- Brian Chilson
The top-ranked Tide coughed up the ball at the edge of the Arkansas end zone on their first possession, and Hog fans crammed into a vibrant Razorback Stadium whimsically entertained hopes and dreams. What if this replay reversal was fate born anew? A harbinger?
It was, but only in this sense: the only thing that ended up stopping Nick Saban's fully loaded football weapon Saturday was its own firing mechanism locking up. The Tide committed three turnovers and a slew of penalties but the Razorbacks ended up paying far more dearly for their own numerous errors in a 49-30 loss that pushed the Hogs perilously close to backsliding to the ass-end of a typically vicious SEC West.
Mind you, Austin Allen was again the beacon of hope for a better future. He was guilty of three interceptions and a momentum-killing fumble, but holy hell, can the NCAA start looking into the possibility of allocating turnovers to others? All of the gaffes were a proximate byproduct of Allen's flimsy offensive line just crumbling under duress from what may well be the most physically gifted defensive unit Alabama has ever assembled.
Read that again: the most physically gifted defensive unit Alabama has ever assembled. It is such an embarrassment of riches that Saban, curmudgeon that he is, was fuming as he approached midfield to shake Bret Bielema's hand. His team just pummeled the No. 16 team in the country, in its confines, to the tune of a 19-point slaughter, and he was scowling, yelling, grimacing ... I mean, as a Hog fan, you had to HATE seeing the victor so thoroughly displeased.
Saban, of course, has become the master at this droll business of making Bear Bryant look like a tired old man with a bunch of yawn-inducing records. This is some kind of sordid headhunting for him, and he's damn good at it. When you recruit like this, the framework is almost irrelevant: Lane Kiffin could run the Wing-T and the entire defense could be made up of slim cornerbacks and somehow there would still be an air of dominance emanating from those cretins.
Bielema, conversely, has six games left on the slate and a real sense of desperation about what to do with them. More true freshmen are seeing the field as cogs like Dre Greenlaw go down and other players prove that their experience is more or less meaningless. Giovanni LaFrance, Britton Guidry, De'Jon Harris, Jalen Merric, and others are all going to be in the crosshairs going forward. The Hogs' offensive backfield and wideouts are the only secure positions, and even Devwah Whaley is getting more action now, and seeming to embrace it.
The problem is that the nonconference games are fully in the barn, and the likes of Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and even interim coach-led LSU have all kinds of optimism now that they've seen the Razorback defense literally corrode before their eyes. Two years ago, Robb Smith was the toast of the town; flashing forward, he looks like a guy needing a lifeboat. There's sentiment (maybe from me alone?) that Paul Rhoads could do no worse taking on this defense the rest of the season.
For Arkansas to take back this campaign, the ongoing trend of sharper focus in the second halves of recent seasons must resurface again. Alabama broke off two runs of 50 yards or greater in the first quarter Saturday. The number of plays where Hog defenders were miles from engagement was astonishing. Maybe an influx of competition at positions could help. And Bielema already shelved the erratic Cole Hedlund in favor of Adam McFain at kicker, so he's got an itchy trigger finger on the right spots.
But Ole Miss will be merciless and will sense blood in the water. That's at least less imposing because of the Hogs' recent successes against the Rebels, and because the defense is nowhere near comparable in quality or depth when assessed against the Tide's monsters. And a sense of desperation has seemingly buoyed this program before.