- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When something old is new again, you know you've come a long way. Suddenly half-shirts and slouch socks are in stores across the country once more. The 1980s style buddy comedy has returned to theaters and cars like the Dodge Charger have brought back a timeless feel to today's streets with their classic designs. Even the price of gas is floating mercifully back to $3 a gallon.
There's comfort in the familiar returning from extinction.
The last time Alabama saw an I-formation is anyone's guess. If it's happened at all this season, it's been sparingly. Power running teams have gone the way of the Dodo. Every weekend the top-ranked Crimson Tide goes up against the likes of Texas A&M and Ole Miss, offenses that have adopted newfangled designs that spread the field and push the tempo like a young driver blowing through traffic stops. Dual-threat quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel would have been indecipherable to coaches in decades past. The term HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) would have sounded like an offshoot of the NASA program to grizzly men like Paul "Bear" Bryant.
So when Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri was asked what he thought of seeing something resembling a traditional offense with Arkansas coming to town, he had to smirk. Sunseri, though not old enough to rent a car, could have called the Razorbacks schemes an offense of his youth and no one would have batted an eye. The HUNH has zapped ground-and-pound offenses such as theirs into hiding with increasingly few exceptions.
"It will be a little bit different because we have played these spread teams that like to sling it around a little bit," Sunseri said. His versatility to play at the line of scrimmage and in coverage has become coveted with the rise of the HUNH, but he's still a masher at heart, the son of a defensive line coach who values grit. "It will be fun to play the run a little bit more," he added.
Arkansas is exactly what you'd expect from a former defensive lineman from the Midwest. Bret Bielema built a reputation agonizing over the line of scrimmage. A barrel-chested, close-cropped man's man, he took the head coach's job at Wisconsin in 2006 and went to six consecutive bowl games largely on that philosophy. One of his tailbacks, Montee Ball, had more carries from 2010-12 (826) than any other player in college football over that time.
When Bielema came to Arkansas last December, he insisted on running the same physical style of offense. At SEC Media Days, he ignored his skill players and instead touted his center, Travis Swanson, and his fullback, Kiero Small, as his two best players.
Though the results haven't been what he wanted -- Arkansas is 3-4 and winless in league play -- Bielema has stayed the course. His team has the only pair of backs in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing. Jonathan Williams was the third back a year ago. Now he's sixth in the league in carries (87) and eighth in rushing yards (564). But he's still second on his team in both categories.
Bielema has fed freshman Alex Collins the football from his first step on campus. The 206-pound machine ran it 21 times for 131 yards in the season opener. He followed that up by running for more than 100 yards in each of his next two games, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to reach the century mark in his first three games. Today he ranks 10th nationally in carries (123) and 11th in rushing yards (720). According to ESPN Stats & Information, he leads the SEC with 10 broken tackles. A whopping 37.2 percent of his total yards have come after contact.
Collins and Williams have done it all despite having an underwhelming passing game to keep safeties like Sunseri honest. Arkansas, by design as much as a lack of playmakers at quarterback and wide receiver, is dead last in the conference in passing yards. Compared to what Alabama's seen of late with teams throwing the ball incessantly, the change of pace will be as startling as much as it is challenging. The Tide's previous six opponents averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per-game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.
"They can run the ball really well," Sunseri said. "The freshman is really strong and explosive, can break it any point. We have to bring our A-game to stop them up front."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose team Bielema praised as "second to none," had only flattering things to say of Bielema in turn, saying, "Bret has really done a good job of getting his guys to play hard and compete and play with a lot of toughness." Saban sounded refreshed when he talked about how much of a change of pace Arkansas' offense will be.
Saban has been forced to evolve on defense to match HUNH offenses in recent years, trading the size he covets for speed. C.J. Mosley, for instance, isn't what Saban typically recruits in a middle linebacker at about 230 pounds. But Alabama still has bulk up front with 300-pounders Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake to clog the middle.
"It's going to take a very good effort," Saban said, "because this is really different than anything that we've played against so far this year in terms of how they run the ball and the sort of formations, the heavy formations, they get in to do it."
It will look different at first, but familiarity will sink in eventually. When it does, relish it. Arkansas is only one of a few programs still clinging to the old school. How Saturday plays out could help determine whether traditional power offenses like the Razorbacks will make a comeback or go the way of parachute pants and fly away for good.
2dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough