Welcome to Inside the Tunnel, a weekly, close-up look at Alabama's upcoming football game that should make you the smartest fan on a pre-game bar stool. Throughout the season each Friday, we give you an insider's look at the Crimson Tide and its upcoming opponent.
Arkansas at Alabama
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, AL.
When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. CST
Records: Alabama 3-0 (0-0 SEC), Arkansas 3-0 (0-0 SEC).
Rankings: UA is ranked No.3 in the AP poll, Arkansas is ranked No.14 in the AP poll.
Matchup to watch
Alabama QB AJ McCarron vs. Arkansas LB Jerico Nelson
McCarron and Nelson may not actually swap helmet paint very much on Saturday (and who could tell if they did?) but there is no mistaking that their on-field interaction will go a long way to determine the Crimson Tide's offensive outcome. Why? Nelson is listed as an outside linebacker, but in truth, he is a hybrid player. He'll remain on the field in nickel situations and will have plenty of coverage responsibility in passing situations. Yet, he'll occasionally blitz and can cause problems for a quarterback. The Razorbacks' team captain is a senior three-year letterman with over 200 career tackles and, as UA coach Nick Saban said earlier in the week, "It seems like he's been at Arkansas longer than I've been here." If you've forgotten Nelson's defining hit on Auburn's Mario Fannin from 2009, re-familiarize yourself at the 1:36 mark.
From McCarron's perspective, Nelson is one of the first people the Crimson Tide's young quarterback will look to identify pre-snap. Whatever lengths Arkansas goes to disguise its defense, it will often be trying to disguise what Nelson is up to. It's tough enough for a first-year starter like McCarron to make a good pre-snap read when it's clear who the linemen, linebackers and defensive backs are. It's even tougher to read a hybrid like Nelson, whose responsibilities and capabilities cover a wider range. If McCarron incorrectly ID's Nelson as a linebacker, an interception could result. If he incorrectly ID's him as a safety, a blitz could come by surprise. Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy can help matters with good blitz pickups, but it will be on McCarron to know where Nelson is in coverage. And along the sidelines.
Something to watch for
Arkansas WR Greg Childs is back. But is he really back? The ultra-talented pass catcher missed last week's game to attend a family funeral, but coming off a knee injury that ended his season in 2010, Childs hadn't looked the part in two previous games anyway. Our understanding from the Arkansas camp is that Childs looked somewhat slow and tentative against Missouri State and New Mexico. With only two catches on the year, Childs is looking to re-establish himself. There is no better place for that than Tuscaloosa. That said, there isn't a team in the country that can better afford to have a guy like Childs on the mend, at that position, than Arkansas. Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton would be each be the star receiver at a lot of schools. Check out some highlights of Childs here.
Something to watch for II
Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette is out for this game, according to Razorbacks coach Bob Petrino. Bequette is among the top defensive ends in the Southeastern Conference, so it's no small blow to the Razorbacks. It's good news for AJ McCarron, who now has one less pass rusher to worry about. Bequette will be replaced by sophomore Chris Smith, who is a bit small for an end at 250 pounds. But he's actually been more active this season than Bequette with 10 tackles to Bequette's four, and a team-high 2.5 TFLs.
Cupcakes and whatnot
Arkansas' three opponents to date - Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy - are 0-8 between them this season. Here is a look at the scores of those games:
Arkansas 51, Missouri State 7
Eastern Kentucky 28, Missouri State 24
Oregon 56, Missouri State 7
Colorado State 14, New Mexico 10
Arkansas 52, New Mexico 3
Texas Tech 59, New Mexico 13
Clemson 43, Troy 19
Arkansas 38, Troy 28
Although Alabama has beaten Penn State on the road, the Crimson Tide's opponents to date haven't fared much better (2-7). Kent State and North Texas are winless, while Penn State's two victories have come against Indiana State (41-7) and Temple (14-10).
Inside the Numbers
33: The Razorbacks average 33 yards per kickoff return, the best average in the SEC.
2003: Arkansas has not won a game in Tuscaloosa since 2003, Mike Shula's first season as coach. The Razorbacks came away 34-31 overtime winners that day on the strength of a furious fourth-quarter comeback led by RB Cedric Cobbs. Re-live that rough day in Alabama's series history right here.
18: Of Alabama's 25 active NFL players, 18 played at least one season at the Capstone for Nick Saban. The seven who didn't: DE Mark Anderson, DB Roman Harper, LB Jarret Johnson, OL Evan Mathis, RB Le'Ron McClain, DB Charlie Pephrah, LB Demeco Ryans.
195: Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson has 195 career pass attempts. What? Wasn't he on the bench behind Ryan Mallett? He sure was. And behind Casey Dick before that. But with three full seasons as the No.2 quarterback, the mop-up time has added up to a lot of experience for a first-time starter. And the numbers aren't bad at all: 126 of 195 (64.6%), 12 TDs and nine INTs. And of course, his performance against Auburn last year (click here) was crunchtime, not garbage time.
The Vegas Line
Each week on Inside The Tunnel, we'll pick one or more SEC games that have some spread appeal (for entertainment purposes only, of course).
The Alabama line: Alabama by 11.5
The play: The Crimson Tide hasn't lost a game to Arkansas since Nick Saban's arrival at the Capstone, two blowouts and two nail-biters. This doesn't figure to be the year the Razorbacks get over the hump, but will they cover 11.5 points? That's a lot of chalk. Alabama could win by seven or 10 as easily as it could win in a runaway. For that reason, we're calling this one a stay-away.
This week's picks: Ole Miss +10 vs. Georgia; LSU/West Virginia under 49.
Last week: 2-1 (North Texas +47 at Alabama, Navy/South Carolina under 58, Arkansas -22.5 over Troy).
Season record: 5-2.
This isn't the week to climb into the ring with the ticket man. He's got bad intentions. All the factors that drive ticket prices up - good weather, ranked and unbeaten teams, etc. - are in play here. That means you won't likely talk him down outside the stadium unless you really wait it out and catch the man as he's packing up before kickoff. But by then, he could be out of tickets, and you could be out of luck. Be prepared to catch the game in a sports bar if that's your play. Safer to secure something up front. Click here to check out the online market for tickets to this game.
Arkansas receiver Maudrecus Humphrey, the son of former Alabama standout rusher Bobby Humphrey, got his first career start at receiver last week with Childs (personal) and Jarius Wright (knee) unavailable. He didn't make a catch in the game, and is expected to return to a reserve role with the Razorbacks' top receivers back in action this week. Humphrey returned kickoffs for Arkansas last year, but has not done so this season. ... If you've been watching college football for enough years, the name of Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith rings a bell. Highsmith is the son of the former Miami star running back by the same name. ... So how has Arkansas' running game fared without injured star Knile Davis this season? Considering the schedule the Hogs have played, not especially well. Arkansas currently ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing at 170 yards per game. Ronnie Wingo Jr. is a good player, but you can bet the ranch that average will come down Saturday.
The Tidesports.com Picks Contest
We're giving out free subscriptions to the winners of our weekly picks contest in which subscribers compete head to head with each other, and also with Tidesports.com staffers Chase Goodbread and John Copeland, the former UA All-American. Click here for contest details and how you can participate next week. Click below to see this week's video drawing, with all picks for the weekend charted below the video player:
Crimson team so far: Pokey, jh57tide, 13thTitle, Alan Minor.
White team so far: Makers Mike, crimson53, RollTideInGa, TideFever.
Qualifiers for "5-0" drawing: 13thTitle.
Qualifiers for "Beat the staff" drawing: 13th Title.