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Arkansas vs. Alabama Preview: Out Among the Stars

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Arkansas has finally become the team we all expected to see when the season started. Pulling this upset, though, will require overcoming Alabama's star power.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

At this point, I believe, many Razorback fans would love to start the 2015 season over again.

That's not something just anybody in college football would want. Texas and Tennessee have had disappointing starts to the season as well, but with no sign of progress forthcoming, I doubt their fans want to relive the hell that has been this season for UT-orange.

Arkansas, on the other hand, seems to be putting it together. Only a dismal 3.4 points-per-scoring-opportunity kept Arkansas from blowing Tennessee out of the water on Saturday. The Hogs posted 494 yards, over nine yards per pass attempt, two hundred-yard rushers, and zero turnovers. The defense held Tennessee to 90 second-half yards, including four rushing.

"How many travelers, get weary, buried by their burdens and their scars? Don't you think they'd love to start all over, and fly like eagles out among the stars?" -Johnny Cash

That song by a fellow Arkansan is probably the soundtrack to set the Tennessee game to. Up next, though, are the real stars. Alabama isn't a must-win game, but a blowout loss probably kills some momentum heading into the bye-week.

The very good news is that Arkansas moved from 27th to 17th in Bill Connelly's S&P+ rankings, which now have the Hogs as double-digit favorites in remaining SEC home games against Auburn, Mississippi State, and Missouri. If you're keeping track, the Hogs must go 3-0 in those games to reach a bowl.

On to Alabama

Record Rank S&P+ Rank
Arkansas 2-3 NR 17th
Alabama 4-1 8th 1st

The Tide are back to #1 in the S&P+ rankings. The typical early-season loss was shaken off in a stunning 38-10 blowout of Georgia, a game that was never really close.

Arkansas hung with the Tide in Fayetteville last year, falling 14-13 despite outplaying Alabama. A missed field goal, missed extra point, and fumble at the goal line was Arkansas' undoing despite outgaining Alabama by over 100 yards and shutting down the running game.

Alabama's offense vs. Arkansas' defense

BAMA offense ARK defense Advantage
S&P+ 14th 74th BAMA big
Success Rate 52nd 117th BAMA big
isoPPP 36th 82nd BAMA
Standard Downs S&P+ 5th 98th BAMA big
Pass Downs S&P+ 27th 47th push

As you might imagine, the numbers are not kind. Arkansas' figures are actually better after the Tennessee game. It's worth recalling that this was the game last year when Arkansas' defense starting turning it up. After giving up 600 yards to Auburn and 28 points each (in regulation) to Texas A&M and Texas Tech, the magic of Robb Smith started with the Alabama game.

This year, the Tide have a more established offensive identity.

BAMA offense ARK defense Advantage
Rushing S&P+ 16th 40th push
Success Rate 17th 84th BAMA big
isoPPP 69th 48th push
Std. Downs Run Rate 57.0% (81st) 49.7% (121st) -

Arkansas' defense has done a good job of limiting big plays in the running game, and completely shut down Tennessee's talented running back Jalen Hurd in the second half, holding him to one net yard on four carries after the half.

In fact, Arkansas hasn't really faced the kind of ground attack Alabama will bring. Most of Arkansas' rushing yards allowed were to teams with powerful passing attacks, where the run was used as a constraint. For example, Texas Tech went four-wides and threw it a bunch, so the few rushing plays they sprinkled in gained yards simply because Arkansas wasn't watching for them. With Alabama, it's very different. Arkansas has shown an affinity for shutting down running attacks that don't have a comparable passing threat (LSU and Texas come to mind), so the big question is how much of a threat can Jake Coker be?

BAMA offense ARK defense Advantage
Passing S&P+ 6th 102nd BAMA big
Success Rate 90th 121st BAMA
isoPPP 25th 70th BAMA
Sack Rate 40th 106th BAMA big

With a passing game success rate of just 90th, the answer to the previous question is "not much." However, it may not matter as Arkansas' secondary has been routed all season. Things picked up against Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs, but Dobbs is good medicine for an ailing secondary.

Alabama likes to throw on the early downs, running the ball just 57% (81st) on standard downs. With Amari Cooper gone, early-down passes tend to target Calvin Ridley (245 yards, 2 TD) or ArDarius Stewart (201 yards, 2 TD). Tight end O.J. Howard (183 yards) gets a fair share of targets on all downs, and Richard Mullaney (160 yards, 2 TD) is the clutch target who always seems to get open right at the first-down marker on third-and-long.

Derrick Henry (570 yards, 9 TD, 6.1 yards per rush) is the 240-pound bulldozer that keeps Alabama's offense moving despite occasionally-inefficient passing. He's like an idealized form of Kody Walker. Arkansas shut him down last season, but Arkansas had Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers, and Darius Philon last season.

In classic West Coast offense style, Lane Kiffin prefers to run his offense with one back, one tight, and three wides, with an occasional four-wide look thrown in. You'll see plenty of screen passes and simple crossing concepts, but the Tide will take some shots down the field as well. They utilize Henry's threat by throwing off play-action as well.

Arkansas' offense vs. Alabama's defense

ARK offense BAMA defense Advantage
S&P+ 4th 2nd push
Success Rate 4th 6th push
isoPPP 73rd 79th push
Standard Downs S&P+ 13th 2nd push
Pass Downs S&P+ 6th 21st push

Statistically, this is a matchup of juggernauts. Arkansas has one of the nation's most efficient offenses, while Alabama's defense is Alabama's defense.

Arkansas' main problem on offense (only problem, really) is that despite that ultra-high efficiency, the lack of big plays forces them to sustain those drives all the way to endzone, and that doesn't always happen. Arkansas doesn't run the ball very well inside the 20-yard line, and Brandon Allen really struggles to throw the ball down there.

ARK offense BAMA defense Advantage
Rushing S&P+ 23rd 4th push
Success Rate 8th 5th push
isoPPP 118th 15th BAMA big
Std. Downs Run Rate 68.2% (22nd) 53.2% (111th) -

As we've previously stated, Arkansas doesn't generate many explosive plays with the run (although one 40+-yard run each by Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams boosted the numbers for this week), but on the ground the Hogs are excellent and moving forward.

After flirting with a standard-downs run rate in the 50s for the first few games, the Hogs are back up to 68% as Dan Enos gets more comfortable calling plays. Arkansas is averaging 253 rushing yards in SEC games, up from 153 last year.

Alabama's front is about as tough to run on as they come, especially without a mobile quarterback. Don't expect Arkansas to find much running game against this defense.

ARK offense BAMA defense Advantage
Passing S&P+ 1st 5th push
Success Rate 7th 14th push
isoPPP 24th 77th ARK big
Sack Rate 9th 42nd ARK

Yes, you are reading that "1st" correctly. As in, best passing offense in all of college football according to S&P+. Brandon Allen leads the SEC with over nine yards per pass attempt. One of the reasons that number is so high is that sacks and scrambles are counted as pass plays. Allen has scrambled for over 90 yards this season (at 6.5 yards per scramble) and has only been sacked twice, so that's helping the numbers. A good balance between explosive passing plays and efficient passing plays also helps.

Here we find Arkansas' first - and only - advantage against Alabama. Alabama has a tendency to give up big plays in the passing game. It's a bizarre problem that has haunted Saban-coached teams for a few years now. If you recall last season, Arkansas nearly pulled the upset of Alabama thanks to a 53-yard catch-and-run by A.J. Derby. Arkansas is going to have to consistently hit big plays down the field against the Tide. This should open up some running lanes as Alabama counters.

Keys to the Game

  1. Don't get bulldozed. Arkansas' young defense is in a pick-your-poison situation. Alabama has superior talent to both run and pass. However, it seems fairly obvious that Arkansas would rather have Jake Coker beat the Hogs with his arm than Derrick Henry win with his legs. Arkansas needs to stack the box at all costs. Arkansas' only serious chance to win is to stop the run and force a quarterback duel between Coker and Brandon Allen, which Allen may could actually win. That leads to the second key...
  2. Hit some big pass plays. Big pass plays not only take advantage of Alabama's primary defensive weakness, but they open up running lanes and allow the offense to move the ball in chunks against an efficiency-based defense. In the best-case scenario, Arkansas can hit enough big plays to activate Alabama's "shootout mode," a mysterious scenario in which the otherwise-well-coached Tide abandon the running game when their defense is getting bombed on. The problem appears to predate Lane Kiffin and has been responsible for many Alabama losses in recent years (see: 2013 Iron Bowl, 2014 Sugar Bowl, 2015 Sugar Bowl, 2015 Ole Miss game). The Tide has survived shootout mode a couple of times (2013 Texas A&M and 2014 Iron Bowl) but in both games they were taken to the brink by 8-4 teams.
  3. Win turnovers. Alabama's loss to Ole Miss is largely due to four turnovers. If the Tide don't turn it over, they are almost unbeatable. The Hogs need to not turn the ball over and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Key stat of the game: Success rate on first down. A Yale University study of the NFL found that the stat that correlates most with victory is what percentage of first-down plays get at least 4 yards. In fact, every team in the Super Bowl in last few years has ranked in the top 3 of the NFL in either the offensive or defensive variant of this stat. The S&P advanced stats system defines success on first down as 5 yards (50% of the yards to go, which is usually 10), but I'll adjust it to four yards to measure this game. Keeping ahead of the chains allows Arkansas to keep running the ball and throw deep, two things Arkansas must do to pull off the big upset.

P.S. In defense of the fake field goal

Allow me to play devil's advocate and add some game theory to the discussion over whether or not the fake field goal was a good call. Conventional armchair quarterback logic holds that if it succeeds, Bielema's a genius, and if it fails, he's an idiot. But let's try and understand it using a classic game theory formula in which we assign values to all possible results.

For this discussion, a score of zero means no net effect, +1 means a small positive effect, and +2 means a large positive effect. On the negative side, -1 is small negative and -2 is large negative.

Let's see how things play out:

Scenario #1: Arkansas does not fake, but attempts field goal

  • The field goal is good (80%): Arkansas takes a 7-point lead, leaving Tennessee within one possession (score: +1)
  • The field goal is missed (20%): Arkansas still only leads by 4 and the ball is spotted back at the 20-yard line (score: -2)

Scenario #2: Arkansas fakes the field goal

  • The fake is successful (50%): Arkansas likely scores a touchdown on the possession, extending the lead to two possessions with 8 minutes left (score: +2)
  • The fake is not successful (50%): Arkansas still only leads by 4, but Tennessee will start backed up against its own goal line (score: -1)

As you can see, I've assigned success chances. I gave Arkansas an 80% of making the field goal, which may be generous given that Arkansas had already had one blocked from a similar distance, and a 50% chance of converting the fake.

Now comes the math. If Arkansas chooses to kick, it has an 80% chance of getting 1 value point (0.8) and a 20% of losing 2 value points (-0.4), creating a net value of 0.4. If Arkansas fakes the field goal, it has a 50% chance of getting 2 value points (1.0), and a 50% chance of losing one value point (-0.5), creating a net value of 0.5.

So there you have it. Assuming my percentages of 80% and 50% are at least close to accurate, Arkansas stood more to gain and less to lose by faking the field goal and attempting to ice the game right there. Game theory doesn't account for momentum or Bielema's confidence in how the defense was playing at the time, which may have also impacted strategy. The latter may have played a role: if you recall, Tennessee quickly went three-and-out and punted to midfield, so the gambit didn't really hurt the Hogs, although being up 7 would have been nice.