Arkansas football: Beating Alabama is too much to ask, but here's what Hogs must do to consider game a success
Arkansas faces long odds Saturday against No. 1 Alabama at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium. Such long odds, in fact, no sensible follower of college football would honestly say the Hogs have any chance at doing much more than maybe covering the 35-point spread.
That doesn’t mean there’s no reason for Arkansas fans to tune in, though. There’s intrigue in finding out if the Razorbacks can continue to show improvement, which they’ve done the past two weeks, after a rough start to the Chad Morris era.
So as you’re watching to see if the Hogs can keep the positive feelings going, here are three things I think need to happen in or order for Arkansas to consider this game a success:
1. Fix the special teams coverage
Special teams have been a complete disaster for the Razorbacks. Punt and kickoff coverage has been the area of most concern. Arkansas is one of just two FBS teams to have allowed 2 kickoff return touchdowns and a punt return touchdown. (Coincidentally, Morris’ former team at SMU is the other. Well, I suppose Arkansas fans should hope that’s just a coincidence.) The Hogs are allowing 30 yards per kickoff return and 15.5 per punt return, ranking in the bottom 15 nationally in both categories.
It shouldn’t be this hard to cover kicks. In college football, shanked punts and missed field goals are going to happen and can at least mostly be attributed to individual player mistakes. But unless you’re facing an All-American return man, and the Hogs haven’t yet (Bama’s Jaylen Waddle is by far the most explosive they will see), punt and kickoff coverage failures are systematic issues. Either the coverage scheme isn’t good enough or the players being sent out there aren’t good enough or both.
Regardless, it’s on the coaching because there’s no reason even this Arkansas team should be so inadequate at covering kicks. Even if it takes sending out your best 10 defenders on your coverage unit, you have to be able to get it done.
That won’t be easy Saturday. Waddle, a true freshman, is fifth nationally in punt return average (19.9) and already has brought one back for a touchdown. Given how many times Arkansas likely will have to punt Saturday, keeping him out of the end zone will be a tall task.
Regardless of the final score Saturday, they’ll be at least one bright spot for Arkansas if it just doesn’t allow a big return on special teams.
2. Don’t let it linger
Arkansas has showed improvement in losses to Auburn and Texas A&M. In fact, the Hogs have looked good enough that earning an SEC win this season doesn’t sound nearly as impossible as it did after their 44-17 home loss to North Texas in Week 3.
This is why whatever happens against Alabama, it’s crucial to Arkansas’ growth in this first season under Morris that the bad feelings don’t linger beyond Saturday. The Crimson Tide are making everyone look bad. They could very well come into Fayetteville and roll over the Hogs by 50 points. But even if that’s what happens, it doesn’t have to mean the Razorbacks aren’t still capable of grabbing a win or two going forward.
3. Stay healthy
If Arkansas can just get through this game against such a physically imposing team without any major injuries, the Hogs will have something to feel good about no matter what the scoreboard says.
This is especially critical with quarterback Ty Storey. This hardly qualifies as a surprise, but Alabama again leads the SEC in sacks with 18.0 through 5 games. The Tide are tied for third nationally. Arkansas has allowed 14.0 sacks, next-to-last in the SEC.
Arkansas’ offensive line vs. Alabama’s defensive line is very likely the biggest mismatch of one position group against another in any SEC game this season. Storey surely will be running for his life and undoubtedly taking some big hits. But the Hogs absolutely must get him through this game healthy. He’s clearly their best reasonable option at quarterback right now.