TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At this point, we were supposed to be discussing two top-10 teams going into a Saturday matchup with SEC- and national-championship implications. We were supposed to be talking about two undefeated teams putting those records on the line to start league play. The hype machine was bound to be similar to that of Alabama-Michigan almost three weeks ago.
But what was supposed to be, never was. Thanks to Louisiana Monroe, the Alabama-Arkansas matchup that was so highly anticipated just a week ago was brought down to earth. And thanks to an injured Tyler Wilson, what the game will turn out to be is anyone's guess.
While it's no longer two ranked teams going head-to-head, it doesn't mean there won't be a lot to lose on both sidelines, especially for No. 1 Alabama. Both schools have the opportunity to build, or rebuild, their resumes starting Saturday afternoon.
FIVE FOR THE TIDE
1. Protecting the quarterback: AJ McCarron got beaten up this past weekend by WKU, to the tune of six sacks. The Hilltoppers showed the Tide's vulnerability in pass protection and Arkansas should have seen the film. Correcting those mistakes in communication and execution will be key in keeping arguably Alabama's most indispensable player in the game and off the trainer's table.
2. Life without Fowler: Speaking of the trainer's table, watching Jalston Fowler getting carted off the field was heartbreaking for the Crimson Tide. There's no understating his value to play multiple positions and affect the game on offense. How Kelly Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Dee Hart and Kenyan Drake step up in his absence will determine the identity of the offense moving forward. Can Alabama's success with play-action continue? Will the I-formation be as effective without Fowler lined up at fullback?
3. Pressuring the pocket: Louisiana Monroe showed the Razorbacks are susceptible to a strong pass rush, and that's exactly what the Crimson Tide want against Wilson and the Arkansas offense. While they won't be going after Wilson in an attempt to re-injure him, Bama linebacker Nico Johnson said, they certainly will attempt to "affect the quarterback" and "make him uncomfortable" whenever they can.
4. Finishing in the red zone: The Alabama offense has been lethal inside the 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on five of six attempts, and against a high-powered Arkansas attack that success will need to continue. Said McCarron: "When you’re down that low, it limits what you can do. Timing’s got to be faster, everything has to be faster." The execution that wasn't top notch against WKU this past weekend must be sharper against a more talented defense in Fayetteville, Ark.
5. Showing its hand: Alabama has outscored its opponents 76-14 in two games. It's been a clean sweep on paper, but is the identity of the Crimson Tide formed yet? Are they a pass-first, run-second offense, or the other way around? How dominant does McCarron want to be? Or do the Tide want to figure out just how special a running back Yeldon can be as a compliment to Eddie Lacy? Are they a blitzing defense or will they lay back in coverage? Is Robert Lester capable of holding a young secondary together when the staff dials up an all-out blitz? The questions could go on and on, and starting SEC play they'll need to be answered. Week 1 and 2 were tuneups, now it's time to figure out what Alabama is all about.
FIVE FOR THE RAZORBACKS
1. Will he or won't he?: Whether Wilson starts under center for the Razorbacks is still uncertain. Losing a quarterback that threw for more than 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns a year ago would be a big loss to any team, let alone one that relies so heavily on its passing game.
2. Returning to form: Nico Johnson can say Arkansas running back Knile Davis looks the same on film as he did two years ago, but the numbers don't lie. His production has dropped from 101 yards a game to 66. He has two touchdowns runs but is averaging fewer than 4 yards per carry -- against Louisiana Monroe and Jacksonville State.
3. Defense? What defense? By the same token, Arkansas defense has had trouble stopping a team from the Sun Belt and another from the Ohio Valley Conference. In both games, the Razorbacks surrendered more than 300 yards of offense -- against Louisiana Monroe they gave up a whopping 550 total yards.
4. Getting Gragg going: Alabama showed it was susceptible to the underneath passing game against Western Kentucky, giving up 10 of 20 receptions to the Hilltoppers tight ends and full backs, and that was against a run-first offense. Arkansas has one of the better tight ends in the league in Chris Gragg. Exploiting the Tide in the mid-range and red-zone areas could be Arkansas' chance at getting the offense rolling early and finishing off drives.
5. Rebound game: It won't be easy, coming back from a loss to Louisiana Monroe. John L. Smith has quickly found the hot seat, even with a 10-month contract. How he gets the Razorbacks' heads straightened out for Saturday's game will determine the rest of their season. They're still 0-0 in conference play, which should be incentive enough to right the ship.