We talked to Brent Taylor or Roll Bama Roll about the the upcoming game. No disrepectin’ the Tide here! As always go check out their work and also the Q&A I did with them as well.
1. So Bama has just been steamrolling teams through the first half of the season. Are fans getting the sense that this could be one of the best teams Saban has had in Tuscaloosa or is it more of a result of a weaker schedule to start SEC play?
BT: We Alabama fans are fickle, if also predictable. After two weeks of beating up Vandy and Ole Miss like Chuck Norris in a room of baddies, the Tide fan base was quite ready to crown this the best team in Nick Saban’s tenure. A week later, we play A&M and *GASP* are not quite perfect, and suddenly 50% of the fans are ready to bench our second year quarterback and reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year in favor of a shiny freshman back up.
That said, I think it’s combination of both of what you said. On one hand, Vandy and Ole Miss were not good teams, and both gave up after getting punched in the mouth early. On the other, this Alabama team has more talent stocked up with historic recruiting classes in each of the last three years. The offense is running the ball like the running backs just tried to steal some honey from a bee hive, while the passing game continues to form an identity in a pro-style-ish air attack after being totally lateral or vertical the last three years with Lane Kiffin calling plays. Throw in the fact that the QB can escape any pressure and scramble for 30 yards, if not more, on any given pass play, the top two receivers both have sub 4.4 speed, and the O-line is finally not committing one pre-snap penalty per drive, and you can see where that optimism comes from. It hasn’t put all of that together consistently yet, but the potential is there.
Meanwhile, the defense is as solid as ever. The front 7 was depleted with a bunch of stars leaving for the draft, and then two of the replacements at outside linebacker were lost for the season in week 1. So the pass rush is still in a bit of flux trying to find guys to effectively and consistently rush the passer without having to blitz. But the interior D-line is still stout and the secondary may be one of the best we’ve seen under Saban—despite the fact that they STILL can’t win a jump ball. Fortunately no team has been gutsy enough to throw fades every single play all game yet.
2. How has Jalen Hurts developed since the last time Hog fans saw him?
BT: His biggest progression has been with his accuracy and ball placement. Last year, he often had an issue of avoiding the pass rush, making the right decision, and then skipping the ball in the dirt in front of the open receiver. That’s been almost totally erased in 2017. As such, now our fans have turned on him because he keeps scrambling for 5-30 yard chunks when his deeper receivers are covered rather than throwing a dump off pass. Admittedly, he does sometimes miss an open receiver when he bails out of the pocket, and he needs to learn a little more patience back there. But more often than not, his scrambles are much more deadly than dumping the ball off to a third option like a large chunk of our fan base keeps wanting him to do.
3. We know the team just reloads with talent year after year, who has been the Freshman (or newcomer in general) MVP thus far?
A lot of freshmen have gotten in on the action this year—more than usual—but none have really been a full time starter. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has won the hearts of many with some great throws in mop-up duty this year. Running back Najee Harris has performed well, and even gets a few carries early in most games. Receiver Jerry Jeudy is the 4th receiver up, and has made quite a few clutch catches already. Linebacker Chris Allen was thrown into the fire after 4 linebackers got injured in game 1, and, though he was totally lost on quite a few plays, also showed some nice athleticism.
I’m not sure a JUCO transfer counts for your question, but Isaiah Buggs has been a solid contributor on the defensive line, and put in an MVP-caliber performance last week with starter D’Shawn Hand out with an injury.
If not, then I’ll have to give the award to receiver Henry Ruggs. He’s only caught three balls on the year, but all three have been for touchdowns, and would have had a 4th but instead drew a targeting foul in the endzone. He’s often used as a blocker from the receiver position, and has performed admirably in that regard. He’s also now the Tide’s starting punt and kick returner after Trevon Diggs was injured two weeks ago. He hasn’t broken any huge returns yet, but has been solid and hasn’t screwed up anything either. And that’s worth an MVP.
4. There's no sugar coating it, this year has been pretty awful for Arkansas, what is the perception of the state of the program from the perspective of a fellow SEC West team?
BT: It’s a little disappointing, to tell you the truth. Most of us don’t care much for Bret Beliema and some of his antics, but we all very much respect a team with a smashmouth, Manball™ identity, and love seeing that kind of team succeed. Unless they’re LSU. After watching guys like Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson, Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams, Kiero Small, and Rawleigh Wiliams, plus Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis in the pre-Beliema days, we’ve all come to hope for watching a good Razorback running-fest when we aren’t playing you.
So seeing an offense seemingly without that identity is a bit disappointing.
5. While there haven't been too many pressure filled moments this year, how has Brian Daboll done this season? Has the transition to the college game been a smooth one?
BT: So far, I’ve been impressed with him. He didn’t change Lane Kiffin’s offense totally, instead fitting his concepts and organization to match our current players’ strengths. He’s put a little more emphasis on the running game (which you can’t go wrong with the Bama fan base doing that), and also built in a short-intermediate passing game with slants, curls, and outs that we didn’t see with Kiffin, but has really benefitted Hurts. The biggest change though has been the pre-snap organization. The offense is always lined up and ready to go with plenty of time before the play clock runs out, and we haven’t been plagued by false starts like the last three years.
So, I like his philosophy, identity, and organization. What we don’t know yet is how he will handle a high-stakes situation—be it trying to ice a game against a team on the verge of retaking the lead or having to orchestrate a come-from-behind attack. Can he call the right plays to make it happen? We don’t know that one yet. Personally, I’d be happy to never know.
6. Lastly what's your prediction for the game?
I hate to sound too much like a homer, but I guess I’ve praised this team enough in the first five questions that it doesn’t matter anyway. I think Alabama comes out ready to prove that the bad second half against A&M was a fluke, and I don’t think Arkansas has the horses to stop it. This one looks like the 2012 and 2013 contests, but with the Arkansas offense getting some points. Something along the lines of 49-14.