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Stats Study: Arkansas @ Alabama

Can the Hogs keep it within five touchdowns?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas, a program currently scrambling to find something to grab onto as the ship of the season disappears under the waves, gets another “free shot” this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. It’s the second of back-to-back free shots, although the first one ended in a disappointing thud against Auburn.

A “free shot” means that there’s not really any pressure for Arkansas to win the game; instead, fans would rather see the team play loose and execute well under the circumstances. Alabama opened as a 34-point favorite according to Vegas, and our scoring model has Alabama winning by 35 (51-16). Given that Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is out, though, a respectable performance probably means keeping the game within 30 points. Hog fans would probably be pretty happy if the Hogs could score at least 17 and give up fewer than 50.

More Bad News

I wrote before the Auburn game that Arkansas probably needed to end the season better than -4 adjusted scoring margin to justify giving Chad Morris another year. The Hogs were at -3.5 when I wrote that, but the dismal Auburn performance (combined with Kentucky being shut out by Georgia) has caused the Hogs to plummet to -6.4, which is in the danger zone because it is not a significant improvement over last year. Getting worse after a disastrous start to the season is not a good sign.

If there’s good news, it’s that the formula doesn’t take Tagovailoa’s injury into account, so if the Hogs can keep the final score within 34 points, they will probably move back up ahead of an all-important showdown with also-bad Mississippi State next week.

Meet the Tide

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary.)

Our projected score is Alabama 51, Arkansas 16, but that obviously doesn’t account for Tagovailoa missing the game. Alabama opened as a 34-point favorite, but I didn’t include this game among my 51 picks I chose for the weekend due to the injury.

Scouting report

  • Alabama’s offense is second-best in the FBS in both adjusted points per game and PAN, behind only Ohio State. The Tide do basically everything well.
  • Alabama gets most of its explosive plays through the pass game, and the run game is not explosive at all.
  • Alabama is extremely efficient on both standard downs and passing downs. They are among the nation’s best offenses when falling behind the chains or facing third down. That’s, uh, bad news for Arkansas’ defense, which is among the worst in the nation at those things.
  • This is not one of Nick Saban’s better defenses, but it’s still pretty good. The Crimson Tide are a top-15 defense on standard downs, but can be victimized by big plays on passing downs. They are merely average on third down. There are openings of for the Razorback offense here.
  • The Tide run defense is quite bad by Saban standards. Alabama isn’t great in short-yardage and doesn’t get many stuffs against the run.

When Alabama has the ball

Veteran backup Mac Jones will start for the Crimson Tide on Saturday. Jones was 6 of 11 for 72 yards against Tennessee and the Tide struggled to the move the ball while he was in the game. Alabama’s drives with Jones out there: punt, downs, punt, TD, punt, downs. Of course, that was cold off the bench, not with a full week to prepare.

Alabama is more efficient than explosive on offense. They are very good at staying on schedule (9th leverage rate, 10th standard downs success rate) and keeping drives alive (6th on third down). They don’t get many big plays on standard downs (we’ll see why below).

Arkansas’ defense is actually somewhat decent on standard downs, thanks to a fairly disruptive defensive line. The Hogs’ biggest problem is that they can’t take advantage of knocking opponents off-schedule (126th in passing downs success rate) and can’t get off the field (123rd on third down).

Alabama’s run game, led by the powerful Najee Harris, is good but not very scary. The Tide are ultra-efficient on the ground (8th marginal efficiency), but they have several weaknesses: they are mediocre at generating big runs (49th marginal explosiveness, 55th bonus yards) and they allow too much havoc against them (50th in short-yardage, 56th in stuff rate). Low explosiveness and too many run stuffs is a bad combination that suggests a lack of reliability. Of Tua is out for a while, this could hurt Alabama against a good defense.

Arkansas may be able to generate some stuffs. It would be nice if the Hogs could prevent big runs and make Jones win this game through the air, but I’m just not sure the back end can hold up there.

Poor Tua is missing out on a chance to build his Heisman resume. If the Hogs don’t get there for the sack, a completed pass for a solid gain is the most likely result. Alabama’s pass game is a cheat code, and while Tua is out, Alabama’s receivers are just filthy. Arkansas’ defensive backs a challenge on their hands, to say the very least.

When Arkansas has the ball

This is actually Nick Saban’s worst defense in a few years. I’m interested to see what an elite offense like LSU’s will do to it. Arkansas should be able to move the ball a little bit, and it will be disappointing if the Hogs get totally shut down.

The Crimson Tide are solid on standard downs, ranking 15th in standard downs success rate. Arkansas is so awful on standard downs that we can probably expect to see the Hogs spending half their snaps behind the chains.

On passing downs, it’s a different story. The Tide allow a moderate number of successful plays (49th) and allow lots of big plays (82nd), which plays right into Arkansas’ hands (12th). The Tide are also not dominant on third down (43rd).

Arkansas’ run game problems are well-documented. The Hogs do alright at getting big runs, but the run game is so inefficient that the Hogs are among the nation’s most pass-heavy offenses. Way too many run plays go for zero yards or a loss (126th).

If its any consolation, Alabama’s run defense is quite pedestrian. The Tide aren’t great at generating havoc and are susceptible to big runs. It would be nice if the Hogs could get something going on the ground on Saturday. Even 100 yards would be a good start.

Any chance the Hogs have to make this interesting comes down to the passing game. After Nick Starkel briefly provided a spark, the Hog passing attack has been fading fast. It’s not really about the quarterback — neither Starkel nor Ben Hicks are great, but they are both serviceable — but Arkansas’ problems with the offensive line and play calling don’t look like they’re going to get fixed anytime soon.

I actually liked elements of Arkansas’ game plan against Auburn: the Hogs force-fed Cheyenne O’Grady and it paid off with a long touchdown late in the game. On the other hand, I don’t think they targeted Trey Knox and Treylon Burks enough down the field. The Hogs’ passing game doesn’t seem to truly attack all parts of the field.

Keys to the Game

  1. Make Mac Jones beat you. He probably will, but the Hogs have nothing to be ashamed of if they actually force Alabama to make a backup quarterback go out and win the game. What will be bad is if Arkansas’ run defense gets bowled over and Alabama sleepwalks to a blowout win.
  2. Avoid negative plays. Alabama actually doesn’t get a ton of run stuffs and is only slightly above average at sacking the quarterback. The Hogs really can’t afford to spend much of this game going backwards.
  3. Hit a long field goal. Alabama has missed more field goals than any team in the FBS since 2007 are currently rank 123rd in the FBS in Placekicking EVA per game. Forcing Tide fans to watch Connor Limpert hit a long field goal would be a really small victory.