Continuing the spirit of camaraderie with our SEC rivals (at least until kickoff), we did a Q&A exchange this week with one of the very best Alabama blogs, Roll Bama Roll. Todd at RBR was kind enough to give us an extremely thorough strategic breakdown of the Tide's strength and weaknesses, as well as details on the 2nd best Bama coach ever (I'm sure you guessed Xen Scott), why the 2006 game made him want to throw his TV out the window and much more.
Read on for his take on tomorrow's game, and then be sure to head over to Roll Bama Roll to read our penetrating insights and trenchant analysis. Big thanks to Todd for taking the time to do this.
1. The conventional wisdom is that the Arkansas-Alabama game is usually a barometer for how the rest of the season will go for both teams. What will Saturday's game say about the Tide's season?
There's a real sense of "meh" about this game this year, despite it having been a highly competitive series ever since the Hogs joined the SEC and, like you said, has always been a pretty good indicator of how each team was going to do that year. Typically Arkansas is either our first conference game of the year or our first conference and road game (at least in years that Vandy isn't on the schedule) of the year, so it's always one I look forward to with some anxiety.
Even though the perceived wisdom is that Arkansas is going to be down this year with the loss of talent and shift in coaching philosophy and that this should be a cake walk for the Tide, there are a couple of factors that make me think this is still a game where we are going to learn a lot about our team and how they will handle the rest of the season.
First, Fayetteville is actually a pretty tough place to play despite not having the same reputation as, say, Death Valley or the Swamp. Some of the veteran players that have made the trip while at Alabama have shared a few anecdotes this week, and it's just one of those places the Tide has always struggled in. We're only 2-4 there with the last win coming in '02, so the superstitous fan in me won't really let me take anything for granted.
Second, this is the first true road test for a team that relies on a lot of true freshmen and first time starters who haven't had this experience before (yeah, yeah, Clemson was a "road game" since it wasn't in Tuscaloosa, but the crowd was split 50/50 and the Clemson fans weren't a factor after about five minutes), so this is our first opportunity to see how they handle the crowd and the pressue of a road conference game. Also, fun fact, this will be Nick Saban's first time to coach in Fayetteville since his LSU teams always played in Little Rock.
2. Give us a quick Bama scouting report: what are your strengths and weaknesses? (we promise not to share any confidential information with the Razorbacks' coaching staff, so be honest)
Strengths: The running game and the defensive line. The emphasis on offense has gone to being a more (brutally) efficient unit that can line up and dominate anyone in front of them, as opposed to the sort of spread passing attack that just didn't click for most of last season that Major Applewhite ran. That isn't a knock on him, really, but the players just didn't get it and really didn't fit the scheme all that well, where as this season it's looking like we have the tools to be an efficient offense that can dink and dunk you to death and strangle the clock away before you realize what's happened.
The biggest factor in all this is that fact that the running game has taken on a whole new significance (and effectiveness). Last year's line was decent at run blocking, but we didn't have any consistent between the tackle backs and were relying on a scat back type in Terry Grant who just isn't a yards after contact kind of runner. With both Glenn Coffee and Roy Upchurch both finally living up to their potential and the arrival of true freshman Mark Ingram, we finally have guys that can be counted on to both pound the ball and get the physical yards we weren't able to last year, as well as play important roles in pass blocking and running routes out of the backfield. That's three guys that could be starters all on their lonesome that we can rotate, plus Terry Grant is still a pretty potent weapon out of the backfield when used correctly (against WKU he was the benificiary of several outside toss sweeps and a screen that all went for solid yardage and a TD).
Add on to that that we now have a great run blocking line (former RT Mike Johnson is at LG now where he's a more natural fit and has really shown a mean streak as a run blocker, while Antoine Caldwell at C, Marlon Davis at RG, and Drew Davis at RT have all proven very effective in getting a solid push and opening some great running lanes so far as well), and we're pretty well going to run it down your throat every chance we get.
The defensive front has also shown vast improvement over last year's unit despite a lot of concerns in the preseason over the depth and talent in the front seven. Key to all of that is The Legend of Terrence Cody, our massive NT (6'5" 360ish) who has finally given us the kind of size and push necessary to run the 3-4 that Saban employs. Backing him up is Josh Chapman, who could almost be considered a co-starter since the line snaps are pretty evenly distributed among the first and second team, and he's also been very effective in disrupting the pocket on passing downs.
Weaknesses: Youth, consistency, and not all that great at the downfield passing. As mentioned previously, we have a lot of freshmen (of both the true and redshirt varieties) expected to contribute all over the field, from running back to receiver to linebacker, and we've even seen a true freshman taking some significant snaps at the nickelback ("Star" is our terminology). Considering they played like salty veterans against Clemson and then acted like the inexperinced group that they are against Tulane, we're not sure which group is going to show up this weekend (God, please let it be the former). That also ties in with the consistency, one of the biggest problems Alabama has face for nearly a decade now.
We've always played the better teams really tough, but inevitably will find a way to sleep walk our way through a nail biter (or, worse, loss) the next week. Saban had some harsh "I told you so's" after the Tulane game, resulting in the WKU blowout, so hopefully the team has finally understood what they are preaching about respecting every opponent no matter what the punditry is saying about them (or, really, in Alabama's case your own team) and playing every down as if it's the most important down of the game.
As far as the downfield passing goes, that finally started clicking some last week against WKU, but how much of that was a function of Wilson being able to settle in and make some solid throws and how much of it was the Hilltopper defense playing way off the receivers to try and keep from getting beaten too deep is up for debate. I have a bad feeling it's the latter. Either way, unless Wilson has the protection and time to really set his feet and make a solid throw, he's going to overthrow the receiver 99% of the time, and even when he does have time to set and throw he's still likely to do it, so that aspect of our offense is very much a work in progress.
3. Which Tide player (or players) will Arkansas fans be cursing the most by the end of the game?
Javier Arenas. He almost single handedly beat Tulane with his kick returns and can break a long return at any moment (WKU didn't kick to him once last week, if that tells you anything), and he's also turned into a great DB for us after pretty well being ignored during the recruiting process (FIU was his only other 1A offer) as a corner and also getting a strong enough feeling from the former staff that he was never going to do anything but return kicks at Alabama, so much so that Saban had to talk him into staying on the team before last season by assuring him that he was going to see time at "Star" and have every opportunity to earn the start at CB. You'll also be cursing the name Mark Ingram, who cannot be tackled. Fair warning.
4. We haven't actually looked it up, but if memory serves John Parker Wilson has been the Alabama quarterback for somewhere between six and 20 seasons now. What's your opinion of him as a player, and if he ever does leave how will his era be remembered?
However this season turns out his how he will be remembered really. He's been in a very unfortunate situation at Alabama as a QB with an unimaginative playcaller in Mike Shula during his first season as starter, little to no protection from his offensive line until pretty much this year, no running game to speak of (again until pretty much this year), and three different OCs in as many years. Personally, I think the kid has the tools and talent necessary to be a successful QB in the SEC, though I've cursed his name on more than one occcasion just like the rest of the fan base.
He can be outright spectacular one game (i.e. managing the winning drive against Arkansas and slaughtering UT last year) and maddeningly boneheaded the next (too many costly fumbles from trying to throw with defenders draped across his shoulders to count), and it all seems to really have taken a huge psychological toll on the poor kid. He seems to fit in a lot better with the "game manager" role that he's playing in the offense now, really worked his butt off since the end of last season to improve his decision making, and has generally looked pretty good so far this year, so fingers crossed for us that the poor decisions are a thing of the past.
5. Not that you should be too stressed about it, but what (if anything) worries you the most about Saturday's game?
The passing attack. We really haven't faced a team that throws as much as y'all, and unless we can really get a ton of pressure on Casey Dick and keep him from being able to make his reads I'm still nervous about our pass coverage. We rotate in a lot of guys and the only truly tested players are Kareem Jackson, a true sophomore at CB, and Rashad Johnson at safety. Woodall (the other safety) is starting for the first time this year, while Arenas, who has shown a lot of potential, is still rather on the short side for a corner.
6. Since Bobby Petrino joined the league, Nick Saban is no longer the most vilified SEC coach by the national media. How do you feel about this? Jealous? Relieved?
I don't know if I'd say he isn't the most vilified anymore (he has a huge target painted on his forehead from both being the Alabama coach AND making a disgusting amount of money), but I must say it was nice having a few days break from the constant mudslinging.
7. Speaking of Saban, he obviously has a great track record and has been bringing in strong recruiting classes full of studs like Julio Jones. Given all that, will he win a national championship at Alabama in the next five years? And if not, will that be seen as a major letdown/disappointment for Tide fans?
If Alabama hasn't at the very least played for a national title within the next five years, I think it will be a huge letdown for Alabama fans. People are already talking about '09 being the year, but that's a little premature in my opinion; we'll have to replace a senior QB, four key cogs on the offensive line, an all-SEC safety, two linebackers and several defensive linemen. We're just not back to having the kind of quality talent and depth that you see at the Floridas and LSUs of the SEC, and we really shouldn't be worrying about national titles until we do. But in five years, so long as the recruiting keeps up like it has, then we will have the talent to compete with anyone out there and if we can't get it done by then, it would be a huge letdown.
8. Who is the 2nd best Bama coach ever and why?
That's actually a really good question. Most would go with Stallings, but that's mostly because we tend to ignore anything before Bryant unless it involves the Rose Bowl and because he was the closest thing to Bryant a lot of us know (I was only three when Bryant passed away and have no actual memories of him). Frank Thomas (who coached and later mentored Bryant) and Wallace Wade are both candidates, having won national championships and having put Alabama on the map as far as college football goes, but I'm going to go with the more obscure and say Xen Scott, who led the Tide to a 29-9-3 record in four years (1919-1922) and really built the juggernaut that Wallace Wade would inherit and lead to Rose Bowl glory.
9. Arkansas and Alabama have had some good battles over the last 15 years. What's been your favorite win? Most disappointing loss?
Favorite win would have to be last year's victory. The come from behind win was such a satisfying feeling, especially for a fanbase used to knowing that if we entered the fourth trailing there was no way we were going to win. Most disappointing loss would have to be the '06 debacle/meltdown. We had that game won on at least three different occasions and Mike Shula's playing for a FG with a kicker that clearly rattled was one of the stupidest coaching decisions I've witnessed over the past few years. It was frustrating as all hell and I remember being so angry that my girlfriend slinked away to my bedroom during the game because she was afraid I was going to throw the TV out a window or something (which, shamefully, was probably a legitimate concern that afternoon).
10. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's final score?
I don't know about a score prediction, but if we can handle the road conditions and be as efficient and poised as we were against both Clemson and WKU then I'm pretty comfortable saying we should walk away with a three score victory.