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What to watch: Alabama vs. Arkansas

After coming off its most complete performance against Vanderbilt last week, the second-ranked Crimson Tide travels to Fayetteville to take on the No. 20 Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday.

Arkansas enters the game at 3-1. The Razorbacks’ lone loss came a week ago in a gut-wrenching defeat to Texas A&M. Despite the loss, Arkansas will be one of the most-talented teams that Alabama faces throughout the regular season.

With kickoff approaching, here are the five storylines/matchups to watch ahead of Alabama’s first SEC road contest of the year:

Alabama in a hostile environment 

Much has been made about Alabama’s struggles on the road. Alabama’s narrow victory in Austin in Week 2 have only amplified the focus on Alabama’s ability to dominate their opponents on the road. While Alabama has posted a 4-1 in record in true road games dating back to last year, only one of those wins has been a convincing victory that have become a trademark of the Crimson Tide. In fact, every other road game outside of Mississippi State and the loss to Texas A&M have been decided by a field goal or less.

When Alabama comes to town, they always attract a crowd. Saturday afternoon in Donald W. Reynolds Stadium will be no different. Coach Nick Saban commented on his weekly radio show Thursday night about the team’s preparation for a hostile environment. He said he was pleased with the team’s preparation and mindset going into the game.

Alabama rush defense 

Arkansas is the only team in the SEC that has 200 or more rushing attempts through four games of the 2022 campaign. Not only do they run often, they are also one of the most effective groups as they average 243.75 yards per game on the ground.

The Hogs’ rushing attack is headlined by the SEC’s leading rusher in sophomore sensation Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and star quarterback K.J. Jefferson. The two have combined for 782 yards on the ground and added seven touchdowns.

It will be a tall order for Alabama, but they are far from being slouches on the defensive side of the ball. The Tide is ranked in the top 10 nationally in nearly every major defensive statistical category. Currently, against the run, the Crimson Tide is ranked fourth in the country and first in the SEC in giving up 62.5 yards per game and only 1.84 yards per rush.

Alabama does have injury concerns among the defense heading into the matchup. Defensive lineman Byron Young sprained an ankle and safety Jordan Battle injured his right leg. Saban is hopeful both will be able to play Saturday.

Arkansas Head Coach Sam Pittman is a former offensive line coach and considered one of the best at developing offensive lineman and scheming against elite defenders. Pittman will have to be really creative if he hopes to neutralize Alabama’s defensive stars.

Drew Sanders 

Former five-star linebacker and Alabama player Drew Sanders traded in his crimson apparel for cardinal in the offseason. He has become a force to be reckoned with playing the money position in the Razorback linebacking corps.

After an injury sidelined Christopher Allen last year for Alabama, Sanders stepped in and made an immediate impact. Unfortunately for Sanders, he was injured in last year’s game against Ole Miss which gave way for Dallas Turner to star down the stretch of the 2021 season.

Now, Sanders has taken the SEC by storm with his new Arkansas teammates. The reigning Butkus National Linebacker of the Month is tied for the national lead in sacks with 5.5 through four games. In addition to his pass rush production, Sanders has added 6.5 tackles for loss to go along with 31 tackles and 2 forced fumbles.

Sanders and the entire Arkansas defense is going to have to bring their A-game if they hope to knock off his former team.

Alabama offensive line vs. Arkansas front seven

The Alabama offensive line has come under quite a bit of criticism with a quarter of the regular season in the books. The Crimson Tide has shuffled the personnel groupings quite a bit as they try to find the right fit upfront.

Being on the road, the Crimson Tide will have to be incredibly disciplined and eliminate the pre-snap penalties that have plagued them all year. Despite the criticism of the offensive line in pass protection, it is interesting that Alabama has only surrendered four sacks – two of them being the result of missed assignments by a running back and tight end.

Arkansas leads the nation in sacks with 20 on the year. It will be critical that Alabama give Bryce Young enough time to go through his progressions and attack the Hogs.

Alabama pass catchers vs. Arkansas secondary 

Similar to the offensive line, Alabama has played a number of their talented but largely inexperienced receivers through four games. Last week’s game against Vanderbilt was the best outing with Ja’Corey Brooks leading the way with six receptions, 117 yards, and two touchdowns.

It is yet to be seen if this group can sustain consistentcy. Much-heralded Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton has shown flashes, but he has not come into the role of the explosive playmaker many anticipated. JoJo Earle (foot) and Louisville transfer Tyler Harrell (foot) could make their 2022 debuts this weekend. Both receivers are noted for their elite speed and playmaking ability. If these two can live up to their billing, the Alabama offense will have a bounty of riches at its disposal.

The secondary has allowed 300 or more yards in all but one game this year. Currently, the Razorbacks surrender 302.5 passing yards per game which is good for 125th in the country. It could be a long day for the Arkansas secondary if it allows Young to get into rhythm.

If the Alabama pass catchers can get open quickly, it should alleviate the pressure on the offensive line facing the stout Razorback pass rush. Additionally, the Tide should have an advantage in their ability to spread the ball out to Gibbs and Co. out of the backfield as well as Latu and the tight ends.

The Crimson Tide and the Razorbacks kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast by CBS.

Ben Richardson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News.

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