Alabama Vs. Arkansas: Deep Receiving Corps Meets Deep Secondary

The numbers have loved Alabama since before the season started, but Arkansas can give themselves a chance to beat the Tide (3:30 pm ET Saturday on CBS) if they stay on schedule and outnumber a deep secondary with an even deeper receiving corps.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom. Opponent-adjusted "+" numbers are used below, but one should note that three games into the season, these numbers are incredibly volatile and subject to major change from week to week. They are not as telling and predictive as they will be in another month or two.

The magnitude may have been dampened a bit when Alabama went on to actually lose a few games, but at the time it happened, last year's Alabama-Arkansas game was both significant and entertaining. Alabama had won 17 games in a row, and only two had been decided by a touchdown or less. They had won their first three games of 2010 by a combined 134-19 margin. It was absolutely jarring to see them losing, 20-7, to the Hogs midway through the third quarter in Fayetteville.

The Tide came back and won, 24-21, of course, scoring on three straight possessions and picking off Ryan Mallett twice in the fourth quarter. But despite the changing context (Alabama lost two weeks later to South Carolina, then lost twice more), this was a huge statement for Arkansas and a huge game overall. That hasn't changed in 2011.

Arkansas at Alabama

Record AP
Rank
2011
F/+ Rk
2011
S&P+ Rk
2011 Off.
S&P+ Rk
2011 Def.
S&P+ Rk
Pace
Rk
2010
Covariance
Rk
2010
Schizophrenia
Rk
Arkansas 3-0 14
14
13 13 39 26 57 103
Alabama 3-0 3 1 1 3 2 64 7 19

After wins over Kent State, North Texas and an offensively-challenged Penn State squad, this is Alabama's first chance to truly make a nice statement in the 2011 season. They were projected No. 1 in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, and they still remain No. 1 overall in the F/+ rankings, but Oklahoma and LSU are inching closer and already have marquee wins (Oklahoma over Florida State, LSU over Oregon) on which to hang their hats. Arkansas, meanwhile, showed some defensive cracks last week in a 38-28 win over Troy, but they will severely test Alabama's secondary, which could be the best in the country. The matchups make this game exciting, even if Alabama's offense gives them a decent-sized edge.

When Arkansas Has The Ball…

Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright versus Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick and company? Sign me up. The Hogs have one of the more interesting, explosive passing games in the country, using it significantly on standard downs to set up more run-friendly situations. Arkansas has actually established a unique personality thus far: they pass just 52.1 percent of the time on standard downs, which is among the 30 lowest rates in the country (94th), but they run an inordinately high amount of time on passing downs; their 36.2 percent ranks 34th overall. They attempt to keep you off-balance, and while their opponent-adjusted figures suggest that some of their success has been due to the weak defenses they have faced, a lot of these weapons proved last year that they are to be respected.

Standard Downs
Arkansas
Offense
Alabama
Defense
SD % Run 52.1% 50.4%
S&P+ Rk 68 5
Success Rt+ Rk 43 1
PPP+ Rk 77 25
Rushing S&P+ Rk 73 9
Passing S&P+ Rk 1 91

Quarterback Tyler Wilson got an extended audition last year when Ryan Mallett got hurt versus Auburn; he completed 25 of 34 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns, but his two interceptions were instrumental in a late Auburn surge and victory. So far this year, he has been perfectly fine. His passer rating has sunk as the caliber of opponent has improved -- his 193.5 versus Missouri State turned into 157.9 versus New Mexico and 147.4 versus Troy, and none of these opponents are anywhere near the caliber of Alabama. But even against weak opponents, Arkansas has had the highest level of success in the country in terms of passing on standard downs. Wilson becomes a bit mistake-prone when standard downs turn into passing downs, however.

In all, 13 Arkansas players have caught a pass this year, but for the most part, three have been featured:

  • Joe Adams: 18 targets, 15 catches (83% catch rate), 198 yards (11.0 per target), 1 TD
  • Cobi Hamilton: 19 targets, 13 catches (68% catch rate), 252 yards (13.2 per target), 1 TD
  • Jarius Wright: 13 targets, 11 catches (85% catch rate), 171 yards (13.2 per target), 3 TD (in two games)
Passing Downs
Arkansas
Offense
Alabama
Defense
SD % Run 36.2% 26.4%
S&P+ Rk 62 56
Success Rt+ Rk 17 75
PPP+ Rk 93 33
Rushing S&P+ Rk 5 30
Passing S&P+ Rk 37 79

Greg Childs, a leader in the 2009 receiving corps who battled a torn patella tendon last year, could also play a role. The deep Arkansas receiving corps needs as many weapons as it can get, as it will be facing off against one of the deepest secondaries in the country. Milliner (7.5 tackles, 6 PBU), Kirkpatrick (3.0 tackles, 5 PBU, 2 FF), DeQuan Menzie (11.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU, 1 FR) and Phelon Jones (2.0 tackles, 1 INT) make for a ridiculous two-deep at cornerback. Against a weak set of offenses, Alabama's opponent-adjusted pass numbers are not altogether impressive, but I am high on this unit, and I think the numbers will quickly improve.

At the moment, the biggest issue on the Alabama defense might be the continued lack of a pass rush. The Tide have managed just four sacks thus far, and nobody has more than one. Passing a lot on standard downs, as Arkansas is wont to do, minimizes the opportunities for blitzing, so Wilson could very well have a lot of time to find an open receiver. Whether receivers will be open remains to be seen.

Arkansas utilizes draws and unexpected runs better than just about anybody else in the country. The loss of star back Knile Davis hurt, but Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (225 yards, 5.2 per carry, 2 TD), has sufficed as a replacement thus far. He is a strong receiver out of the backfield as well; he has seven receptions for 86 yards thus far, and he caught 27 passes for 274 yards last year. He will find the going a bit iffy against the Alabama front seven.

When Alabama Has The Ball…

Alabama's offense has taken on a bit of a different personality than I expected so far in 2011. With Trent Richardson (50 carries, 315 yards, eight touchdowns) and Eddie Lacy (28 carries, 310 yards, three touchdowns) both averaging over six yards per carry, the Tide have actually passed 57 percent of the time on standard downs (76th in the country) and 27 percent of the time on passing downs (90th). We will see how that shifts as the opponents get a little more stout -- for all we know, Nick Saban and staff may have been using the easy games to figure out what they have in quarterbacks A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims; but for now, this is a pretty large footprint shift from previous years.

Standard Downs
Alabama
Offense
Arkansas
Defense
SD % Run 57.3% 45.0%
S&P+ Rk 8 97
Success Rt+ Rk 11 87
PPP+ Rk 10 104
Rushing S&P+ Rk 3 61
Passing S&P+ Rk 50 104

Not that we can complain much about the results. After combining to throw four interceptions in the season opener versus Kent State, McCarron and Sims have completed 67 percent of their passes and thrown no picks the last two games. McCarron has slowly taken over more reps -- he has thrown 52 of Alabama's 60 passes the last two weeks. As would be expected, Marquis Maze has seized control of the No. 1 receiver spot. To date, he has caught 15 of 26 passes thrown his way (a 58 percent catch rate) for 186 yards (7.2 per target) and a touchdown. His numbers are a bit lacking for a No. 1, however, and it would behoove the Tide for someone else to step forward. That might be Darius Hanks, who caught two passes (in five targets) for 20 yards last week against North Texas; Hanks missed the first two games of the season to an eligibility issue. Duron Carter, son of Cris, was supposed to be a strong contributor, but it looks unlikely that he will play in 2011. Senior Brandon Gibson (five catches in five targets) and freshman DeAndrew White (five catches in nine targets) are other possibilities.

Passing Downs
Alabama
Offense
Arkansas
Defense
SD % Run 26.5% 22.4%
S&P+ Rk 5 23
Success Rt+ Rk 19 44
PPP+ Rk 5 23
Rushing S&P+ Rk 4 25
Passing S&P+ Rk 27 35

This might be a good game for McCarron to test out some potential No. 2 candidates, as Arkansas has struggled a bit against the pass, especially early in downs. They gave up a host of big plays to Troy.

On the ground, it is strength versus strength. Richardson finally began to break out of some early-season doldrums with a big second half versus North Texas; he gained 129 yards in two second-half carries, though he's still averaging just 3.8 yards per carry if you remove those two. We'll see if he gets rolling against a solid Arkansas front seven. We'll also see if Eddie Lacy continues his torrid early pace.

For Arkansas, linebackers Jerry Franklin and Alonzo Highsmith have been strong play-makers against the run thus far, and they will need to continue that. The Hogs might only have three sacks in three games, but they've made 10 other tackles for loss.

The key for Alabama should really be the same as for Arkansas: stay on schedule. Arkansas' defense gets a lot better once they have leveraged opponents into passing downs -- they rank 97th in Standard Downs S&P+ but 23rd in Passing Downs S&P+ -- but like Alabama, they have yet to show much of a pass rush. Unadjusted for opponent, their sack rate of 2.6 percent ranks 102nd in the country; one of their three sacks belongs to Jake Bequette, who is out with a hamstring injury. End Chris Smith, with 1.5 sacks, is the default pass rush specialist.

The Verdict

The Football Outsiders numbers have loved Alabama since before the season even started (they loved the Tide last year despite the three losses), and the projection for this game reflects that: Alabama by 19.6. I expect a closer game than that, however. If Arkansas can keep Alabama on its heels with early-down passing, and if the Hogs can force Trent Richardson to grind out a series of nice carries instead of breaking a long run, then they can keep this game close for quite a while, especially considering how slowly the 'Bama offense has started this season. In the end, however, I don't see Arkansas hanging with Alabama in Tuscaloosa for four full quarters. Eventually the Tide will build some space and pull away, but I like Arkansas enough to think this will be more in the 8- to 12-point range.

For more, read Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll and Arkansas blog Arkansas Expats.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

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