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September 23, 2011

Arkansas puts defense to test at Alabama

It is a stout unit that has frustrated three overmatched opponents.

It has shut down running games and rarely has allowed a meaningful score.

It could lead the way to victory in a clash of SEC West Division rivals in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

We're talking, of course, about Arkansas' defense.

On the surface, the SEC matchup of Alabama-Arkansas appears the classic collision of irresistible force (Arkansas' SEC-leading offense) and immovable object (Alabama's SEC-leading defense). But the Razorbacks defense may actually hold the key to victory.

Arkansas' defense often is overlooked because of its high-scoring offense and definitely is overshadowed by Alabama's suffocating defense, which has allowed no more than one touchdown in 12 of its past 16 games.

But the Razorbacks' defense is stingy, too. If can keep points at a premium and the game close into the fourth quarter, Arkansas could have an edge because of the big-play potential of its eighth-ranked passing game and solid special teams.

"I like our defense," fourth-year Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "I think we're the most talented we've been since I've been here. We have to go out and prove it. We're looking forward to the challenge of playing Alabama's offense."

Skeptics may note that Arkansas allowed 28 points just last week to Troy, whose only common denominator with Alabama is that the universities reside in the same state.

But Troy scored all of its points after Arkansas had taken a 24-0 lead. One Trojans touchdown came on an interception return and another was scored with just 28 seconds remaining.

Arkansas has not allowed 100 rushing yards in a game this season, which means the Hogs will present a challenge for Crimson Tide tailbacks Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. Alabama's passing game has been solid, though certainly not spectacular, behind first-year starting quarterback A.J. McCarron.

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Still, most of the 100,000-plus who will fill Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday will focus on the matchup of Arkansas' offense against Alabama's defense.

Last season, Alabama prevailed 24-20 in Fayetteville - and that was against a Razorbacks offense that featured star quarterback Ryan Mallett. He now is in the NFL and ahs been replaced by Tyler Wilson, who will be making the first road start of his career.

But Wilson did play well last season when Mallett was hurt against Auburn, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns. Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower hasn't forgotten that.

"After seeing him come in the [Auburn] game last year after Ryan Mallett got hurt showed what kind of player he is," Hightower said. "To come in and replace a guy like Ryan Mallett and the offense not miss a beat says a lot about him and his talent."

Can Wilson do enough to lead the Razorbacks to more than the 20 points they scored last season against Alabama's vaunted defense? Actually, if Arkansas' defense continues playing at its current level, 20 points might be enough for the Hogs to win.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Alabama run offense vs. Arkansas run defense: Trent Richardson already has eight rushing touchdowns and has exceeded 100 yards in each of the past two games. Backup Eddie Lacy ran for 161 yards last week. The Tide's offensive line is big and powerful, as usual. Arkansas' front seven is vastly underrated. LB Jerry Franklin has All-SEC credentials. All-SEC DE Jake Bequette will miss his second consecutive game, and that hurts. The Razorbacks have not allowed an opposing back to rush for more than 72 yards this season. Edge: Alabama

Alabama pass offense vs. Arkansas pass defense: First-year starting QB A.J. McCarron has been efficient and steady. He isn't putting up huge numbers, but he isn't making mistakes, either. He has been interception-free in the past two games. The Tide's receivers are good, but not outstanding. Pass protection is an issue. The Tide didn't allow a sack in a win over Penn State, but gave up four last week to North Texas. Arkansas gave up 202 passing yards to New Mexico and 373 to Troy. Of course, both teams were behind by large margins early and had to throw constantly. The Hogs will miss Bequette's pass rush. FS Tramain Thomas is the best player in the secondary. Edge: Arkansas

Arkansas run offense vs. Alabama run defense: Losing star TB Knile Davis to an injury before the season started was a blow, but Ronnie Wingo has stepped in nicely. He's coming off a 109-yard, two-touchdown performance and is averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry. Though the Razorbacks' running game isn't dominant, it has ably complemented the passing game. Alabama has allowed just 166 total rushing yards thus far and no running back has managed more than 65 yards. LBs Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are All-American candidates and have combined for seven tackles for loss. Edge: Alabama

Arkansas pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense: QB Tyler Wilson has passed for at least 259 yards in all three games and has thrown five touchdown passes and two interceptions. He must play well if the Hogs are to have a shot. The Razorbacks have arguably the nation's deepest group of receivers. Cobi Hamilton, Joe Adams and Jerius Wright have double-figure receiving totals and are averaging more than 13 yards per catch. Greg Childs has only two catches, but he might be the Hogs' best big-play threat. Pass protection is a concern. The line has given up seven sacks, and true freshman OT Mitch Smothers faces a major test. Alabama has four sacks but none since the third quarter of the opener against Kent State. Upshaw is dangerous on blitzes. Alabama's secondary could be the best in the country. SS Mark Barron, FS Robert Lester and CB Dre Kirkpatrick are among the best at their positions, and opponents have completed fewer than 40 percent of their passes. Edge: Alabama

Alabama special teams vs. Arkansas special teams: Alabama K Jeremy Shelley had made six field goals, but none longer than 37 yards. P Cody Mandell averages 38.5 yards. WR Marquis Maze does a good job on punt and kickoff returns and the Tide's coverage teams are good. Arkansas WR Joe Adams averages nearly 20 yards on punt returns and has returned two for scores. Marquel Wade has returned a kickoff for a touchdown, too. P Dylan Breeding averages 42.2 yards and has dropped four of his eight punts inside the 20. K Zach Hocker has hit 3-of-4 field-goal attempts. His longest is just 32 yards, and his miss was from 48. EDGE: Arkansas

Alabama coaches vs. Arkansas coaches: Nick Saban has won national championships at two programs (Alabama and LSU). Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is considered elite in his field, and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain should be a head coach sooner rather than later. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is among the sharpest offensive minds in college football. In just three years, he has taken Arkansas from a 5-7 team in 2008 to a bona-fide SEC championship contender, which also means national championship contender. Edge: Alabama

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X-FACTOR: Arkansas' mentality could be a major factor. Do the Razorbacks really believe they can beat Alabama? Arkansas last lost four in a row to the Tide and its last victory, in '06, was more about Alabama did not do than what Arkansas did. A rash of missed field goals and extra points were the difference. Arkansas led in the fourth quarter last season, but committed two turnovers in the final minutes, which enabled Alabama to rally for a 24-20 win. Teams lacking confidence make mistakes and fail to make big plays in the clutch.

ALABAMA WILL WIN IF: The Tide needs to control the line of scrimmage on offense so Richardson and Lacy can have productive days. In addition, the pass rush must apply consistent pressure on Wilson, which likely would result in a turnover or two. Similarly, Alabama has to avoid turnovers that would give Arkansas good field position and confidence.

ARKANSAS WILL WIN IF: Wilson must get sufficient protection, and the Razorbacks need to have success on early downs to avoid getting into obvious passing situations. The defense must contain Alabama's running game. The Hogs also could use a big play from the special teams, which they are capable of getting.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Alabama 24, Arkansas 13
Tom Dienhart: Alabama 31, Arkansas 14
David Fox: Alabama 28, Arkansas 14
Mike Huguenin: Alabama 27, Arkansas 17
Steve Megargee: Alabama 24, Arkansas 13

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Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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