Wingo combines power and speed that gives him the inside edge on the starting job. Green is a former USC runner that cannot be minimized to play a key role in this offense. He finished the ’09 season with 7 TDs in the last five games and one of the better red zone runners in the SEC. He will push Wingo for touches especially in short yardage and goal line situations. As a receiver, he is still raw that puts Wingo in the starting 3rd down role. Johnson is a big play weapon with good kickoff return skills. He had one of the Hogs’ three 100 yard rushing game last season vs highly rated Florida. He needs some development as a receiver, but gives the Hogs an interesting feature runner in some games and a change of pace back that can be highly successful in this potent attack.
The Hogs return their top five receivers from last season to work with QB Ryan Mallett. Starters Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright are the best returning trio in a deep SEC group of pass catchers. Childs and Adams are big play specialists who have taken it up a notch with experience working with the fast emerging Mallett who has the talent to get them the ball. Childs will command double coverage after scoring another big TD last week vs Georgia. He scored in half of the Hogs games last season while beating double coverage at times. Adams is a burner with the ability to separate deep and hit the home run. He has scored a TD in 9 of the 12 regular season games he played in the past two years. He opens the offense up and forces the safeties to play deep and respect his speed and Mallett’s arm. The combination of Adams and Childs should guarantee an improving ground game with dual deep threats. Childs is the go to receiver but Adams is the home run hitter with a 22 yard average. Childs has fine run after the catch ability (winning TD vs Georgia) TE D.J. Williams is the best movement weapon in the nation. He lines up at tight end, H-back and fullback that give this offense one of the most versatile weapons in the nation. His ability to shift positions gives the Hogs offense the unique ability to run a diverse number of sets on the clock that they should be able to create many mismatches in coverage and run/pass play alignments. He probably faces premier strong safety Mark Barron in one of the critical matchups in the game. Mallett looks for him on the 2nd and 3rd and long in the intermediate zones where he shows excellent hands and run after the catch ability.
The Tides’ Julio Jones may be the best receiver in the nation. He has incredible raw talent that has developed nicely over his short career. McElroy looks for him in big situations especially after the ground game has been established and he faces an eight man front. McElroy works play action well with good ball handing and fine touch to give receivers a chance to make big plays. Jones is a very difficult matchup on size and speed and will probably command heavy double coverage in many situations, though McElroy will exploit any single coverage quickly using the ground attack to set him up.
The Hogs return four of their five starters including bookend tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez. They are proficient pass protectors who were instrumental in the fast development of first year starting QB Mallett and the quick progress of their young receivers and runners. This unit helped the Hogs offense that led the SEC in scoring and passing offense and 2nd in overall offense. Center Seth Oxner is a savvy pivotman in the mold of former Hog Jonathan Luigs. He is an anchor inside and an unsung leader on this blue-collar unit. This unit looks to take another step up vs top SEC talent and further extensive over a fine ’09 experience.
The Bama line returns three starters and have been instrumental in the overall offensive success. They get a consistent strong push at the point of attack that has allowed Ingram and Richardson to pound defenses with the potential to break long gains consistently. With little fanfare, this unit has been the key unit that has allowed this ground game to dominant and QB Greg McElroy to be the most efficient passer in the nation over the past two seasons.
For Defensive Evaluation Click on Next Page
The Hogs defense returned seven starters from a unit that showed only marginal improvement last season after an awful ’08 performance. They need overall improvement especially producing more big plays mainly as pass rushers. The line must apply more pass pressure and relies on DE Jake Bequette to be a key front line performer. He is a talented defender who comes off the edge with speed, pushes the pocket and stuffs the run fairly well. He ranks as their best outside performer and is a defender the Hogs look to rally around this fall. He recorded one of their two late sacks vs Georgia after the score was tied at 24-24. His late sack gave the Hogs the ball that was immediately turned into the game winning drive. The front line will be fully tested to control gaps if the Hogs expect to limit the powerful Bama running attack.
The Bama front line saw the return of All American Marcell Dareus last week. Dareus is a big athletic lineman with the ability to play both inside and outside. HC Nick Saban likes to move him around to create mismatches. He may want to line him up over the Hogs inexperienced guards and away from talented OT DeMarcus Love. Love is an accomplished pass protector who has graded out high vs SEC edge rushers. The potential Love vs Dareus matchup will be vital for the Hogs to get both a ground game going and passer Ryan Mallett to attack the young Bama secondary.
The Arkansas linebacker unit is critical to any overall and big game improvement. Starting LBers Jerry Franklin, Anthony Leon and Jerico Nelson are the Hogs top three tacklers and must have a strong performance for Arkansas to contain the powerful balanced Bama attack. Franklin is a lynchpin on this unit, showing sideline-to-sideline speed and keen instincts. He also provides fine leadership and the ability to set the defense. He is a sure tackler and leads the defense in tackles from the inside over the early action. He must have a strong performance especially vs the run to stop Ingram and Richardson. Starting backer Anthony Leon leads the team with 5.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks and is a player who has stepped up this fall in his first action at linebacker. He started twice last fall, though both games where from the safety spot. Leon outgrew the position and is a big rangy athlete with fine athleticism. He has the burst to shoot the gap and make big plays. His 3 sacks and 6 tackles for losses will command special attention by the Bama front line. His presence allows the Hogs to run and pass blitz that will be vital for the Arkansas defense to contain the Bama powerful offense. Whether the Bama backs, Ingram and Richardson can block Leon or Franklin in passing situations could be a critical matchup, though an under publicized aspect in the game. Junior starting OLB Jerico Nelson has also been productive again this season that continued his strong ’09 finish when he flashed playmaking ability. Nelson is blessed with the instincts to locate ball and the burst of speed and tackling ability to finish plays. His ability to fight off inside blockers will be critical for stopping the Bama ground game. He has only marginal size at under 6’ and 230 lbs and relies on his speed to beat blocking angles and make up for mistakes. He is a key defender if this unit expects to match the Bama strong blocking line.
The Bama backer unit looks to MLB Dont’a Hightower for both leadership and playmaking ability. He is a huge Mike man who goes sideline to sideline and can blitz when called upon. He directs a defensive unit with only 3 returning starters and totally untested vs SEC powers. He is a strong run stuffer who can defeat big lineman and take down backs. He has the burst of speed to blitz and could be called up to provide his speed rushing vs Arkansas with such limited playmakers on the Bama front seven.
The Hogs veteran secondary returned several starters and a few key backups that make this group the strength of a young average defense. Free safety Tremain Thomas is back after a breakout sophomore season that culminated with a bowl MVP award vs East Carolina. He emerged as one of the premier SEC defenders at his position. He is an aggressive tackler with a nose for the ball and good coverage skills. Joining Thomas as a returning starter in his first season at safety will be former starting corner Rudell Crim. The move of Crim gives the Hogs a pair of smart safeties with tackling and coverage ability that they expected to significantly reduce the number of big plays allowed. This move opened up the corner role for emerging sophomore Darius Winston, one of their best defensive recruits over recent years. He is a natural cover man with the talent to be a top corner with experience. He combines size, speed and ball instincts to matchup with big play receivers like Julio Jones. This unit may rely on senior CB Ramon Bradway to contain Jones, though he has a decided size disadvantage over the Bama big time playmaker.
The Bama starting secondary features three new starters. Only safety Mark Barron returns as a starter and he has been a difference maker here. He is expected to match up with TE D.J. Williams who is one of the premier SEC playmakers that Mallett utilizes especially in the short zones. This matchup will be one of the key confrontations and one that Mallett has relied on especially on play action. How the Bama secondary decides to match up vs wideouts Greg Childs and Josh Adams will be critical. Childs has made numerous big plays with fine run after the catch ability while Adams has a special burst to get deep and beat any corner in the nation. The Bama young corners will be fully tested if Mallett gets the time to setup in the pocket and display his powerful accurate throwing.
Overview and Final Analysis
The Hogs are an emerging club in a deep and talented conference. This offense can rank with any attack in the nation with several big play weapons and the potent passing of Ryan Mallett. Mallett is entered just his second starting season and looks to take another huge step up as a leader and passer especially in this matchup with #1 Alabama. He needs to prove he can beat a top 25 club after struggling last season against highly rated competition and showing only a 3-5 record in the SEC overall. This offense is capable of lighting up any defense and needs the ground game to step up here and balance the offense. Whether they can run successfully to control the clock remains to be seen with only marginal early success. The potent balance Tide attack can beat a defense with both strategies and their running attack will pound until the Arkansas average defense shows it can stop the ground game. The Tide controls the clock and field position via the ground game and makes McElroy’s high efficiency and accuracy even more dangerous. Once the ground game gets established, McElroy gets many single matchups that are easily exploited.
The Hogs defense will have to come with a creative scheme here especially with different blitz packages vs both the run and pass. This unit surrendered a 14 point lead last week as first year Georgia starting passer Aaron Murray toasted the secondary over the second half. The Hogs defense made a few key late sacks in blitz schemes that sent 7 defenders.
Along with Alabama, Auburn and LSU, this is the toughest division in college football by far. With this game at home, an upset victory here would set the pace for the entire season. That has to be considered a long shot despite their offensive firepower. How are the Hogs going to stop the potent Tide ground game will have to be answered to keep this game competitive in what should be a fairly high scoring affair. These two explosive offenses could light up the scoreboard, though a methodical Tide running game could keep the strong Arkansas passing attack on the sidelines in the critical first half. The Tide looks for their 18th consecutive victory as they enter a tough early SEC schedule.
Frank Coyle – College Football Analyst